from Entertainment Weekly Inside Movies:
Is John Hawkes in ‘The Sessions’ another able-bodied actor playing a disabled part bound for Oscar?
by Solvej Schou
In The Sessions, opening in theaters this weekend, John Hawkes plays late poet Mark O’Brien, who was paralyzed from the neck down due to polio, and sought, in real life, to lose his virginity by working with a therapeutic sex surrogate. Hawkes is beyond emotionally and physically adept as O’Brien, restricted to laying flat in a huge iron lung, or being wheeled around on a portable cot, his face shifted to the side, his arms pinned to his sides. He’s partially nude at times, staring up at his sex therapist, played by distant-then warm Helen Hunt, and by turns funny, sweet, neurotic and moving. Oscar buzz has been swirling around Hawkes, who told EW at Toronto last month that the role was a challenge, like hungry flies to honey.
If Hawkes is nominated for an Oscar, he’ll join a long line of able-bodied actors and actresses who have been nominated or snagged top acting Academy Awards playing physically disabled – or physically challenged, as others say – roles. While real-life deaf actress Marlee Matlin won a best actress Oscar in 1987 for her part as a deaf pupil in Children of a Lesser God, and Harold Russell, whose hands were amputated after an accident in 1944, nabbed a best supporting actor Oscar trophy in 1947 as a World War II vet in The Best Years of Our Lives, they’re less the norm compared to the long line of able-bodied actors inhabiting those kinds of parts.
There’s Jamie Foxx, who won a best actor Oscar in 2005 as piano-playing and blind R&B impresario Ray Charles in the biopic Ray, Al Pacino, who won an Oscar in 1993 as a blind lieutenant colonel in Scent of a Woman, and Patty Duke, who snatched up a best supporting actress Oscar in 1963 as blind and deaf heroine Helen Keller. Audrey Hepburn was nominated for a lead actress Oscar in 1968 as a blind woman terrorized by criminals in Wait Until Dark.
Among the best known able-bodied performers inhabiting physically disabled starring roles is Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot as true life writer and painter Christy Brown, a smart, creative quadriplegic man born with cerebral palsy, and only able to control his left foot. Day-Lewis was fiercely realistic in the movie, and won a best actor Oscar for it in 1990. That same year, in 1990, Tom Cruise grabbed an Oscar nomination for Born On the Fourth of July, playing real-life Vietnam vet Ron Kovic, who used a wheelchair after becoming paralyzed from the chest down while wounded during the war. Jon Voight also touched on a political and emotional nerve playing a paraplegic Vietnam vet in Coming Home, which won him an Oscar in 1979.
What do actors and actresses within the physically challenged community think about this longtime trend, including the possibility of Hawkes also being in line for an Oscar nod? The response ranges from support of able-bodied performers taking on challenging roles, to the need for more acting opportunities for actually disabled people. The Sessions director Ben Lewin is himself a polio survivor, and did hire some physically disabled actors for the film.
“I do not speak for all performers with disabilities – I’m a double leg amputee for 35 years, after my accident – but John Hawkes’ performance is astounding, and Helen Hunt’s as well. Of the movies I’ve seen so far this year, I think he’s in Oscar contention, and her as well,” CSI: Crime Scene Investigation actor Robert David Hall, chairman of acting union SAG-AFTRA’s Performers with Disabilities Committee, told EW.com. “This is a truthful and moving movie. Ben is a post polio person, and that’s pretty important. I know Ben thought about this when he was beginning to cast the movie. I just ask that people with disabilities are interviewed and auditioned. … There’s always an Oscar buzz if you play a physically disabled person. Thing is, you have to do it well, and affect people. Jon Voight’s portrayal in Coming Home opened people’s eyes for those with disabilities. It’s also a two-edged sword. On one hand I want portrayals to be accurate and honest, whether by a disabled or able-bodied actor, and on the other hand, I want people with disabilities to have more opportunities.”
Hall pointed out that 20 percent of Americans are identified as physically disabled compared to a minute percentage of actors working in the business.
