Scene form "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?"
A scene from “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” Image from trailer

Throughout film history there have been a number of well-received movies featuring physically or mentally handicapped protagonists.

From Jon Voight in Coming Home (1978) to Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and from Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988) to Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (1994), the examples are well known. Gary Sinise also co-starred alongside Hanks in the last feature as an amputee. Pre-famous Leonardo DiCaprio probably had the most impressive portrayal of all as Arnie Grape in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), where he convinced quite a lot of viewers into thinking he really was mentally challenged on initial release.

But how often do we see these types of characters not played by able-bodied or mentally able actors? With the recent release of Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz’s The Peanut Butter Falcon, starring Zack Gottsagen, a newcomer with Down Syndrome, we are reminded of a group that sometimes gets overshadowed in the discussion of diversity in film.

In the early 20th century, legendary character actor Lionel Barrymore was able-bodied for the first two decades of his screen career. But then a hip injury on top of severe arthritis led to him becoming confined to a wheelchair, and for the next three decades, he would only act in said chair or at least holding a cane.

Barrymore was successful enough for the roles to be written with his disability in mind, which was also rare in an era where one unfortunate fate could taint your career. He won Best Supporting Actor while still walking with A Free Soul (1931), but these days most recognize him as the rich, old, bitter polio victim Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

The same year Barrymore appeared as Mr. Potter, director William Wyler broke ground by insisting a real-life amputee, World War II vet Harold Russell, play one of the soldiers returning home in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Russell had lost both of his hands while serving his country, and his character was essentially written for him to show Americans the struggles of getting back into everyday life.

Fast forward four decades and Marlee Matlin not only becomes the youngest woman to win Best Actress for Children of a Lesser God (1986), but also the first deaf person to win an Oscar. As cornball as the family TV melodrama “Seventh Heaven” (1996-2006) was, even the creators were progressive enough to give oldest sibling Matt Camden (Barry Watson) a deaf girlfriend for a couple of seasons played by a real deaf woman (Andrea Farrell).

Now, following Lauren Potter’s portrayal of Becky Jackson on “Glee” (2009-15), Gottsagen helps gives actors and characters with Down Syndrome some proper exposure on screen with Peanut Butter Falcon. Slowly, but surely, Hollywood is on the right track to more appropriate exposure of the disabled in on-screen storytelling.

Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.