When bestowing awards to the best actor and best actress of each year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has displayed large dollops of sentimentality and a tendency to award actors and actresses playing characters with various forms of physical or mental disability. Many, it not all, actors view an Oscar as both a sign of acceptance of their peers and an opportunity to increase their clout when negotiating deals to star in future pictures.

A primary example of this move would be Tom Hanks. Hanks had been attempting to make the leap from comic actor to major dramatic star, and his role in Philadelphia, the first Hollywood picture to deal with AIDS, earned him a best actor Oscar in 1993. But it was Hanks' role as the title character in his follow-up movie, Forrest Gump, that would cement him as one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. The character of Forrest Gump was one of a good-hearted simpleton whose dimwitted perspective of many of the major events of the sixties, seventies and eighties captivated audiences and earned Hanks his second Oscar in two years.

However Hanks was not the first actor to benefit from playing a intellectually-challenged character. In 1968 Cliff Robertson won Best Actor in the title role of Charly, a typically naive 60s film that has dated badly and rarely appears on tv. The Virgin Film Guide describes the film as

"Reeking with its own brand of sleazy sincerity and desperately wanting to be profound about something, Charly is more than capable of insulting both the mentally handicapped and anyone who cares about them."

In more recent times, the Hollywood movie machine has attempted to be less crass in the celluloid depiction of the mentally disabled. In 1988, Dustin Hoffman gained praise and won an Oscar for his portrayal of an autistic resident of a home for the mentally disabled in Rain Man, and Geoffrey Rush also won for Shine in 199 where he played a child prodigy pianist who suffers a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized. Again this is not a purely recent phenonenom. Back in 1957 the best actress Oscar went to Joanne Woodward for her role as a schizophrenic in the psychological thriller, The Three Faces of Eve, another film that has dated with its simplistic view of Woodward's condition.

Portrayals of physical disabilities are also always good for a punt come Oscar time. The first star to benefit from this was Jane Wyman in 1948, who won best actress for her performance as a deaf mute in Johnny Belinda. Wyman's performance was a worthy winner, and in order to fine-tune her performance for this important role she stuffed her ears with wax, impairing her hearing against all but the loudest of beats. The 1986 film Children of a Lesser God also required a deaf lead actress, but this time instead of casting one of Hollywood'd best and brightest, Marlee Matlin an actual deaf actress was used. The film, a love story, was a success and Matlin was rewarded for her expressive silent acting with an Oscar statuette of her own.

Other stars to win an Oscar for the portrayal of disabled characters are Jon Voight who won for his role as a Vietnam veteran and paraplegic in Coming Home, and Daniel Day-Lewis who played the artist and writer Christy Brown who overcame a devastating case of cerebral palsy in the 1989 film My Left Foot. In 1992, Al Pacino had yet to win an Oscar, despite being nominated previously for the likes of the Godfather movies, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. His role as the blind ex-army officer in Scent of a Woman would finally win the award for Pacino, despite the short-comings of a hammy, sentimental script. Pacino was worth watching as usual, and this Oscar was certainly better then the numerous oscarless actors who somehow manage to get their mits on the Best Director prize (misters Redford, Beatty, Costner, Eastwood and Gibson, I'm looking at you).

If the handicap of a physical disability is a step too far for some actors, then they can always get the Academy on their side by playing an addict. This tradition was started by Ray Milland in 1945 for The Lost Weekend were he plays an alcoholic writer who goes off on the mother of all binges. Susan Hayward kept up the tradition in the 1958 grim melodrama I Want to Live!, where she played real-life criminal and cause célèbre Barbara Graham, who suffered from her own drug addiction. The alcoholic role was brought up to date by Nicolas Cage in 1995's Leaving Las Vegas, whose message of the dangers of alcohol abuse was somewhat diluted by the promise of a 'tart-with-a-heart' like Elisabeth Shue to assist your campaign of liver destruction.

Finally, even if your role is of a fit and healthy character with no physical or mental ailments, a real-life illness could help you in your quest for Oscar glory. In 1960 when Butterfield 8 opened the star Elizabeth Taylor was in the process of being vilified by a public incensed at her enticement of actor Eddie Fisher from his wife Debbie Reynolds. Taylor's role in the film was as diva-like as her public image, but her public was turning against her and the critics were unkind.

But events nearly took a tragic turn when La Liz caught pneumonia in London, and had to undergo a life-saving emergency tracheotomy. This real-life drama regained Liz her public, and guaranteed her enough sympathy votes for both an Oscar nomination and the award itself, setting her up for her most famous role as Cleopatra and an encounter with Welsh thespian Richard Burton.

updated 22/9/2003

Due to popular demand, the following thespians beg recognition for the following roles (thanks Demeter and Kerawall)

For a special meal for two with the star of your choice, pick out the roles that didn't win an Oscar.

updated 2004

give me more, give me more, give me give me all you moreing too

Ralphyk says did Russell Fightin Crowe get one for A Beautiful Disability?

Cletus the Foetus says Didn't Tim Robbins just win one for Mystic River? His character in that is "troubled".

Albert Herring says What about Mask and The Elephant Man, then?

John Hurt was nominated but did not win. Mask only won the Oscar for make-up. And Cher got a Golden Globe I see.

gpb says remember Billy Bob Thornton's Oscar winning performance in Sling Blade? (one of my personal favorites)

Billy Bob was nominated but was not victor/victorious.

Koreykruse says Russell Crowe was nominated but did not win best actor oscar. Robbins did win the best supporting actor oscar for Mystic River.