Friday, January 14, 2011

Stuttering in the Movies

Peter Lorre: 'You talk so smooth… you have an answer for everything.'
Humprey Bogart: 'Whatcha want me to do? Learn how to stutter?'
– The Maltese Falcon (1941)

John Wayne (to small boy): 'You're gonna stop that stutter or get the hell out of here.'
– The Cowboys (1972)

Hume Cronyn (to Warren Beatty): 'Have you ever laughed at a comedian when he pretended to stutter? There's nothing funny about a man who stutters, but people laugh. They're amused. But they're not happy about it.'
– The Parallax View (1974)

Colin Firth had better watch out. The King's Speech is his third outing as a stutterer (after A Month in the Country and, er, something else I can't seem to find the name of). People will be wondering if he really does have a speech impediment. For its sensitive portrayal of a stutterer, the film is being hailed as a positive landmark for sufferers (will it do for stuttering what Rain Man did for autism? Er, by that I mean, like, nothing at all. Probably, yes.), with chairman of the BSA (British Stammering Association) hailing it as a "once-in-a-generation moment to create change and to increase awareness" and Firth's performance being tipped for an Oscar (Hugh Grant must be weeping: he's been mumbling, bumbling, stuttering and hesitating most of his career and never had a sniff of an Oscar – at least I hope he hasn't).

Most films with stutterers in them are depicted as either socially inferior, nervous, timid people to laugh at and tease (The Life of Brian, A Fish Called Wanda*, probably some Adam Sandler film); scary, crazy or idiotic people to be afraid of (Do The Right Thing, My Cousin Vinny, Primal Fear, Die Hard with a Vengeance**, Smokey and the Bandit II) or suicidal mental patients (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Whereas many other afflictions/disabilities (which is it? Both?) are out of bounds for many films, stuttering seems ripe for mockery.

Stuttering in films goes way back to Tom Browning's sublime Freaks from 1932, which features actual carnival performers, including a bearded woman, conjoined twins, midgets, 'pinheads', the 'human torso' and… a stutterer. Well, he isn't actually part of the carnival (he's married to one of the twins) but his affliction does seem to make him as much of an outcast and figure for mockery as the other 'freaks'. (The somewhat simple moral of the story is that the beautiful 'normal' people turn out to be evil and the 'freaks' turn out to be kind-hearted. The stutterer just seems an idiot.)

See also: Hitchcock's Rope, Glory, South Park, Broadway Danny Rose, Take the Money and Run (Louise, Virgil Starkwell's girlfriend, stutters when nervous. She was beaten as a child and had a strict upbringing), Flirting, The Stepford Wives (a husband with a stutter is mocked for his 'interest in accents' and believing he doesn't have much of a stutter) Shaft, Pan's Labyrinth, The Right Stuff, Shakespeare in Love, The Sweet Smell of Success and Tarkovsky's astonishing Mirror, 'a non-narrative, stream of consciousness autobiographical film-poem' which begins with a boy being cured of a stutter by hypnosis. It never worked with me. Then again, King George VI was never cured of his stutter either.

*We can forgive Michael Palin for portraying someone with such a bad stutter; his father stuttered and the actor sponsors the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children.
**But can we forgive Bruce Willis for taking the piss out of Jeremy Iron's stuttering in Die Hard with a Vengeance? Willis did used to have a stutter after all; and has been in other movies which feature a stutterer – The Sixth Sense and Color of Night.

Previously on Barnflakes: Stuttering in music

FYI: This is post 300

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