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Sunday Scaries: The Hidden Horror of Troy Kotsur’s “Inspirational” Story

Actor Troy Kotsur attends the 94th Oscars Nominees Luncheon in Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 7, 2022. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Photograph by Andrew Eccles of Variety

As Kotsur thinks about what his Oscar win will mean to him, he starts to cry. “I was so tired of financially struggling for so many years,” he says through an interpreter. “Now, receiving these awards — it’s saved my life, my career, my family.”

This was from a recent interview Troy Kotsur participated in with Variety shortly after he became only the second deaf performer to win an Academy Award for acting, and the third performer with a disability to do so.

I understand that the Sunday Scaries columns usually involve horror movies, but this series also will, when necessary, set aside make-believe and bring attention to disturbing real-world situations. Because when you take the time to really consider what Kotsur is saying, and put it in the larger context of the entertainment industry and society in general, his story… is horrifying. It should sicken us, not make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. The Cinderella conclusion of his Oscar win and renewed future as a working actor is only a tiny part of a tale of callous indifference and systemic failures from an industry – a whole country – that sees no problem condemning thousands of Troy Kotsurs in America to a lifetime of struggle and financial hardship. The piece continues:

The journey for ‘CODA’ began at Sundance in January 2021, where Apple acquired it for $25 million, the biggest sale in the festival’s history. But Kotsur didn’t see any of that eye-popping money in the back end, jokingly saying, “I’m still waiting for my check.”

Apple TV+

Jokingly! Haha, so funny that one of the most profitable and powerful corporations in the world bought this Sundance hit for a record-breaking price and not even a fraction of that was shared with the actors who were so integral to it becoming popular in the first place! Makes you wonder how many other performers in small-scale movies don’t get paid or are promised something on the back end of their labor that never materializes, doesn’t it? Instead of handing out $140,000-valued swag bags of ridiculously extravagant goodies to the nominees every year, the Academy could, perhaps, tamp down on those a bit and help build a more robust system of financial support and job security for disabled actors and artists in the industry so they don’t have to hope to one day be in a CODA-sized hit to escape near-poverty?

Hollywood is hardly the only segment of the country with an outrageous level of systemic ableism. Beyond the numerous pervasive individual biases that lead to those with disabilities being treated worse in their day-to-day lives, including physical violence and harassment, there’s also our architecture, local policies that flagrantly ignore the ADA, our criminal justice system (doubly so if you’re black and have a disability!) our digital landscape, and good lord, especially our medical system seem almost deliberately designed to make it as hard as possible for the disabled to access even the most basic amenities of a decent life. And most of us able-bodied folks just passively accept this.

We seem only really willing to lift a finger to help the disabled if they lay bare their hardships to be “inspirational” to us, as if those who are deaf or blind or paraplegic or neurodivergent must prove to us the gauntlet of suffering they’ve overcome (by their own bootstraps, of course!) in order to be treated with a modicum of collective respect from the able-bodied. As Stella Young explained, the disabled only seem to exist as “inspirational” side characters:

Which is an attitude perpetuated by CODA as well! And yes, I know, I know, the Oscar season is over, and this movie I didn’t care for won Best Picture, and I need to just get over it and move on. And I will. Eventually. But boy, it sure is revealing how this film – hailed as a heart-warming and inspiring breakthrough for deaf representation by not only a plurality of the Hollywood elite but also President Joe “Nothing Will Fundamentally Change” Biden himself – does everything it can to coddle its hearing protagonist even during her most inconsiderate actions toward her deaf family, and reducing every hint of systemic obstacles faced by the deaf from the rest of the world into individualized scapegoats and one-off conflicts. From the shrill government boat monitor to the snooty Berklee College of Music admissions board, the audience gets a brief hint of our institutions seemingly designed to present high barriers for entry and participation, and then immediately whisked away to comfortably boo and hiss at the Bad People. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by its Oscar success, in hindsight…

Lionsgate

I’m also aware that class and wealth inequality plays a role in Kotsur’s situation, and that’s its own horror story. Though it should be noted that even the rich and famous aren’t shielded from craven indifference and systemic cruelty when dealing with their own physical and/or mental afflictions. How many professionals working on those bargain bin C-movies with Bruce Willis over the last few years knew, deep down, that something was wrong with his state of mind but kept quiet and went along with it because The Show Must Go On? How much longer were his agent and manager willing to take advantage of their ailing client, putting him and the actors and crew around him in danger, just to squeeze a little more money out of him? I want to be careful to not put out anything that could land Awards Radar in legal hot water, so I’ll just suggest that perhaps some hard questions need to be asked of Stephen J. Eads? Maybe someone can follow up with him, on the record, about his recent professional decisions? Just a thought.

And then, after the disclosure of his aphasia and retirement from acting was announced, a shocking number of people on social media started eulogizing him and doing these weird retrospectives of his legacy as if he had literally died. It’s as if you just… cease existing, to a large portion of the public, as soon as you retire because of a disability.

Troy Kotsur’s victory at the Oscars last week was one of the unimpeachable highlights of an otherwise miserable telecast. I’m relieved to know that his personal and professional life is in a much better place, now. But the fact that he had to win an Oscar for that to happen in the 21st century, in the wealthiest nation on Earth, should terrify us.

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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a veteran who spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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