On The Screen And On The Spectrum is a recurring feature where I examine pop culture depictions of individuals with Autism, Asperger’s or other developmental disabilities similar to Autism.
I mentioned in my original review of The Big Short that the portrayal of the character Michael Burry was one of the bets on-screen depictions of Asperger’s Syndrome I’d ever seen on-screen. It may sound like hyperbole, but I totally stand by that statement. Not only is it a strong turn in its own right, but in the grand scheme of performances of people with Asperger’s, it’s one of the few to realize that individual on the Autistic spectrum are, y’know, actual human beings.
Think about the majority of the on-screen depictions of Autistic characters in films and TV for a second. Isn’t it interesting that the majority of these entities usually relegate the person with Autism to the sidelines as a supporting character? Rain Man, one of the first films to heavily feature an Autistic character, mainly focuses on the Autistic individuals brother played by Tom Cruise. The Big Bang Theory has never specifically stated if Sheldon Cooper falls on the Autism spectrum, but he’s obviously a stereotype of individuals with Autism. Typically, these kind of Autistic characters (especially in the wretched Big Bang Theory) existing solely to support the non-Autistic lead, their abnormal tendencies stemming from Autism being there only for mockery or to allow for plot contrivances.
That’s not to say all supporting characters with Autism in TV/film are bad (I’ve heard nothing but good things about Abed in Community, for instance,), and in recent years there have been a number of films/TV shows like Mary And Max and Hannibal that have nuanced Autistic characters as their protagonists. As you might suspect, I’d handily categorize Christian Bales turn as real life figure Michael Burry in The Big Short as another one of those performances that shows how to do Autistic characters in on-screen media right.
One problem with the Autistic Sheldon Cooper-esque characters of the world is that typically their only purpose in the plot is to support a protagonist, they’re not given any notable character traits beyond “He/she is quirky because Autism”. Burry, by contrast, plays an active role in The Big Short, being the individual who discovers that the housing market is in a more vulnerable than expected spot. To boot, he’s got other defining characteristics beyond just his Asperger’s, such as having a wife and a child and a love for heavy metal music.
Something else unique about Burry is his self-awareness in regards to his Asperger’s. Apparently, the real life Burry only learned he had Asperger’s when his son was diagnosed with this particular autistic spectrum disorder. The Big short never mentions Asperger’s explicitly, but Burry is upfront in his dialogue explaining how he’s unable to read social cues and can be awkward in casual conversations. He recognizes his own social shortcomings, but also knows his own intellectual virtues. Burry isn’t just some pawn the plot can shuffle around so his magical “Autistic” powers can help the protagonist out of a jam. He’s a real human being with ambitions, dreams and desires. It helps that Christian Bale plays the character in an incredible fashion, going for a more realistically subdued approach to depicting the characters Asperger’s related tendencies.
Michael Burry is a most unique creation in the world of Autistic feature film characters, and one of the more high profile motion pictures to depict Asperger’s Syndrome (the only other comparably high profile titles, according to Wikipedia, are Extremely Loud And Incredible Close, Adam and…All About Steve?). There’s been real progress in recent TV shows and films to add a flair of actual care to the craftsmanship of Autistic character, and Michael Burry in The Big Short is a marvelous demonstration of how to do a character on the Autistic spectrum right.
Got any suggestions for what I should cover in future installments? Sound off below in the comments!