Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 11, 2010
Every Day Is Special
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Claire Danes and Temple Grandin
Playing the role of a person with a severe handicap seems to be one
of the surest ways to win an Oscar -- Daniel Day-Lewis (cerebral
palsy, MY LEFT FOOT), Jamie Foxx (blindness, RAY), Jack
Nicholson (obsessive-compulsive disorder, AS GOOD AS IT GETS),
Dustin Hoffman (autism, RAINMAN); Hilary Swank (paralysis,
MILLION DOLLAR BABY), Holly Hunter (mute; amputated finger,
THE PIANO), Tom Hanks (mental retardation, FORREST GUMP), Al
Pacino (blindness, SCENT OF A WOMAN) -- and that doesn't
include the supporting-actor/actress categories.
Some of these performances truly deserved the award; others seem
to have been awarded as much out of sympathy for the condition as
for the actual acting. (Did Jack Nicholson in AS GOOD AS IT GETS
or Al Pacino in SCENT OF A WOMAN do anything but play their
normal shtick, only the guy was handicapped? Was Dustin
Hoffman's character in RAINMAN or Holly Hunter's deadpan mute
in THE PIANO anything more than a one-note performance?)
The best of these performers don't play the handicap, they play the
character; and the best of the scripts aren't about the handicap, or
even overcoming the handicap. They're about the character's
achievements and contributions to society.
These can be whimsical, like Forrest Gump's invention of just about
all of American culture, or they can be real, like Ray Charles's
music and Christy Brown's writing (MY LEFT FOOT).
I want to tell you about one of the finest performances I've ever seen
-- and certainly the finest performance in the role of a handicapped
person. But it won't win an Oscar, because it was in a movie that
first appeared on HBO.
I'm speaking of Claire Danes in the title role of TEMPLE GRANDIN.
This is also one of the two greatest biopics (biographical pictures)
I've ever seen -- the other being GANDHI (with Ben Kingsley winning
an Oscar for the title role).
Temple Grandin is an autistic woman, who, despite her inability to
correctly interpret the behavior of other people, managed to find
ways around her own limitations and to make full use of her
strengths. Her autism took the form of an intense awareness of
sights and sounds -- far beyond what normal people can do -- while
she had a much harder time doing the abstract thinking and
intuitive leaps that are hallmarks of ordinary human life.
Grandin discovered in her youth that she had a strong affinity for
animals and a particular interest in cattle. Later, she would theorize
that her brain functions in a way very similar to animals' brains.
From animals she learned ways to substitute for the human needs
that her autism did not allow her to satisfy in normal ways, and
then returned the favor by reinventing the entire process of herding
meat animals and preparing them peacefully for slaughter.
In the movie, she eloquently resolves the seeming contradiction in
the idea of "peaceful slaughter": These animals exist in such
numbers only because we eat them -- otherwise they'd just be
oddities in zoos. But since we have called them into being in order
to serve us with their deaths, shouldn't we treat them with more
respect and kindness along the way?
In other words, both her real life and this filmed depiction of it
make it clear that Temple Grandin matters, not because of her
autism, but because of her real contributions to our society. Like
Gandhi, she has shaped her life to do as much good as she can, not
just for animals, but also for autistic humans and, in the long run,
for the understanding of the human mind.
The problem for the screenwriters (Christopher Monger and William
Merritt Johnson) and for the director (Mick Jackson) was to find a
way to help the audience understand the unique way that Temple
They did even better than that: they actually found ways to let us
EXPERIENCE what Grandin experiences, so that in addition to
explanation (which we certainly needed!), we also get the
instantaneous visual associations and overwhelming sensory
overload that autistic people have to cope with.
They also had the good judgment to use these techniques sparingly,
so the movie remains completely watchable and understandable.
I'm actually not surprised that Mick Jackson was such an excellent
director for this film. He also directed one of my favorite films ever:
L.A. STORY, written by and starring Steve Martin. It's a shame that
the lackluster performance of some of his later films has relegated
him to television work -- but then, that's why he was tapped to
direct this brilliant TV movie.