“There’s a huge disconnect. There are a lot of talented people with disabilities trying to make it in the business,” he said. “I like to think of The Sessions as something that will increase awareness. Would it be better without John Hawkes? I don’t think so. It’s a tough business for anyone out there, really. I’m just proud as a human being to say this is a great movie. … There’s not a lot of fake emotion. There’s not a lot of pity. The thing that gets me the most when I see someone disabled in a movie is that they’re portrayed as either super strong or super weak. The humanity is drained out of them. We care about the same things as other people. Having a good time, sexuality. When I worked in radio, nobody cared I had artificial legs.”
For Cindy Allen, who was born with cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair, and has been a working actress for 30 years, appearing on shows such as ER and Chicago Hope, as well as in movies, it’s also a matter of opportunities, access and talent. Allen’s a longtime member of California’s Media Access Office, which was established in 1980 in part by the California Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities to provide a liaison between performers with disabilities and the media and entertainment industry. However, the office was temporarily discontinued this past week, and folded into the larger umbrella of California’s Employment Development Department, putting more strain on physically disabled actors having help finding jobs, Allen said.
“Playing a disabled role is not about getting an Oscar, it’s about dealing with a disability. Someone without a disability, no matter how much time training, it won’t be the same,” said Allen. “I’m not taking anything away from his [John Hawkes’] acting ability, but there are thousands of equally qualified disabled actors out there who can bring more authenticity to the role. I have been on so many auditions, but people say, ‘You look too disabled.’ What does that mean? Either you want authenticity, or you don’t. … To me, it’s like, there’s no way today, in 2012, that any role that was written for someone who is African-American would be played by a person in black face. It’s the same thing. We’re just going through it 30 years later than Sidney Poitier. There are equally talented people, who just don’t have the same star power. … All I’m asking for as a disabled actor is to have the opportunity first.”
More than just a history of the frantic search for a polio vaccine, A Paralyzing Fear also explores the fear of disability that drove it. Even after the causes of polio were understood, small outbreaks could mean the ostracisim of entire families and neighborhoods, or snowball into panics like the mass exodus from New York City. The ominous television ads promoting fear of “the Crippler”, a shadowy scythe-bearing personification of the virus, were the most effective in raising money for research. (Later, when polio was nearly beaten and fear abated, research organizations like the March of Dimes had to take out multimillion dollar loans to finish their work.)
The fears of the polio patients themselves are also explored, from the black children who were given inadequate care and thus suffered more, to the white males who were never taught that they could still live full lives with a disability, to the iron lung-using woman who tearfully recalls being threatened by a nurse as a little girl that her ventilator would be turned off if she didn’t stop crying.
Once the vaccine was found and the unaffected could relax again, donations to find a cure or maintain the (previously free) care that people with polio received never materialized. As the most famous person with polio once said, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Benda Bilili! starts with the title sequence being livened up by footage of a man with deformed legs convulsively dancing using his hands as feet, and later segues to a nighttime street scene wherein a group of street children are gathered amidst a backdrop of poverty and neglect, which the camera pans to portray. One of the urchins, only 13 and already a nihilist, in a short speech summing up the climate of societal anarchy on the streets of Kinshasa, loudly declaims upon the necessity to steal to survive, and declares that he would “comb” (pickpocket) a camera-laden European, should he cross paths with one.
Day dawns, and the physically disabled street musicians of Staff Benda Bilili are seen. Benda Bilili means “look beyond” in the Congolese dialect which they use, and as the movie plays, it slowly becomes apparent that the small band of street musicians provides an alternative path and a socially beneficial role for some of the street children in the area. The musicians of Benda Bilili are just as fatalistic as the tween nihilist, but somewhat more optimistic: one of their frequently-played songs speaks of poverty, wealth, and social status as being things beyond individuals’ control, saying anyone could end up on the streets sleeping on cardboard at any time, but conversely, the man sleeping on the street may just as suddenly and inexplicably experience a rise in his fortunes to afford a mattress.
