I’ve worked for two organizations that directly support people with disabilities in my career. Despite my work, I have never, ever had a conversation with anyone about how much people with disabilities want or like to have sex. Never happened. With conversations in the workplace about sex being frowned upon, no incident reports have been filed, no cases prosecuted. Gold star for me.
But have I even thought about these issues? Why not? I don’t usually slip into that common perception that those with disabilities are either less-capable or super-capable (think Stephen Hawking), and unlike me. They’re just people, with wants and needs. Not excluding sex. Seems spectacularly reasonable (I feel I’m qualified on what’s reasonable/unreasonable right now). Maybe I have a different bias: “Hi, my name is Jay, and I’m a prude.”
If you see The Sessions, you will think about these issues. The movie is based on the writings of Mark O’Brien, a journalist and poet who was struck by polio at age 6, and from then on was only able to move three muscles, one in his neck, one in his jaw, and another in one foot. Despite needing to be in an iron lung for large portions of the day, he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, where he used to drive around by himself on a custom-made electric gurney. Evidently he would crash quite a bit because the mirrors he used to see didn’t work that well, and he would convince passers-by to set him back up so he could get on his way.
He even opened a small publishing house for poets with disabilities. There is a short documentary that featured O’Brien called Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, which won an Oscar in 1997. O’Brien passed away in 1999.
In his late 30’s, O’Brien decided he wanted to lose his virginity, so he worked with a sex surrogate. The movie is based on an article he wrote about those “sessions.” John Hawkes plays the role of O’Brien with little movement (obviously) and a squeaky voice due to O’Brien’s limited lung capacity. Nominated for Best Actor at the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Film Independent Spirit Awards, Hawkes plays him as a regular guy, which he was. A funny, observant, talented, regular guy, who it just so happens couldn’t move most of his body.
“The two mythologies about disabled people break down to: one, we can’t do anything; or two, we can do everything,” O’Brien says in Breathing Lessons. “But the truth is, we’re just human.”
Helen Hunt has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the BAFTA Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and the Film Independent Spirit Awards for her role as Cheryl Cohen-Greene, O’Brien’s sex surrogate. The role required her to be naked a lot of the time, but in a far more clinical than passionate way, for the most part. The viewer’s eye tends to drift to Hawkes when he is on screen (despite Hunt’s nudity), but clearly she is being recognized by her peers this year for a very challenging role.
There is a matter-of-fact quality to her portrayal, and that quality seems to permeate the movie. This is not a story about a man overcoming adversity or prejudice or advocacy, as many stories about people with disabilities are. This is more about O’Brien’s emotional growth. He has physical barriers that set up the story, but the real barriers are emotional. He’s a complex person, as we all are. This is more of a first-person account of new experiences, and how those experiences can change our lives.
The Sessions won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year, in addition to all the nominations for Hawkes and Hunt, so this film has the potential to take home a lot of hardware. It’s funny and emotional, and very well done all around. But guess what? Nobody saw it. Maybe it’ll do very well on DVD, but no one saw it in the theater. I saw it with three other people, and by that, I don’t mean that I saw the movie with three friends. I mean that there were four of us sitting in the theater. Four.
After I and my fellow viewers elbowed our way out of the theater, I was curious, so checked the domestic box office take for the movie when I got home (you can find anything on the interwebs). The Sessions brought in only $5.8 million, approximately, since mid-October in U.S. theaters. For comparison, The Hobbit brought in $84.7 million in its first three days when it was released in December.
Just for fun, here are the box office numbers for the movies I’ve seen for the Unreasonable Movie Project so far (through January 21, 2013), plus The Hobbit:
Skyfall: $301.0 million, 11 weeks
Brave: $237.3 million, 30 weeks
Lincoln: $161.8 million, 11 weeks
Argo: $115.2 million, 15 weeks
Flight: $93.1 million, 12 weeks
Silver Linings Playbook: $56.7 million, 10 weeks
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: $46.4 million, 22 weeks
Cloud Atlas: $27.1 million, 13 weeks
Beasts of the Southern Wild: $11.5 million, 30 weeks
The Sessions, $5.80 million, 14 weeks
Hitchcock: $5.79 million, 9 weeks
So of the 11 movies I’ve seen so far (plus The Hobbit), The Sessions missed being dead last at the box office by $100,000. And The Hobbit brought in almost 50 times more money. I have not see that movie yet, but I would be surprised if I rate it a $8.50, like I am rating The Sessions, even though I am a big fan of The Lord of the Rings series. I feel like I might be Middle-Earth-weary. But we’ll see… after all, it is An Unexpected Journey.