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Jan. 25 2010 - 5:05 pm | 2,213 views | 0 recommendations | 15 comments

Robert Downey Jr. was right – never go ‘full retard’

There’s a rumor going around that Ben Stiller might make a sequel to Tropic Thunder. With the exception of Robert Downey Jr., who continues, post-prison, to prove that he can do no wrong, the movie was pretty disappointing in that typical Ben Stiller way. He’s dependable like that. In the film, Downey seemed to be the only one in on the joke, and despite the raging mediocrity that surrounded him like an angry torch-baring clan, some of his character’s lines were classic.

For all the talk of controversy associated with Downey’s portrayal of a white actor who darkens his skin in order to play a black soldier in ‘Nam, it was his “full retard” speech that really pissed people off.

And for all of Ben Stiller’s faults, the speech was pretty brilliant.

But lots of peeps in the disability advocacy community objected to the repeated use of “retard,” and the, er, simplistic portrayal of intellectually disabled people. Dreamworks pulled their “Simple Jack” website, saying, “We understand that taken out of context, the site appeared to be insensitive to people with disabilities.” Appeared to be? That’s a very “I’m sorry IF” type of apology. Then they went one better. An advance screening of the film for the community was pushed to opening day at the last minute. Nice.

The coalition picketed the premiere and we all know what that means. Cha-ching. Tropic Thunder earned almost $200 million bucks, not bad for a comedy. Hence, possible sequel.

But the thing is, Downey was right. I did a little research into this “full retard” phenomenon. Here are a handful of actors who did in fact take the train all the way to retard station* but went home, like Downey said, empty handed.

Sean Penn. I Am Sam. Downey says it all. While Penn was nominated for some awards, Oscar and SAG included, he didn’t win. He did, in fact, go home empty handed. And proving the point even more resolutely, it was Russell Crowe who did win for his portrayal of, that’s right, not a retarded man, but a schizophrenic man. Brilliant but damaged, just like Rainman.

Back when he was just a pup, Leonardo DiCaprio went full retard in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. It’s a pretty remarkable performance, the sort of unencumbered all-out work that made him into a household name. Of course, once he became a household name, he stopped doing roles like these and has instead become a… Leading Man. Bor-ring. Again, DiCaprio was nominated for the Academy gold but did not win it. That distinction goes to Tommy Lee Jones, for his entertaining portrayal of an oddly, almost aggressively sympathetic Federal agent in The Fugitive, winning over not only DiCaprio but, lest you’ve forgotten just how ridiculous the Academy can be, also Ralph Feinnes from Schindler’s List. Now that’s retarded.

Cliff Robertson was a full retard pioneer with 1968’s Charly, based on “Flowers for Algernon.” Boy, a lot has changed since then. For starters, it wouldn’t be considered too funny these days to pick on a retarded guy. To, for instance, fill his work locker with yeast and water because, har har, it’d be a riot watching a mentally challenged minimum wager earner try to deal with a mess like that! Stop! You’re killing me! But Robertson’s Charley takes no offense. His coworkers might be laughing at him but he’s laughing with them so I guess it’s all okay in the end. The joke’s on the bullies in the paper hats (isn’t the joke always on the bullies in the paper hats?).

Sorta funnyman Nathan Lane went full retard in 1996 with The Boys Next Door, an award-winning TV movie based on an award-winning play based on an award-winning drunken thought scribbled on a moist cocktail napkin that won Lane precisely zero awards. Costar Winningham got a Primetime Emmy nom, and the flick itself picked up a WGA statue for its writing, and a Christopher Award, for “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” Making us want to hurl is a high value?

Cuba Gooding Jr. went full retard in Radio, playing a guy they call, that’s right, “Radio,” in 2003 because sometimes retarded people can’t tell the difference between flesh and blood and metal and plastic, right? The flick landed near the beginning of Gooding’s post-Oscar slip (his acceptance speech for Maguire was as faded in our minds by ‘03 as a postwar Polaroid). The hardworking Ed Harris plays Radio’s champion and defender (since this was a period piece, about a retarded southern black man’s struggle to win over whitey in 1976 – whew! – there’s plenty of cruel Charley-esque shenanigans). For his work here, Jr. was ignored by the Academy, but he was nominated for both a Black Reel Award (“Best Actor”) and a Razzie (“Worst Actor”). You decide.

And sometimes, you hit the jackpot. Not one, but two, count ‘em, two actors went full retard in The Other Sister. The often unhinged Juliette Lewis and Mr. Avatar himself, Giovanni Ribisi, play mentally challenged lovers. Thank Closely Watched reader, D.E., for this one. And once again, awards (a Razzie for Lewis and a Young Artist Award for the film) were suggested, but not actually bestowed. Which is odd given that director Garry Marshall has previously embraced the intellectually challenged with better results (Mork & Mindy, Gomer Pyle).

*Dear disability advocacy community,

Please accept a sincere and heartfelt apology for my repeated reference to and repetition of Ben Stiller’s totally insensitive use of “retard,” “retarded,” and “full retard.” Shame on him. I can’t blame him, however, for “retard station,” and the whole concept of a “retard train”; these are all mine, and I’m sorry if you were offended.

Mea Culpa,

The Closely Watched Coalition


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  1. collapse expand

    And here I thought the joke was that the brilliant actors and directors and writers that were populating the film were mad, insane and…ah…retarded.

  2. collapse expand

    Russell Crowe won the SAG Award for “A Beautiful Mind”, but not the Oscar.

  3. collapse expand

    A refinement is called for, in light of the rest of the movie: never go full retard EXCEPT in rural Vietnam.

  4. collapse expand

    Does Ryan Gosling (“Lars and The Real Girl”) belong somewhere in here?

  5. collapse expand

    Billy Bob Thornton one an Oscar and a hatload of other awards for playing a retard in Sling Blade.

  6. collapse expand

    I’m stunned that you left our Rosie O’Donnel’s stellar performance in Riding The Bus With My Sister.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCzrEUKcy9Q

  7. collapse expand

    Hey Mike. I’m the mom of a child with special needs. I’m guessing you don’t have kids yet, or maybe you do and they’re just perfect. The sad truth is that unless you have a child with special needs you seem to be in the dark about how hurtful that word is to our community. The fact that you wanted to continue channeling Ben Stiller is extremely sad to me.
    And…Dreamworks never came up with the advanced screening as promised. Instead they just never followed up. They certainly screened for the African American community over Robert Downey Jr.’s black face but didn’t think the film would offend the most vulnerable. Crazy that anyone there would think that Once Upon A Time…There was A Retard would be dehumanizing, right? Thanks for continuing the discussion and pushing my community backwards.

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    About Me

    According to my mother, I've quit more jobs than most people have ever had. In addition to "Closely Watched," I contribute film centric writing to Nylon and Nylon Guys magazines and "Inside Movies" over at Moviefone.com. Before the internet existed, I lived in Cali, dabbled in film, and rode tacos trucks. My films have been seen at Cannes, Seattle, Telluride, LA and other festivals, and are available on DVD, iTunes and select airplanes. My fiction has appeared in Zoetrope All-Story Magazine, Mississippi Review, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals. Follow me on Twitter! It's fun!

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    Closely Watched is on hiatus

    Closely Watched will be on hiatus for the summer. Thanks to everyone who’s made this page what it is. While I’m gone, all the posts will remain available and comments will be addressed (though perhaps not in a super timely fashion). See you again soon!