Is John Hawkes in ‘The Sessions’ another able-bodied actor playing a disabled part bound for Oscar?

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 “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.”

Last Breath

Last Breath (also known as Lifebreath) makes a genuine effort to portray Cystic Fibrosis and its effects honestly, even down to the routine chest PT Martin Devoe lovingly administers to his wife Chrystie. Her rare blood type means finding a lung donor is near impossible, and as her condition worsens a desperate Martin decides the only way to save her is to find, seduce, and kill a donor himself. Chrystie figures out his plan, but can’t bring herself to warn the prospective victim. (She suddenly finds the energy reserves to follow and watch her husband, despite being bedridden and unable to tow a heavy oxygen canister for part of the movie.)

Sexual healing: A new documentary tells the story of a remarkable woman

Mark Manitta loves sex. Can’t get enough of it. But being confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy has cramped his style. So, for the past seven years, he has been a client of Sydney sex worker Rachel Wotton.

“People do not understand the difference that sex makes,” Manitta explains in the new SBS documentary Scarlet Road, speaking through a voice machine that makes him sound like a randy Stephen Hawking. “Part of having cerebral palsy is spasticity and muscle spasms. I need sex all the time to make my muscles relax. And I like sex.”

Three years in the making, Catherine Scott’s documentary explores the relationship between people such as Manitta and Wotton, who specialises in disabled clients. The film, which has been nominated for a Walkley Award, provides a rare glimpse into a world that most people are oblivious to or would rather pretend doesn’t exist.

“People assume disabled people don’t have the same biological needs and desires that everyone else has,” Wotton says. “But sexual expression is a basic need for everyone, not just for those who can walk and talk freely.”

Outspoken, articulate and utterly unflappable, Wotton, who has spent 17 years in the industry, describes herself as a “whore”, a brazenly self-deprecatory term that belies her intelligence and ambition. But it’s her empathy and pragmatism that resonate most strongly.

“Part of my reason for doing the film was to wipe away the ‘us and them’ mentality,” she says. “We’re all one car accident away from being in the same position as these guys. Tomorrow we could all wake up out of coma and not be able to eat let alone have sex or touch ourselves. What I say to people is imagine the next time you go to have sex or masturbate having to call your mum and have her organise it all for you.”

Indeed, for parents brave enough to recognise their disabled children as sexually mature adults, sex workers such as Wotton are a godsend. “I remember the first brothel we visited,” Mark’s mother, Elaine, says. “It was supposed to be wheelchair accessible but it wasn’t. So I had to carry Mark up the stairs. Then I just broke down and cried the whole time I was there. But then as the years have passed I have got to enjoy waiting around and meeting the girls. It’s just become part of life.”

Getting the clients and their parents to come on board wasn’t as hard as you might think, according to Scott. “People with disabilities want to be viewed as whole beings.

“Think about how important your sexuality is to how you are perceived. These people aren’t seen like that, so you can imagine how that makes them feel.”

One of Scott’s favourite scenes is when wheelchair-bound multiple sclerosis sufferer John Blades, who sadly passed away only days before the documentary went to air, is sitting at an outdoor cafe with friends, having spent the previous night with Wotton. “It was just a great night of sex,” Blades tells them. “It made me feel like a real bloke again.”

Scott hadn’t planned to take three years to make the film. “But it actually worked out really well,” she says. “Because it took so long, all these things happened, like Rachel fell in love.

“In the end, you get a picture of her as a real, rounded person who is doing this extraordinary work.”

Read more:

A Good Man

On the Documentary Channel at 4 p.m. on July 25:

Chris Rohrlach is not your typical Australian sheep farmer. Willing to try anything to keep wife Rachel out of long-term care, he decides to open a brothel. Nothing has ever stopped Chris and Rachel from doing exactly what they’ve wanted, so outrage from the community doesn’t faze them one bit. A quadriplegic with neurological impairment for all of their 14 married years, Rachel is still Rachel to Chris, and the love of his life. As the camera captures the construction and grand opening of the best little whorehouse in the outback, the film exposes tension between Chris’ indomitable plans to keep his family afloat and Rachel’s own wishes. Reliant on others to translate her eye movements into words, the film creates a novel friction between Rachel’s opaque desires and their secondhand expression. Moving, thought provoking and surprisingly funny.

Mary and Max

Mary and Max

Mary, who experiences alienation in every aspect of her life, starts out with parents who are poor, weird, and unsympathetic (her father is into taxidermy, her mother is an alcoholic who seems to do nothing but yell at her) and eventually end up dead. The visible evidence that she is neglected at home makes her a pariah at school in spite of the fact that it is the other children who are overtly engaging in bad behavior (at one point, she comes to school with a coat fastened with clothespins because her pet chicken pecked off the buttons and nobody sewed them back on, and other children harrass her in the schoolyard, with one boy going so far as to pee on her sandwich in plain sight). In an attempt to remedy her loneliness, she picks Max’s name at random out of a phone book, and is lucky enough to get a reply back from someone who is obviously sympathetic and intelligent.  Max’s letters ring true to Asperger’s style: full of plain speaking, factual details, and jumping from one topic to another, but in the eyes of society and her mother, potentially dangerous and unsuitable for children. Maybe it was Max’s mention of having been a mental patient, or the frank but inappropriate discussion of his sex life (or rather, the lack thereof) that sets the mother off when she finds the first letter and throws it away, believing she is protecting her child. In spite of how this looks to her mother (and most average people), correspondence with someone who has been in her shoes as a social outcast is exactly what Mary needs. Contrary to a lot of recent portrayals, it is possible for people with Asperger’s to have friends, but in view of the fact that some of the things they do and say go against society’s notion of what is considered appropriate, this perhaps can lead to a bonding with people on the margins of society.

(Speaking of inappropriate things and portrayals of sexuality, Australia’s movie and video industry must have somewhat different standards of what is considered appropriate to show in a picture purportedly for children than prevail in the USA. Let’s just say this was the first time I’ve seen claymation genitals.)

Luckily for Mary’s emotional equilibrium, she is in a position to send another letter in which she describes the situation to Max, and comes up with a solution: he will henceforth send his letters to the address of an elderly neighbor whom she helps out.

The premise of the possibility of pen pals who can have a years-long and very intense relationship without engaging in physical contact of any sort is a theme of this and a handful of other films such as My Japanese Wife (perhaps it is increasing in popularity as global communications of every sort are becoming more widespread?)

Admittedly, some of the reactions they have to one another’s letters seem exaggerated for effect, such as the fact that Max’s objection to being used as a case study for the sake of her career in psychology sends her into a spiral of suicidality and some of Mary’s letters sent Max into “meltdown” mode and in one case, effected his return to the mental health system (where he would be told he had Asperger’s Syndrome, in spite of the fact that it was way too early in the timeline for such a thing to be possible in real life, as Asperger’s was only recognized by the American Psychological Association in 1994. And yes, someone who really does have Asperger’s really would have a problem with a purportedly serious and sensitive movie set in a specific temporal period getting a widely-known piece of factual information so glaringly wrong!)

In spite of the claymation medium, which is usually reserved for less-than-serious examples of the cinematic oeuvre, I found myself liking the overall gestalt of this picture in spite of having some problems with particular parts of it.

Movie Review by Laura Brose