Evanston RoundTable, Nov. 8, 2012
Movies have come a long way on the topic of living with disabilities. In “An Affair to Remember,” released in 1957, Deborah Kerr was ready to forgo a relationship with Cary Grant rather than admit she was paralyzed. Today, in our almost-anything-goes era, movies can focus on the disabled with more compassion, humor and unflinching dispassion. Take “The Intouchables,” released earlier this year. A rich Parisian businessman, paralyzed from the neck down after a paragliding accident, is gently encouraged by his assistant to pursue a normal romantic relationship. Now comes “The Sessions,” also based on a true story, about the poet Mark O’Brien, immobilized by polio, who hires a sensitive, caring sexual surrogate to help him discover his sexuality.
It is a beautiful and courageous movie – courageous because the leads (John Hawkes as Mark and Helen Hunt as the surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene) spend much of their on-camera time nude and simulating sex. And yet the movie is not especially titillating. Rather, it is a thoughtful take on the reality and meaning of disability, and helps us think through and deal with our own complex feelings about how people live outside the realm of “normalcy.”
This is important, because as the real Mark O’Brien pointed out, in the documentary “Breathing Lessons,” if we live long enough we will all become disabled. “Think of the eventuality,” he exhorts us.
So what is it like? “The Sessions” gives us a glimpse of a man who is confined 21 hours a day to an iron lung, who can only move his head 90 degrees and use a mouth stick to make phone calls or type, painstakingly, into a computer, who is consigned to live out his entire life stretched out on his back. And yet, despite these unimaginable hurdles, in real life he managed to become a poet, reporter, publisher and social critic.
It is to the credit of this movie that it gives us a seemingly honest portrayal of one man’s stark difficulties, his helplessness and anger, and his courageous attempts to overcome them.
Perhaps it helped that the writer and director, Ben Lewin, also survived polio as a child. And that he wrote the screenplay based on Mr. O’Brien’s well-documented life as a writer and poet.
But for all his accomplishments, Mr. O’Brien, who died from bronchitis in 1999 at the age of 49, could still evince genuine anger and frustration at being confined to life in an iron cage. In a poem heard during the movie, he wrote: “This most excellent canopy, the air, look you, presses down upon me at 15 pounds per square inch, a dense, heavy, blue-glowing ocean, supporting the weigh of condors, that swim its churning currents. All I get is a thin stream of it, a finger’s width of the rope that ties me to life, as I labor like a stevedore to keep the connection. I inhale it anyway, knowing that it will hurt in the weary ends of my paper bag lungs.”
He also described himself as “dried out bubble gum stuck on the underneath of existence,” and wrote, in a poem not used in the movie: “God damn this wall I cannot punch, God damn this bat I cannot swing, God damn this eucalyptus leaf I cannot pull down off a tree and hold up to my lover’s nose.”
Mr. Hawkes (who was nominated for an Oscar for his role in “Winter’s Bone”), with his thatch of unruly hair, soft eyes and even softer voice (which perfectly echoes the halting timbre and throatiness of the real Mr. O’Brien’s voice), has captured his humor, anger and courage and given us an amazingly nuanced and memorable performance.
Studying for the role he learned a lot about Mr. O’Brien and about living with a severe disability. As he said in an interview: “I feel this film taught me to just try to see everybody a little more and to say, ‘I see you,’ figuratively, and to lose fear of those who are different from us and to realize we are more than our bodies.”
We could all learn from this movie.