Helen Hunt scored an Oscar nomination for The Sessions, and John Hawkes has been widely praised for his bedridden performance as poet Mark O’Brien, who was confined largely to an iron lung after childhood polio left him immobile from the neck down. But it’s William H. Macy as Mark’s priest, Father Brendan, fleshed out largely as a plot device to let viewers know what’s happening and how everyone’s feeling, who quietly anchors the movie and elevates it just one slight notch above a made-for-HBO telepic.
The poet Mark O’Brien, at the age of 38, confined to a gurney, inside an iron lung, set out to lose his virginity, and hired a sex therapist. He wrote an article about the experience, On Seeing a Sex Surrogate, which provided the inspiration and loose narrative for The Sessions. (O’Brien’s life was already the subject of an Oscar-winning short documentary, Breathing Lessons, in 1996. O’Brien’s autobiography is How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence.)
O’Brien wrote, in his 1990 article:
“I had fallen in love with several people, female and male, and waited for them to ask me out or seduce me. Most of the disabled people I knew in Berkeley were sexually active, including disabled people as deformed as I. But nothing ever happened. Nothing was working for me in the passive way that I wanted it to, the way it works in the movies.”
Writer/director Ben Lewin, himself a polio survivor, stumbled across the article and was inspired to make the movie.
As the movie opens, we see Mark (Hawkes) lying inside the coffin-like cannister of the iron lung, his eyes following his cat’s movements around the room. It’s a peaceable moment, until the cat swishes past him, and he develops an itch. It’s the middle of the night. There’s no attendant. And even though he isn’t precisely a quadriplegic — he has sensation below the neck, just no mobility — it will be a long and miserable night without the ability to even scratch one’s own nose. From there, the viewer can extrapolate perhaps one-millionth of what this poet’s life might be like.
As he gets to know his new priest, Macy as Father Brendan, we learn what’s on his mind. The unrequited crushes he’s developed on his attendants, his intense Catholic guilt and shame for having any sexual impulses at all, the revulsion he feels at his own body, his complicated fears about disappointing his parents — all have left him as emotionally crippled as he has been physically injured by the polio. With Father Brendan’s blessing, “In my heart, I feel like he’ll give you a free pass. Go for it,” he hires sexual surrogate and therapist Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt).
She makes it clear. She is not a prostitute. She does not want his repeat business. She does not want the money on the dresser in advance (which is how he nervously introduces himself to her). She is forthright and matter of fact. “Although the aim for us is to have sex, I’m not a prostitute. You don’t have to pay me up front. I have nothing against prostitutes. But there’s a difference. We can talk about that later.” The limit will be six sessions.
She is married to a philosopher, she eventually tells him. An academic? No, in his own mind. “He runs the house, plays guitar, thinks a lot.” But the therapy is about him, not her.
She asks what it’s like to be a poet. He tells her “it’s a way of living inside your own head.”
Their time together is successful, and that is depicted in a straightforward, though not pornographic way. Helen Hunt is shown nude, full-frontal, throughout their sessions, but Hawkes is not. There are anachronistic moments — her grooming and her underwear do not seem to fit the 80s (landing strips came into vogue much later than 1988), and the cinematography is very flat and docu-drama-ish. It’s perhaps intentional, but it feels uninspired. This is no Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
It is not a bad movie, just a slight one, better suited to DVD and the small screen. Hunt’s Oscar nomination says more about this year’s thin field than it does about her performance (her terrible Boston accent might not have been so painful had the protagonist’s name not been “Mahkkk”). Much has been made of the “bravery” of her nudity, but she has a lovely body, for a woman her age or any other; she isn’t curing cancer or racing into a burning building. She has said herself she isn’t fearlessly nude at all, she’s fearfully nude. It’s just what the role demanded.
So, “What happens next? After poetry and sex?” the characters ask.
That’s the real question the movie asks, and of course it isn’t limited to one 80s era poet in an iron lung.