In Tropic Thunder's most talked-about — both positively and negatively — scene, Robert Downey Jr. draws a distinction between playing an autistic character and going "full retard," as Ben Stiller's Tug Speedman did in the now-notorious Simple Jack. "Dustin Hoffman," he says. "Rain Man. Looks retarded, acts retarded. Not retarded. Autistic, sure." That HBO announced Claire Danes's biopic of autism-rights advocate Temple Grandin the week of Tropic Thunder's release makes the cable net's PR team either totally foolish or evil geniuses. Danes is a capable actress, and Grandin's story — including her work designing more humane slaughterhouses — is legitimately interesting without the requisite saccharinity usually attending such fare.
The real question: Will the Grandin biopic succeed in breaking the "retard" barrier for serious actresses? Usually leading ladies in desperate search of legitimacy and/or awards follow the Charlize Theron formula of making one's normally gorgeous self look fat, ugly, poor, or all three. On the rare occasions that women do play the disabled or non-neurotypical, it usually results in Radio-like follies like The Other Sister or Riding the Bus With My Sister. A serious actress having the chance to play non-"full retard" gives us yet another chance to answer the question: Can a neurotypical actor ever play someone with a neurological disorder without seeming pompous and self-important at best, or horribly exploitative at worst? It's a question of no small interest to us, as the other week our friend's autistic 11-year-old likened Coney Island to "thousands of microscopic butts," and we want to make sure that kid gets all the movie deals he can handle. -Annaliese Griffin