When it came to "handicapable"- themed films, I was not a slow learner, and discovered at a young age that when an actor chose to play a character with mental retardation, you were apt to either get (1) a moving experience of watching a 'special needs' person overcome obstacles and prejudice, or (2) an actor milking the retard role for acclaim and (hopeful) award wins - and crossing the line into unintentional humor.
Ernest Borgnine played the slow-witted Marty in 1955 to an Oscar win. Some could argue that the determined and likeable Rocky Balboa in Rocky (1976) was a little "touched" himself.
In 1979 , we got 2 memorable films about mentally retarded adults finding love:
Like Normal People starring Linda Purl and Shaun Cassidy.
(On the grade school playground, we'd imitate Linda's call to her retarded true love: "ROOOOOGGGEEER!"). This film was nominated for a Golden Globe.
No Other Love starring Julie Kavner and Richard Thomas.
In 1981, Mickey Rooney won critical acclaim for his role of a retarded man in the TV film Bill.
Rooney enjoyed the raves and awards so much (after decades of schlock films, voice-overs, and Disney fare) that he reprised Bill again for a sequel Bill: On His Own (1983).
After Oscar-nominated Leonardo Dicaprio wow-ed critics and brilliantly drooled his way into our hearts as "Arnie" in What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), film studios gave us a retarded Juliette Lewis in Garry Marshall's heart-tugger The Other Sister (1999) and Oscar-nominated Sean Penn as a retarded man fighting for his parental rights in I Am Sam (2001).
Retarded characters seemed to be back on the map again, then Rosie O'Donnell came along as loudmouthed retarded "Beth" in Riding the Bus with My Sister (2005).
This TV film (about a special-needs adult bewildered by life transitions) harkened back to the genres' heyday of the 70s and 80s, except Rosie's acting was met with snickers by snarky bloggers (ahem) and talk shows.
Some thought Rosie's performance was over-the-top, condescending and forced - with many critics questioning her choice of using baby-talk and high volume ("I need a new toiwet seat ovah heeahh !" she yells to a store clerk in one scene). Despite being directed by Anjelica Huston, the film did not earn any awards (shocker!).
Here are some highlights: