Of loved movie characters, a few have stolen our hearts with the kind of admiration and unrivaled awe that other movie characters are not so easily able to achieve. The greatest of these movie characters are ones that most of us have met over the years (or at least should try to get to know if we haven’t already) at the theatre. They are unique in that they are characters with some kind of physical challenge or deformity. The experience is complicated; we often look at these individuals and wonder, could that happen to me? When such a question comes to our minds it fills us with a certain degree of fear and sadness, but also with compassion and a longing to help. As we move through a movie with these characters they often leave us with an unexpected gift in our hands. The popcorn boxes and soda cups may be empty once the lights go on, but once we’ve filed up the rows and have been let out, something remains. A vision, perhaps, into something beyond the physical to something deeper and richer contained only in the human spirit, and because of that we leave the theatres a bit braver people ourselves. Of The Most-Loved Physically Challenged Movie Characters, here are the Top Ten that deserve mentioning:
10. Sloth from The Goonies
For every sentimental diatribe about how handicapped characters can change us for the better, some are just around to add a little strangeness and comedy to a scene. Because really, how changed can a person be from a movie called, The Goonies, and from a character named Sloth. Well, in this case, don’t expect much because with every rule there is an exception, okay, maybe a few. The film was released in 1985 and was written by Steven Spielberg, a ‘Stand by Me’ kind of coming-of-age film, comic-slapstick intermixed with just good, ole’ plain goofiness. Sloth, the deformed child kept alone, chained to a wall in a basement room doesn’t play a leading role, but for many of us who remember him, did leave a bit of a lump in your throat because of the special friendship he struck up with the little oversized boy named Chunk. One of the Goonies, Chunk, coerces Sloth out of his dungeon with a Baby Ruth candy bar. Sloth is a severely deformed gentle giant who rescues the boys from their captors and as the cave is falling down Chunk says: “Sloth! Come on!” then Sloth yells out, “Sloth love Chunk!” Chunk replies: “I love you too!” It was a touching moment. The two biggest misfits of the film later embrace on the shore and share a candy bar once they’ve been rescued. Sure, it isn’t Hamlet, but, for a fun and quirky deformed goof ball, Sloth comes in at number 10.
9. Gwynplaine from The Man Who Laughs
A film released in 1928 called, The Man Who Laughs, was a novel written by Victor Hugo, published in 1869. The film starred Conrad Veidy and Mary Philbin and it has a similar storyline popular with The Joker from DC Comics, Batman. The Joker, however, was not a loved deformed character like Gwynplaine. Like the Joker, Gwynplaine was maimed when the king carved a permanent smile on his face for his father’s transgressions. Gwynplaine redeems himself with sensitivity and sweetness toward Dea, a blind girl he falls in love with. In the film, Gwynplaine is adopted by a travelling showman and becomes a popular act in the circus. Even after the king dies his evil jester continues to work on ruining Gwynplaine’s life. Dea falls in love with Gwynplaine because she is witness to his kindly nature without seeing his hideous face. After she reveals her love for Gwynplaine the film ends with another character looking down into the ocean in reaction to the fact that Gwynplaine has vanished as if to imply he drowned himself over her death. Like many stories with a deformed character like Beauty and the Beast and The Princess and the Frog, sadly, deformed characters don’t find love unless they get transformed. Tragically for Gwynplaine his story was more real than fairytale and ultimately resulted in his tragic fate. One of the first deformed characters to make an impression on the screen, Gwynplaine comes in at number 9.
Edward Scissorhands, a cult film starring Johnny Depp turned Tim Burton’s misfit character into a living legend. A movie that was released in 1990, also starring Winona Ryder as Kim Edward’s love interest, reached popular acclaim in no time with a new kind of deformed and loved character coming to the screen. Edward is an inventor’s greatest creation, the first near-complete replication of a person but the creator dies before Edward’s hands have been completed and Edward is left with metal scissors for hands. Although not a great deal to relate to on any realistic level, obviously, the movie conveys the isolation and aggravation any person with an unusual trait experiences (like having scissors for hands, let’s say). It takes a while for Edward Scissorhands to find his perfect place in the universe, but after her learns that his deformed hands are good for something, like cutting hair and hedges, he wins everyone’s affections. A comical twist to a dark and deeper element of what it means to be a freak in society’s eyes, Edward Scissorhands, one of the best loved deformed characters in movie fiction, cuts up the list as number 8.
