This Year's Oscars Advance the Cause of Mind and Vision Diseases

Martha Snyder Taggart, BrightFocus Editor, Science Communications
  • Science News
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Impact Seen on Social Media

This year, two films put the focus on Alzheimer's:  Still Alice,  a feature film about early-onset disease, and I'll Be Me, the documentary about singer-songwriter Glen Campbell's last tour made while grappling with the disease.

As in the past, it was an awards ceremony that emphasized inclusion and spoke to a "big tent" of viewers. Movies, perhaps more than other art forms, can reach so many people worldwide and tell their stories.

The broadcast was a bit unusual, however, because this year's "big tent" was extended to people who suffer from mind and vision diseases. Soon after posting news of Julianne Moore's award for Still Alice on Facebook and Twitter, BrightFocus got hundreds of "likes" and comments that started a lively discussion.

And tucked between the songs, acceptance speeches and antics of this year's ceremony was a television commercial that brought insights into how the love of movies is shared by all people, even those with little or no vision. It featured a darling little girl who lacks sight but not imagination, and it was specially produced for the occasion by Comcast, which is peddling a new technology that will make film and television more accessible to low-vision communities.

"Still Alice": Portraying the Havoc of Early Alzheimer's

As expected, Julianne Moore won the Oscar for Best Actress in the title role of Still Alice. That's the story of a Columbia University linguistics professor who discovers she has early Alzheimer's and who, at the pinnacle of her professional success and thriving personal life, must come to grips with the threat of losing all. A few weeks ago, Moore also received a Golden Globe for her performance, called "exquisitely nuanced" by one reviewer.

In her Oscar acceptance speech, Moore directly addressed the topic of Alzheimer's—something she didn't do at the Golden Globes ceremony. She said that we, as a society, must pay more attention to the lonely struggle of individuals who are diagnosed or suspect they have Alzheimer's disease. Building awareness helps remove the sting and stigma and hastens progress towards a cure.

"People with Alzheimer's feel so alone," Moore said, whereas "they deserve to be seen."

While having the power to raise awareness, Still Alice remains difficult to see in more ways than one. Even after Moore was nominated and considered a favorite for the Oscar, the film could not be found alongside the blockbusters at most theatre multiplexes. Hopefully, now that the film's leading star has been doubly honored with an Oscar and a Golden Globe, Still Alice will have wider distribution.

Honoring "I'll Be Me," A Telling Song Gets A Loving Tribute

Four years ago, in 2011, Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Aware of what he faced, the singer-songwriter decided launch a final tour as his way of "signing off." Director James Keach decided to make a full-length documentary about that tour, called Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me.

[To learn more about Campbell’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, watch this video or read this article.]

The film is an intimate portrait that bares much of the pain experienced by Campbell and his family—things like his embarrassment at having to stop in the middle of a song because he lost a "cheat sheet" containing lyrics he could no longer remember, and the behavioral challenges associated with his (and most people's) Alzheimer's that were so ably handled by Glen's wife, Kim Campbell.

There's also an "up" side to the film; through honesty, Campbell reveals his real spirit, lack of shame, and even sense of humor, about what's happening. This in turn helps fans, friends, and family accommodate his condition, at least publicly. It's a true act of generosity from someone who lived his life in the limelight and now is offstage, struggling with Alzheimer's later stages.

Because Campbell's no longer able to perform, a ballad he wrote and performed for the tour, "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" was performed at the Academy Awards by another country legend, Tim McGraw. The song was nominated for an Oscar but didn't win. Its lyrics, written by a prescient Campbell when he was newly diagnosed, are a haunting testimony of what's to come: 

You're the last person I will love
You're the last face I will recall
And best of all, I'm not gonna miss you
Not gonna miss you

© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

McGraw's simple treatment of the ballad—seated and guitarless, in a tux with a cowboy hat—was remarkable and a tribute to his ailing friend.

Unfortunately, it won't be quite as easy to see the film that wraps around the song. Largely private funds were used to make and distribute the documentary, called Glen Campbell, I'll Be Me, so it, too, hasn't enjoyed wide distribution. It's aired on public television and viewings also are being arranged as special events by community and advocacy groups as a way to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer's. It's definitely worth looking into your local viewing options or wait for the DVD to be out this spring.

Adapting Films and TV for Low-Vision Audiences

Lastly, as part of our Oscars coverage, we call your attention not to the ceremonies themselves, but to a television commercial that wrapped around the broadcast. It features a blind girl named Emily who excitedly reveals her love of the 1939 Best Picture nominee, The Wizard of Oz. In her mind's eye, Emily imagines the Cowardly Lion as "the size of a toy poodle," and Dorothy as someone who "looks just like me."

It's well done and so insightful that it has "gone viral," meaning it has created a sensation on social media and according to People has "reduced the internet to tears." You can follow the previous link to see if it has the same effect on you.

The spot promotes Comcast’s new X1 technology, available on xFinity, that serves as a talking guide. Already millions of cable boxes have X1 installed, and Comcast is promising to upgrade existing cable boxes free-of-charge for customers who have a visual disability.

BrightFocus, as you know, is committed to drawing attention to Alzheimer's and to the vision diseases of macular degeneration and glaucoma. We are, as we say, working for a "Cure in Mind, Cure in Sight." And that's why we think all this "buzz" that the Oscars are generating around Alzheimer's and vision disabilities is truly wonderful news.

However, while the Oscars provide a yearly dose of excitement, we can't forget that there are so many other stars burning brightly in this universe. They include the individuals who battle these diseases every day, the loving generosity of donors who provide money to find new treatments and cures, and the brilliance of  researchers, including BrightFocus grantees, who are steadily making gains to take away these diseases' power. With all of us working together, we can make a difference.

BrightFocus Foundation is a nonprofit organization supporting research and public education to help eradicate brain and eye diseases, including, Alzheimer's disease, macular degeneration and glaucoma. For more information, call 1-800-437-2423.