In the film The Sessions, the actor John Hawkes plays the poet Mark O'Brien, an intellectual acrobat who was struck by polio as a child and lived mostly in an iron lung. He had sensation but was paralyzed except for a few muscles, including one in his neck and one in his jaw.
By nature, I am suspicious of any film that's determined to soar my heart or triumph my human spirit. All too often, disabled people on screen are props for the emotional epiphanies of able-bodied characters. Radio, The Other Sister, Forrest Gump, Rain Man – all use disabled characters as so-called "magical negroes," the equivalent of black subordinates awakening the consciousness of white bosses.
But The Sessions is the rare film where the consciousness of a disabled character fills the foreground. The reason The Sessions works, and deserves to set a precedent for all cinematic depictions of disability, is simple: sex.
O'Brien was a writer based in Berkeley, Calif., who died in 1999. The film is about his quest to lose his virginity at age 38, with the help of a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt. O'Brien was also the subject of an exceptional Academy Award-winning documentary called Breathing Lessons, and Hawkes's interpretation, from the nasally voice to the moon-pie eyes, is a ringer. But the role isn't mere mimicry, and the disability isn't inherently heroic. Hawkes creates a fully realized person, artful and funny, a little raunchy, and only occasionally cute (twice, involving shopping for shirts).
The film dares to depict a man whose body is broken but still intensely carnal. Sex and disability rarely go together in popular culture, except as a punchline. Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man was as neutered as a Muppet, and certainly didn't have to contend with premature ejaculation. The Sessions doesn't just pay lip service to the idea of "visibility," selectively clear-cutting around the body's deepest needs. It shows the fullness of one man's life, confronting the tittering question: "But can a disabled dude do it?" The body, in all its chaos, is truly made visible.
A few years ago, the film-within-a-film comedy Tropic Thunder took heat for a scene where Robert Downey Jr., playing a method actor (in blackface, no less) chastises his co-star (Ben Stiller) for a poorly received performance as a farmhand named Simple Jim: "Never go full retard," warned Downey. The cascade of complaints from disabled-rights organizations apparently didn't reach conservative pundit Ann Coulter's ears, who tweeted the same word about Obama just this week, proving daily discourse isn't much more enlightened than crass comedy.
The language may have been bracing, but the point was legitimate: Playing disabled – or a certain kind of sanitized disabled – is a fast track to an Oscar. Women go ugly; men go handicapped. In Hollywood, it's a virtuous act for a beautiful actress to put on a prosthetic nose or gain some weight.
Even more pandering is an actor like Sean Penn rounding out his "challenging parts" repertoire by playing a Starbucks employee with the mental capacity of a seven year-old (that queasy film, I Am Sam, is so sentimental that it's like being pinned down and force-fed lavender sachets while watching 26 hours of Susan Boyle videos, Clockwork Orange-style). The worst part of thespian disability is the slow clap the performers earn for a few weeks of exaggerated muscular spasms. A slew of recent articles have described how Hawkes pulled it off in The Sessions, craning his neck to the point of agony, and spending a week learning how to dial a phone with his mouth. That's great, but also, you know, temporary.
Roland Barthes wrote that "the Other is a scandal which threatens … existence." A disabled body, always "Other," is profoundly at odds with Hollywood's central impulse: to lull and affirm the status quo. Hollywood doesn't like uncomfortable, and disability is. It's uncomfortable for most of us to be confronted by reminders of the body's possible frailty. So Hollywood plays it safe, and our own anxieties go unchallenged.
Of course there are movies that do confront that discomfort: Julien Donkey-Boy; a slew of documentaries, including Bonnie Sherr Klein's Shameless: The ART of Disability; maybe even the Farrelly brothers' There's Something About Mary. But when it comes to disabled characters – like the magical negroes and the noble savages before them – mainstream cinema prefers a little swelling of our able-bodied hearts to a tweaking of our complacent minds.
In The Sessions, O'Brien is allowed only six encounters with his therapist, but a lot happens each time, with frankness and tenderness. As the physical stakes heighten, so do the emotional ones. In one scene, O'Brien becomes concerned with the pleasure of the woman astride him. I had my own (able-bodied) epiphany: Explicit sex between consenting adults that isn't porny and waxed or bottom-lip-biting comical is almost as rare on screen as disability. Finally, my spirit was triumphant: I got to see desire, up close, in all its forms.