Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe - Life Among The Heffalumps

November 2012

 'The Sessions': Poetry, Sex and the Silver Screen

I've seen lots of movies about people who I "know" because they're famous – from "Night and Day," the bowdlerized Cole Porter biopic to "The Iron Lady," with Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. Yet, I'd never seen a film about someone who I knew in real life until I attended a recent screening at the AFI theater in Silver Spring, Md. of "The Sessions," which won the Audience Award at Sundance earlier this year and is now out in wide release. Featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by John Hawkes, along with stellar performances by Helen Hunt and William H. Macy, "The Sessions" is based on the life of the late poet, journalist, critic, and baseball fanatic Mark O'Brien, who contracted polio at age 6.

I was thrilled to see my friend Mark (portrayed by John Hawkes), on the silver screen: yet I wasn't quite prepared to see Mark (John Hawkes), who earned a B.A. in English from the University of California, Berkeley, authored three poetry collections, wrote numerous reviews and essays, and, by the way, spent most of his life in an iron lung or gurney, in bed with Cheryl, a sex surrogate (bravely and superbly portrayed by Helen Hunt).

At 38, Mark, a virgin, decided that he wanted to experience sex and intimacy. To obtain this experience he spends several sessions with Cheryl, a sex surrogate.  Cheryl isn't, she tells Mark, a prostitute.  She works with him to help him understand and to be comfortable with his body – his sexuality.  To its credit, "The Sessions" doesn't try to be a biopic – it wisely refrains from trying to tell the complete story of Mark's life.  (O'Brien died at age 49 in 1999.)  Rather, the movie combines drama and comedy to focus on relationships: Mark's new relationship with his body (understanding and feeling comfortable with his sexuality); Mark's relationship as a patient with Cheryl; his working and personal relationships with the assistants (who help him do everything from getting washed to eating to getting dressed); and his search for a long-term love relationship.

The humor in the story has surprised many able-bodied critics.  "'The Sessions' is probably the most lighthearted movie about sex and polio you'll see this year," wrote Linda Holmes on NPR's Monkey See blog.

Yet for many in the disability community – and for those of us who knew Mark – the lightheartedness of the story is a perfect fit.  For it was with Mark as it has been and will continue to be for so many of us: joy, pain, hurt, pleasure, humor, shyness and chutzpah are indelibly intertwined in life.  Keats spoke of what he called "negative capability" – of the poet being capable of being "in uncertainties, mysteries, {and} doubts..."

Mark possessed this capability more than most.  He didn't pretend that his life was painless or easy.  In the film, Mark says he wants to have sex soon because he's fast approaching his "used by date."  But, he doesn't view his lot as tragic or hopeless.  Once, Mark posted this personal ad, "I am looking for an intelligent, literate woman for companionship, and, perhaps, sexual play. I am, as you see, completely paralyzed, so there will be no walks on the beach."

In 1996, the short documentary "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien," directed by Jessica Yu won an Oscar.  Delighted to be the subject of an Academy Award winning doc, Mark joked, "soon there will be the Mark O'Brien non-action figure."

I wasn't Mark's BFF, but I interviewed him for a disability magazine after "Breathing Lessons" won the Oscar.  A fan of the documentary and of Mark's writing and radio commentaries, I was thrilled and a bit awed to interview him.  I spent three days with Mark and Susan his girlfriend.  (Mark had seen Cheryl, the sex surrogate, years before.) You always wonder how to gain the trust of your interview subjects.  But Mark and I bonded over writing.  We discovered that we both got the writing bug as kids when we saw the "Leave It to Beaver" episode where the Beav begins keeping a diary.  What else do I remember?  His bright yellow iron lung (which Mark called "the tank") which constantly emitted a kind of whooshing sound; his attentive looking face; and Mark's voice (though sometimes understand, you couldn't miss his Boston accent).  (Mark was born in Massachusetts and moved to California as a child.)

Sometimes, when I, legally blind with my white cane, am in a group, people ignore me. Ironically, Susan, Mark's able-bodied girlfriend found, that people, especially journalists, were ignoring her to focus solely on Mark (who, from "the tank," radiated the aura of Oscar). "You're paying more attention to me than most journalists," she said, as we ate French toast.

I never saw Mark again after that.  But we talked by phone and corresponded by e-mail frequently.  We talked of our passions – writing, poetry and baseball. Mark was a confident, but generous writer – readily sharing his contacts and ideas.  His last e-mail to me said, "move to San Fran.  Better weather, better baseball, better sex."

I said earlier that I didn't expect to see Mark in bed on the silver screen.  It wasn't that I was unhappy to see a movie about Mark's visits to a sex surrogate.  I loved "The Sessions."  It shows someone with a disability, doing what many of us with and without disabilities, do: having sex.  It's just a little odd to see anyone you've ever met in real life making love in reel life. But I don't think that would have embarrassed Mark.  He was one of the most open people I ever met: writing honestly about the pain and pleasure in his life.

Usually, many in the disability community wince when it's Oscar time and, once again, an able-bodied actor wins an Oscar for playing a character with a disability.  But this won't happen this Academy Award season.  We'll be rooting for John Hawkes to win an Oscar.  Why this change of heart?  Because Ben Lewin, who has polio and directed the movie, has infused "The Sessions" with a disability-savvy sensibility.  The film is one of the few movies that doesn't sentimentalize disability. Mark's life is viewed from an unsentimental gaze.  The assistants who help him, his priest, and his friends are treated as, parts of his community – not as saviors helping a victim.  As Lewin has said in interviews, he didn't want Mark to be depicted as either a sinner or a saint, but as a human being who could, like all of us, be at times, "a jerk."

Moreover, Lewin gave careful thought as to whether or not Mark should be played by an actor with a disability.  After auditioning some actors with disabilities, he concluded that they weren't right for the part.  At the screening I attended, Lewin said that he didn't want to cast someone with a disability just to be politically correct.  "I wanted to keep the bar high," he said.

This wasn't b.s. on Lewin's part. Two actors with disabilities Tobias Forrest and Jennifer Kumiyama, deftly play the couple, in "The Sessions" who loan Mark the use of their home (for his sessions with Cheryl, the sex surrogate).

I can say this because I'm a poet: many films about poets and writers are boring. "The Sessions" with fabulous performances and humor breaks through the boredom barrier. Check it out.

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©2012 Kathi Wolfe
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine - Kathi Wolfe |
Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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November 2012

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