7. Rocky Dennis from Mask
On a much more sobering note, Mask, a film that came out in 1985, based on the real life of Rocky Dennis, is one of those films that came out in the ’80s that exhausted a considerable number of tissues from the audience. The film, a story about a 16-year old boy with a massive facial skull deformity takes our compassion to new heights. His biker gang mother is played by Cher whose performance was exceptional. Despite Rocky’s horrendous appearance his intelligence and sweetness convinces the world that he’s deserving of all the best things in a normal boy’s life. Rocky shares a poem in the film saying: “These things are good: ice cream and cake, a ride on a Harley, seeing monkeys in the trees, the rain on my tongue, and the sun shining on my face. These things are a drag: dust in my hair, holes in my shoes, no money in my pocket, and the sun shining on my face.” The movie ends tragically with the inevitability of Rocky’s death and the loss we feel at his passing is felt most acutely by the audience through his mother which brings Rocky in as number 7.
6. Benjamin Button in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was released in 2008; the film won 3 Oscars and stars Brad Pit as Benjamin Button and Cate Blanchett as Daisy. Although the disease that Benjamin Button has is fictional, it does resemble a rare genetic disorder called Progeria in which young people appear old. People affected with this disorder generally have oversized heads and are crippled with severe rheumatoid arthritis. When Benjamin is born he looks so hideous that his own father contemplates throwing him into the river. Benjamin also suffers from arthritis and is nearly blind from cataracts and has osteoporosis, other symptoms of Progeria. Benjamin Button deserves a place on the list as a newly recognized handicapped character that the audience is able to live vicariously through with the topsy-turvy notion that not all youth is wasted on the young. The idea of old age disappearing over time rather than taking away a person’s humanity at the end of life gives Benjamin’s character a redeeming magic against human mortality at number 6.
5. Seth Brundle from The Fly
Seth Brundle from the film The Fly released in 1986 earns credit in the list of the top-ten most loved physically challenged characters. Okay, a mutation to be exact, a story about a man who becomes a fly, a preposterous idea, quite “Kafkaesque” in its core where Seth’s transformation into the mutant creature known as the “Brudlefly” was truly painful for all involved. Our pity over his plight comes by seeing him through the eyes of his heroine who tries to find a way to stop the transformation. Parts of Seth’s body start to fall off and it’s a fierce battle for Seth’s body as the mutation slowly strips him of every last bit of his humanity. The anguish we feel for poor Seth Brundle was enough to last through childhood and into adulthood for most of us, and because of that, Seth Brundle flies in at number 5.
4. Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Who when they think of physically challenged characters does The Hunchback of Notre Dame not come to mind? Another character created by Victor Hugo like Hugo’s Gwynplaine from The Man Who Laughs, Quasimodo is perhaps one of the most memorable and well-known. In the 1939 film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo and Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda. The gypsy girl Esmeralda shows pity on the poor Quasimodo who is the bell ringer of the famed Notre Dame church; the film is a classic and was nominated for 2 Oscars. When Esmeralda is convicted of murdering a man and is sentenced to hang, Quasimodo does everything he can to save her life. Quasimodo, half-laughing, half-weeping, says the popular line, “I’m about as shapeless as the man in the moon!” Mostly, because The Hunchback of Notre Dame is notorious with a physically afflicted character, and the first one that people generally name, brings Quasimodo in at number 4.
