Of all the variations of human behavior actors portray on screen, autism may be one that the movies find easiest to signal. Fill a refrigerator with identical boxes of microwaveable macaroni and cheese, have your leading man rock back and forth, repeat phrases, and occasionally bang his head against something, and audiences will get the message. Do that with any sense of nuance, and you just might get nominated for an Academy Award, like Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, and Dustin Hoffman did for their portrayals of characters with autistic traits in weepies like Forrest Gump, I Am Sam, and Rain Man, the most famous pop culture document on autism.
Portrayals of autistic characters have been popular since Elvis teamed up with a posse of inner-city nuns (including Mary Tyler Moore) to help cure a poverty-stricken girl’s autism in 1969’s Change of Habit, and not simply since such roles are an awards lock. Stereotypical characters with autism are a convenient and powerful device for convincing neurotypical people to mend their ways, or for demonstrating the saintliness of the people who put up with them. These cinematic conceits make HBO’s Temple Grandin, a biopic of the acclaimed animal scientist and autism advocate (to premier on HBO on February 6 at 8 p.m.), particularly remarkable. From the life of one of the best-known individuals with an autism spectrum disorder, director Mick Jackson has managed to make an utterly original movie about autism, simply by allowing Grandin, portrayed in a stunning performance by Claire Danes, to be the center of her own story.