Roger Ebert’s excellent review says most of what I want to say (only, so much better).
A few words, though, to share why this movie has stayed with me. Yes, it is a true story and, at the end, made me seek out Mark O’Brien’s autobiography to add to my TBR pile. But, more than the fact of a polio-ridden, paralyzed-from-the-neck-down man who survived on a motorized gurney and used an iron lung to breathe most of the time, it is the story of a man searching for a genuine connection with another human being–not really about the sex, as Ebert pointed out.
And, while I initially sought out the movie for Helen Hunt (one of the best actresses out there today), I was just blown away by John Hawkes. Not only was this a physically-demanding role, but how he brought Mark O’Brien to life psychologically and emotionally was truly awe-inspiring. The usual tools of an actor were not available to him here–gestures, movements, etc. It was all in the face. Hawkes made his eyes and all his facial muscles express more in the tiniest of moments than most actors can with their full range of bodily motion over wider canvases. I can still see those haunting, piercing blue eyes with their range and depth of emotions: desperation, frustration, fear, joy, pathos, humor. And, particularly, that humor was played out so skillfully in all its varying shades: from gallows humor to religious humor to invalid humor. I am now a huge fan of Hawkes and firmly believe that he was robbed of the Oscar. Though he did get a SAG Award, so clearly, his fellow actors thought his performance exceptional. The final proof of Hawkes’ impressive acting sensibilities is how he does not make the audience pity his character. Rather, we fall for him, just as most of the other people in his life, men and women, did.
Some critics/viewers have complained about how the movie shows Hunt in full frontal nudity but not Hawkes and that this is typical Hollywood gender discrimination or some such. For me, those were the right authorial and directorial choices. As a sex surrogate, Hunt’s character is meant to be confident with her sexuality and her body. Hawkes’ character is meant to be riddled with doubt/fear/anxiety, having never been intimately naked with another human being before–other than in a clinical sense with the array of caretakers, nurses, doctors, etc. Hunt’s frontal nudity and Hawkes’ lack of the same conveyed these aspects better than any dialogue or voice-over could have.
Helen Hunt was a study in great acting as always–sheer class. And, William H Macy as Father Brendan was an unexpected treat as well.
So, this is a lovely, touching story, played out by some fine actors, and written and directed by Ben Lewin, who said this:
The reason I wanted to tell the story is primarily because it was a good story. [Finding it was] a total accident, when I was surfing the Internet for all the wrong reasons. It was a burning bush moment, of which I’ve had very few. I thought that if I was emotionally affected, someone else would be as well.