To understand the magnitude of the achievement, you only have to
think of what television ordinarily does with stories like this.
The writers created opportunities for actors by developing the most
important relationships in Grandin's life -- without ever allowing the
"normal" people to become the center of the movie (the way that
Annie Sullivan, for example, inevitably becomes the center of
SCTV graduate Catherine O'Hara leaves comedy behind to play
Grandin's patient, understanding aunt with great warmth. The
underappreciated Julia Ormond plays the much more difficult role
of Grandin's grimly determined mother. Both of these actresses
have triumphant moments, as does David Strathairn as the high
school teacher who champions and mentors Grandin as she begins
to discover her life's work.
These powerful performances help to support rather than distract
from the crowning achievement of this film: the perfect portrayal of
Temple Grandin by Claire Danes.
I already knew that Claire Danes, after first capturing our hearts
with the short-lived TV series MY SO-CALLED LIFE, had grown up
to be the consummate actress who played Sonja Jones in ME AND
ORSON WELLES. But as far as I'm concerned, her whole career was
preparation for this masterpiece. From this moment on, Claire
Danes is making a credible bid to fill Katherine Hepburn's seat as
the finest American actress.
It's not just that Danes does a perfect job of giving us Grandin's
mannerisms and patterns of speech. She clearly understood that
this wasn't enough -- especially if Grandin's autism makes it hard
for strangers to feel comfortable with her.
While keeping all the socially off-putting manners of sufferers from
autism and Asperger's Syndrome, Danes had to give us the
emotional nuances that would make us love and care about a
person who, by the definition of her mental condition, is outwardly unlovable.
The script, the director, the rest of the cast, the life of Grandin
herself, all of these combine to give her every possible help. But
when it comes down to it, the performance depends primarily on
Claire Danes alone -- on what she can do with her voice, her face,
her movement, and her heart without ever violating the truth of the
great woman whom she is portraying.
There are moments of such acting perfection that I gasped: for
instance, Danes's depiction of Grandin's terrified response to sliding
doors. I was even more moved by the way Danes portrayed
Grandin's moment of revelation, when she discovers how being
squeezed like a cow in a chute can bring her a kind of comfort that
until then she never knew.
Last year might have been financially good for the movies, and films
like ALICE IN WONDERLAND and holdover AVATAR might rule the
box office this year. Films by directors whose hands are always
distractingly visible might win the accolades of the cognoscenti. But
TEMPLE GRANDIN is, without pretension, the finest artistic
achievement in filmmaking I've seen in years; it easily elbowed its
way into my lifetime top ten movie list.
It's an emotional rollercoaster, this movie. I laughed and cried so
often I thought I had lived an extra year by watching it. Yet this was
not because manipulative filmmakers juiced things up; on the
contrary, the writers, director, and performers used amazing
restraint. This movie never bludgeons us with something that can
be conveyed through nuance alone.
HBO was the only venue where you could have seen the first run of
what I feel perfectly safe in calling the best movie of 2010.
It's out of the HBO rotation now. If you didn't watch it or record it
already, you'll have to watch for possible sporadic showing.
But on August 17th of this year, the DVD will be released. You can
preorder it now online. I urge you to do so -- if you're a movie-lover,
you don't want to miss the chance to see one of the finest films ever made.
The only book of Grandin's that I have read (and which I reviewed
here in 2005) is ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION: USING THE
MYSTERIES OF AUTISM TO DECODE ANIMAL BEHAVIOR. The
books the movie was based on are EMERGENCE and THINKING IN
PICTURES. Here is a partial list of books authored or co-authored
by Temple Grandin. Good as the movie is, you'll want to read what
she has to say.
Thinking in Pictures
The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger's
Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals
Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode
The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social
Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism
Humane Livestock Handling: Understanding livestock behavior and
building facilities for healthier animals