The band consists of four core members, all of them middle-aged men, accompanied by a handful of occasional players and street children who assist them and push their improvised wheelchairs. Some of these seem to be customized vehicles based on bicycle frames and wheels, semi-recumbent, with two back wheels and a slim chair seat in lieu of a saddle, with a front wheel for steering. The pedals and chain drive are placed high on the frame, so the pedals can be worked with hands. Some users thus pedal their vehicles themselves, some are pushed by a street child or two. Such vehicles are called “tricycles” in the movie and though it is not revealed in the documentary how they are made, the disabled people of Africa are well-known for their ingenuity in building mobility aids from recycled materials. There is at least one instance of a moped modified by the installation of an automobile seat. The moped’s motor either doesn’t work, or nobody pays for gasoline: this particular vehicle requires several street children to push it.
The leader of the musical group is Ricky, who with grizzled hair is entering the upper range of middle age and is also the oldest group member. He claims that he became disabled by having had polio, and is sometimes seen to walk using arm crutches, but most other times, he uses one of the aforementioned outsized “tricycles” to get around. Ricky not only plays music, but devises and performs original compositions. At one point, he serves as a singing public service announcement, entreating “responsible parents” to take their children to vaccination centers, get them vaccinated for polio, and, further, to treat children who have had polio the same as those who haven’t “because you never know which one will help you (financially) later” (in life).
Roger, who later becomes the sole able-bodied full member of the ensemble, is first seen as a street child who tells the camera that playing music in the street with an improvised instrument composed of a milk can, a partial wooden bow, and a bit of what appears to be fishing line, provided him with a better income than the begging he had previously engaged in, and helped support his single mother and younger siblings. He is seen to join the Benda Bilili jam sessions which take place at the Kinshasha Zoo, where the musicians rehearse (all music instruction is by ear) and their street children/attendants get a break and have the opportunity to discuss the fact that working to push the wheelchairs of Benda Bilili offers them quasi-legitimate work and is much better than some of the alternatives. Though they seem to pay the children a relatively small amount, for some of them it means the ability to save money for school fees and leave the streets, for others, to contribute to the support of more vulnerable family members. The musicians each get a share of every show’s “take”, with some pooled money set aside for such necessities as beer, champagne for special occasions, cigarettes, and weed (musicians being pretty much the same regardless of age, geographical location, or physical condition).
Roger’s primitive lyre (variously referred to a monochord or a satonge) becomes decorated for various occasions and more robust in construction. Roger is seen to grow up, gain an American-style gangsta-rapper ensemble, and go from street child to (relatively) financially-successful young man, able to purchase home furnishings and move into his own place, during the course of the film, which spans several years, as the societal unrest and economic malaise in which the band exists presents constant obstacles to the band’s having their music recorded and distributed to a wider audience, being able to benefit from the royalties.
As a country which has experienced constant economic malaise, and political upheaval (a coup is one of the events which serves to interrupt filming and the musicians’ quest for recording and international exposure), the Congo could never have been said to have much of a social safety net. Nevertheless, there had been an institution of sorts for the physically handicapped, called “The Banda Shelter”. Unlike many institutions of its kind in the developed world, this particular physical facility was decidedly open to the surrounding community, indeed, the main building was actually open on one side, more of a large bus shelter than a solid building, people freely entered and exited the grounds, and the main service or activity provided that was shown in the movie was an open dirt field in which a group of men with withered lower legs played ball by walking and running on their hands.
At one point, the Banda shelter burns down, rendering Ricky and his family homeless. Ricky works selling cigarettes and other small items at a stand, and others in the band disperse to try to make a living in other callings and places. It is only through good luck, a concerted search for Roger, and the funding and opportunities offered by the documentary team, that the band is able to reunite and achieve its eventual happy ending wherein the Benda Bilili goes on a European tour in which they have the use of proper (albeit manual) wheelchairs and worry about whether the smoke detectors in their hotel rooms also sense the presence of marijuana and report it to the authorities.