First off, the new biopic of Stephen Hawking, “The Theory of Everything” is a pretty good movie, but not great. I enjoyed it but I have a pretty high tolerance for disability schmaltz. I dislike overcomer stories but don’t gag when I see them. I won’t go see movies that degrade and us and treat our lives like an atrocity. One of the crip movie I wouldn’t go see was “Million Dollar Baby.” Clint Eastwood is too good a director and Hilary Swank too good an actor for me to see what they did with the repellent suicide theme. So, I went to see “The Theory of Everything” in my mad dash to see the end of year Oscar contenders. It’s about his relationship with his first wife, not radical theories of the universe.
I liked the movie. It didn’t hit me like “Coming Home,” “My Left Foot,” or “The Sessions.” They reordered my world and thoughts. What I look for in a movie depiction of us is an “insiders” perspective. Does the everyday disability experience shown on the screen ring true? For instance, when John Voight in “Coming Home” transferred from his wheelchair to the top of some concrete steps he turned his hand to cushion his ischia to avoid a pressure sore. It was a small gesture I didn’t notice until my second or third viewing, but it rang true. (Even though I liked Voight’s portrayal of Ron Kovic, there is no excuse for TV and the movies to hire so few disabled people and make us invisible as characters.) So, consider the source material for this movie. It’s Hawking’s wife’s memoir. She, like so many of our able-bodied spouses, has a pretty realistic perspective on the whole crip thing. The movie carried a ring of truth for me.
I’m sure someone in the movie must have described ALS as “it’s like horror of drowning.” But I’ve heard the inaccurate phrase so many times I didn’t notice. I thought the camera had a rather neutral gaze of Hawking and his disability. I noticed the scenes showing him bumping himself up and down the staircase in his house. It wasn’t presented like the triumph of Christy Brown/Daniel Day Lewis writing for the first time. I might have it wrong—I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for sentimentality—but it showed an ordinary “this is how I get around in an inaccessible house.”
On the whole it didn’t feel schmaltzy, although they’re sure as hell going to play up the teary-eyed, gooey aspects of the movie in their marketing. Go see it. Let’s talk about it. I’m happy to be schooled if I’m completely off the mark.