There’s a lot to say about this movie, but first I have to comment on the Oscar insanity. Helen Hunt got a nomination … for Best Supporting Actress! Now, I’ve complained about this before, about large roles showing up in the supporting category, but this was way beyond ridiculous. Just the worst ever. If this was not a leading role, I don’t know what is. She is in the largest female role. She is on-screen for most of the picture. The story is about her and Mark O’Brien. What the hell do you need more than that to be a lead actress? The Academy’s rules defining these things are seriously fucked up.
On to the picture. I had the weird feeling that I had just seen it, but that is just because a few days before we had seen The Intouchables, another film about someone who couldn’t move and his attendant. But they were very different in many ways. A quadriplegic can’t feel anything below the neck. Someone who had polio and is in an iron lung is more severely disabled—able to be out of the big tube only a few hours a day—but is just as sensitive as anyone else. He just can’t move.
The movie is based on an essay written by the real man here, Mark O’Brien, titled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” A film was made about him previously, “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien,” and won an Oscar for Documentary Short in 1997. I think it is a reasonably accurate re-creation, though some have raised some questions. O’Brien is played by John Hawkes, someone I hadn’t seen before, though he was in two movies we didn’t finish: Martha Marcy May Marlene and Winter’s Bone. In the latter, I understand he played a really evil hillbilly awfully well. This is a completely different thing. He can only use his face in his acting, and he had to seriously contort his body to simulate what a man who had spent most of his life in an iron lung would look like. It’s very effective, and I hear it was quite painful at times.
The director, Ben Lewin, who got into this because he also had polio as a child, says he auditioned several real disabled people for the role, but no one was quite right. I suspect he was afraid of having someone in the lead who might not be able to deliver, as he knew Hawkes could. To his credit, he did cast a real disabled woman with deformed arms, Jennifer Kumiyama, in a very important role, which she performed quite well.
When an actress appears nude in a film, the adjective most often used for the performance is “brave.” I don’t know about that, seems to me it would vary from actress to actress, depending on how she felt about exposing herself. Some are easy with it, like Emma Thompson and Farrah Fawcett, and others won’t do it under any circumstances. But if it really is brave, then Helen Hunt has to qualify as about the bravest woman in films today. She is naked in fully half her scenes. Sometimes she is partially under the sheets, but sometimes it’s the real Full Monty, if that applies to girls. You will be quite familiar with her breasts by the time this is over. And it had to be that way, there was no way they could be coy with this story, which is totally about a man who just wanted to get laid once before he dies. It’s as much about the process of intercourse as anything.
… I take it back, a little. We see no male genitals. I think the movie would have been improved if he had not been fig-leafed, either, but I understand the fault is not with the director, but with the stupid movie rating system. A pecker earns you an NC-17, which is death. Female pubic hair, you can still get an R. And, if you want to get technical about it, when a woman does a full-frontal nude scene you don’t see genitals, you see hair. If she had spread her legs, the NC-17 stamp would have come out, too. But other than that, it’s very explicit, not only in what’s talked about, but what is shown.
The movie is greatly helped by the always reliable William H. Macy, who is a long-haired, progressive, Berkeley-type priest. O’Brien was a devout Catholic (he has a great line: “I believe in a God with a sense of humor. I would find it absolutely intolerable not to be to able blame someone for all this.”), and visits Macy before he sets out on his sexual odyssey to see if there’s any loophole to the NO ADULTERY rule in the church. Macy says, technically, no, but he feels in his gut that Jesus would give him a pass on this: “Go for it.” Later, after each session, the two talk it over, the good and the bad. The first session, O’Brien has an orgasm as soon as Hunt peels the sheet back. Embarrassing.
Helen Hunt is one of my favorite actresses. I’ve liked her in everything I’ve seen her in. Here she plays a real person, too, Cheryl Cohen-Greene, who was a pioneer in this still rather unusual occupation of sexual surrogate. Berkeley is the obvious place for all this to happen, given that it’s sexually sophisticated and probably the most disabled-friendly city in the country. There is a sub-plot about how her growing attachment to O’Brien is affecting her “open” marriage (well, it would have to be, wouldn’t it?), that’s less interesting than the main plot. Also there is a brief scene in a mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath taken after menstruation or childbirth, and as part of the conversion process, which she is undergoing. I enjoyed this movie quite a lot.