3. The Phantom of the Opera
The renowned story of The Phantom of the Opera has been a long-standing Broadway show with various cinematic reproductions, and rightly so. The story, the music, the characters are all unforgettable, poetic and enchanting. The 2004 film, directed by Joel Schumacher, and starring Gerald Butler as The Phantom of The Opera carries the mood and the genius of the story. The Phantom of the Opera is not a simple character; he is not a passive person humbled below the weight of a crippling condition but a complex and darker counterpart to deformity and its components. The Phantom is so memorable because of all his ambiguities, he is loving yet revengeful, feared but generous. Due to his facial disfigurement that keeps him hiding behind a mask in the catacombs beneath Paris’s Opera Populaire constitutes a kind of poetic sense to it all. He falls in love with Christine, a chorus singer who the Phantom takes under his wing to mentor and teach. Christine falls in love with someone else and the Phantom of the Opera’s love quickly turns into heated, jealous rage. He tries everything to win Christine’s affections including threatening her love’s life. Although Christine chooses her real love interest in the end, the mysterious attraction between the Phantom and Christine makes the unrequited love between them strong and our affections for The Phantom’s lonely life more acute. During the Phantom’s plea for Christine’s love he says: “That fate which condemns me to wallow in blood has also denied me the joys of the flesh this face-the infection which poisons our love. This face which earned a mother’s fear and loathing, a mask my first unfeeling scrap of clothing,” for all the impossibility of The Phantom of the Opera finding love, for that our hearts swoon. The Phantom of the Opera comes in at number 3.
2. The Elephant Man
Coming in at number 2, The Elephant Man is the second most influential and most-loved physically marred character that neither time nor era can erase the magnitude of such a plight. The 1980’s film version, directed by David Lynch is a true story of Joseph Merrick, a 19th century Englishman afflicted with a disfiguring congenital disease. Anthony Hopkins plays Dr. Frederick Treves who comes across Merrick at a freak show in a carnival. Treves learns about Merrick’s strange disease that began when Merrick was 14 years old and tumors began to grow all over his body. Because of this affliction Merrick sleeps sitting up, propped up by pillows in his bed or he will die from suffocation. In the film people mock and scorn Merrick as a freak, calling him, The Elephant Man. Local newspapers run articles on him and although he finds Mrs. Kendal and Dr. Treves as caring friends, the rest of the world shows him no compassion. He is taken one night by force to France to another freak show. He returns later nearing death and goes to the theatre to see Treves and Mrs. Kendal again. Mrs. Kendal dedicates her theatre performance to Merrick. Later that evening, back at the hospital, Merrick takes his pillows from the bed and decides to lie down on his bed like everyone else and dies. This film reveals the truer ugliness of people devoid of compassion making The Elephant Man one of the most attractive physically challenged characters of all time at number 2.
1. Christy Brown from My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown
Released in 1989, My Left Foot is an amazing, miraculous story about the struggle for one man’s voice weighted under the oppression of a spastic quadriplegic body where all but his left foot is affected. If you have the courage to stick with the film, it will blow your mind. The part of Christy Brown is played most memorably by Daniel Day-Lewis and is one of the most moving and transforming films to date. It follows the life of an absolutely heroic life, the life of Christy Brown. The film is based on his true story, about a man with severe cerebral palsy whose mind is strong, intelligent and witty and who overcomes the prison of his own body. He learns to write poems and stories and paint, all with his left foot, and thus is able to break out of his isolated world stricken by his physical affliction. A life changing film due to the bravery and persistence of Christy Brown, both a real and a movie character wins top place for the most-loved handicapped character of all. The film won 2 Oscars.
Many people’s imagination has been captured by both the real and the fictitious elements of human physical affliction over the years. The famous writer and poet Lord Byron, for instance, was born with a club foot. The foot caused him great psychological stress because at that time in history it was thought that Satan had a lame foot because he fell on it after his fall from heaven. In many cultures and times human deformities and disease was a mark of a person who was cursed or evil, perceptions grounded in myth and superstition. As a society we have become more sensitive to disabled people and one way this has happened has been inside the safe, transformative experience of movies. Of those physically challenged and most adored movie characters, these top the list.
By Natalie Jaro