Sex Surrogacy and Disability on the Silver Screen

The Sessions is available on DVD from Netflix.

In one of the late John Callahan’s early cartoons, the first frame shows his shakily-drawn, long-nosed, alter-ego quad pinned on his back while giving oral sex to a massive nude woman with pendulous breasts, who sits on his face. In the following frames, he realizes he can’t breathe, but in trying to free himself, his frantic head movements only excite his bulky lover. In the final frame, a newsboy on the corner holds the daily paper aloft. The headline reads: “Local Quad Smothers in Cunnilingus Accident.”

There’s a similar sexually explicit scene in the recently released movie The Sessions — based on an essay written by the late poet-writer-activist, Mark O’Brien, entitled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” The surrogate, played by Helen Hunt, is way more appealing in the nude than Callahan’s dominating hunkstress, but O’Brien, a polio survivor who spent most of his life in an iron lung, is nevertheless in the same fix. Hunt’s character realizes something is wrong, so she asks O’Brien (played by John Hawkes):

“Are you OK down there?”

“I’m choking!”

“I guess that’s off the menu until further notice.”

The movie — originally titled The Surrogate — was the audience favorite of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and Hunt was nominated for an Academy Award. Though she did not win, the movie is another milestone in the history of films about disability characters and themes, but the real payoff is its potential appeal to mainstream audiences. No doubt that is why Fox Searchlight snatched it up for $6 million, the biggest sale at Sundance.

The movie was made for a little over $1 million by independent writer-director Ben Lewin, himself a polio survivor, now a 66-year-old “overnight sensation” — with 40 respectable yet relatively unheralded years in the business. Lewin, along with his wife, producer Judi Levine, are the principals behind little-known Such Much Films, but their success at Sundance has propelled them on to the Hollywood fast track. When I talked with Lewin, he had just returned from promotional tours in Australia, New Zealand and Toronto. The day after we talked, he and wife Judi were off to Zurich, San Sebastian, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., London and Mill Valley.

Mill Valley?

“Apparently it’s a very respectable festival and they want to show the movie. A lot of the people from the Bay Area go to it, so I’m assuming that it’s a good word-of-mouth place.”

Is this kind of frantic schedule a change from normal for Lewin?

The reason he had hired the sex surrogate was that he thought this sort of thing would never happen for him for real. He would never have a real physical and emotional relationship with any woman. But in fact that is what finally did happen.” — Director Ben Lewin on Mark O’Brien (Photo by Christopher Voelker/VoelkerStudio.com. Grooming by Melanie Manson/MelanieManson.com)

He laughs. “It has really upset the kind of serene mediocrity and boredom of my previous life. Before, I could at least remember what day it was. But we really don’t want to complain. Here we are, thrust into the spotlight, being told that we’re wonderful by everybody. I’m expected to complain about that?”

Amid all the congratulatory hoopla, Lewin is the first to credit the original source of his material. “Mark O’Brien’s article was the blueprint for the movie,” he says. “One of the things that drew me to O’Brien’s writing was the authenticity. He had a very explicit and blunt way of talking about sex, and the details that made me appreciate how real it felt, and how innocent he was in a way. It impacted on me very strongly. I thought if it was that kind of emotional journey that I could convey to an audience  — it would be a very gratifying story to tell.”

Lewin’s adapted script is the perfect mix of sex, humor and emotion, but what is remarkable is that it was mostly shot in two bedroom locations. Almost all of the story-telling happens within the context of four “sessions” that Hawkes’ character has with Hunt’s character, based on real-life professional sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene, who was hired by O’Brien when he took the giant step of losing his virginity at the age of 38.

From Yearning to Film
The line between sex surrogacy and prostitution may seem blurry in many respects — both surrogates and prostitutes are professionals hired for sexual purposes — but the dramatic structure and revealing dialogue of the movie clarify the differences. O’Brien’s (Hawkes’) purpose is to learn about and experience sex for the first time, while Greene (Hunt) approaches the sessions with the intent to help her client understand his body and grow as an adult whose circumstances have deprived him of loving touch and intimacy. After each session, she dictates her insights into his challenges and successes, which will later be read by the certified sex counselor who arranged for the sessions at O’Brien’s request.

In the Jan. 10 San Francisco Chronicle article, “Surrogate sex partner inspires story, film,” by Edward Guthmann, the real-life Greene clarified the extent of O’Brien’s lack of experience prior to the sessions: “He told me nobody had ever touched him other than to bathe him, dress him or do a medical procedure. He said that he felt like he was on the outside of a fine restaurant, looking in the window. Everybody in there is having a feast, but he’ll never be able to taste that food.”

O’Brien’s venture into the unknown, combined with his vulnerability, dry wit and likeable personality — convincingly captured by Hawkes — creates a powerful emotional mix. In a deft stroke of dramatic license, Lewin heightens the relationship between the two main characters by focusing on a growing affection between them as they explore the wonder and excitement of sex in successive intimate scenes. Hunt and Hawkes begin awkwardly and uncertainly — two sojourners in a strange land — and gradually evolve into a relationship based on love that is made all the more poignant by the rules of the game: they cannot become involved; their lives must remain separate.

Lewin recognized the dramatic potential in O’Brien’s story from the beginning. “I responded to his essay emotionally first, and then at a practical level, thinking, ‘My goodness, I really think I could make a film out of this, and it would work.’ I also wanted to make it a relationship movie, a journey for more than one person.”

The Casting Dilemma
Ultimately, the movie will affect millions of viewers and bring a neglected topic — and the life story and work of a talented disabled writer — into the limelight, as well as provide a steady flow of promising scripts for Lewin to evaluate. No doubt it will also re-ignite the question of why disabled actors are always bypassed for juicy roles as main characters with disabilities.

Sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) works with poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) in The Sessions.

Sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) works with poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) in The Sessions.

John Hawkes was himself concerned about this before taking the part. “My first question to Ben, as we sat down to meet before he’d offered the role and before I had accepted … was ‘why not a disabled actor?’” says Hawkes in an online interview with Jen Yamato [movieline.com].

The short answer is Lewin searched, but no one measured up. Predictably, it’s the same old catch-22: Few actors with severe disabilities have either the experience or the resume to land a lead role; but when they are invariably passed over in favor of better-known, more experienced nondisabled actors, how will the inequity ever be resolved?

Lewin did hire disabled actors for supporting roles (Jennifer Kumiyama and Tobias Forrest), but no disabled actor was ever seriously in the running for the main role. “I think it was a bit of a pipe dream, the idea of finding a real Mark O’Brien, someone who was really close to that experience and could play it,” says Lewin. “Initially when I read his story I thought that’s what I’d really love to do, but ultimately, you have to put things together at a practical level.”

For Lewin, the practical casting problem yielded an interesting insight: “The issue arises that you might be able to find someone who’s disabled to an extent, but nothing like the extent that Mark O’Brien was, and if you have them pretend, in which case, what’s the difference really between having a nondisabled actor pretending?”

In the movie business — relentlessly focused on the bottom line — the name of the game is the game of names: Get one famous or acclaimed name to sign on and you’re likely to get another. That’s exactly what happened with The Sessions, yet it was anything but expected.

Lewin: “It was a bit of a pipe dream,the idea of finding a real Mark O’Brien,someone who was really close to that experience and could play it.” (Photo by Christopher Voelker/VoelkerStudio.com)

“When you start casting,” says Lewin, “you start off with a wish list, which is sometimes completely wacky, and then you find out who’s available and you try and generate a bit of buzz around the script so you have people coming at you in an unexpected way. John Hawkes was really the brain wave of our casting director [Ronnie Yeskel]. I didn’t know him beforehand, and she called me one day and said, ‘This is the guy you need.’ And was very serious about it, very persistent about it. And I’m glad she was.” Hawkes was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Winter’s Bone.

“Now once John was in it, the project did get buzz at the agencies, and different agents started calling on behalf of their clients and wanting to have meetings, particularly for the leading lady role,” says Lewin. “And I was really bowled over when one day our casting director said Helen Hunt would like to meet with me. So we met. And then once Helen was in, the same agent said, ‘Well what about Bill Macy?’ So we jumped at it.”

William H. Macy received an Academy Award nomination for his role as Jerry Lundegaard in the Cohen Brothers film, Fargo, in 1995. Hawkes’ nomination came in 2011, and Helen Hunt won the Academy’s Best Actress Award for her role opposite Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets in 1997. To say that a relatively obscure independent filmmaker hit the casting jackpot is undeniably true, but it was not blind luck. Lewin’s script, which captured O’Brien’s voice and concisely told his story, was no doubt a powerful lure.

The Story Behind the Story
The script of The Sessions remains faithful to O’Brien’s “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” right up to the concluding scenes, when it takes a leap into the future (relative to the date of O’Brien’s writing the article). In these scenes, which occur years after O’Brien’s encounter with Greene,  we see him meeting a woman named Susan Fernbach, and from there we get the idea that they developed a relationship, a genuine relationship with no preconceived boundaries. That relationship is not explored in the movie, nor is it explicitly portrayed, but it is hinted at, and the implications are powerful.

Hawkes and Hunt: casting jackpot?

Hawkes and Hunt: casting jackpot?

Lewin explains how he came upon the real-life relationship between O’Brien and Fernbach: “After I read Mark’s essay, I wanted to get the rights, I wanted to option it so I could write a screenplay. So when I found out that Mark had died in 1999, I had to follow a trail until I found out who owned the rights, and it was a woman called Susan Fernbach, who was his girlfriend, companion, lover, literary partner, before he died. Now, I found this a fascinating irony. The reason he had hired the sex surrogate, at least the reason he gave in his essay, was that he thought this sort of thing would never happen for him for real. He would never have a real physical and emotional relationship with any woman. But in fact that is what finally did happen.”

In the movie, we learn this at the conclusion, when its force has its greatest possible dramatic impact. It functions as both a revelation and a resolution, and it connects us back to the surrogacy sessions once again. “In Mark’s original essay,” says Lewin, “the ending is rather sad. And I felt, oh well, he just had a bad day. I still felt that what he was telling was a positive story. And I thought that, after all, having that kind of epilog at the end, the flash-forward some years later, you could draw the connection between that experience and the next one. There was a connection between these two events.”

Photo by Christopher Voelker/VoelkerStudio.com

There is also a strong connection between the writer-director and his subject which motivated Lewin to turn O’Brien’s essay into a film in the first place. “I think it helps to have a connection of some sort with the material,” says Lewin, “and certainly I had it in this case [polio]. But at that time I was a little suspicious of my feelings. I thought, you know, I can’t make a movie where the audience is going to be people in iron lungs. I had to feel that it went way beyond me. But having some kind of connection is very important to the motivation behind it.”

Now that the movie is a reality and currently opening in major cities, you might think it’s time for Lewin and Levine to sit back and bask in the spotlight. “I hardly describe ourselves as basking right at the moment,” says Lewin, laughing. “We’re just starting to pack for tomorrow’s journey! Of the 50 or 60 projects that have come our way since Sundance, I’d say there are three or four we are actively pursuing, a bit more than just kicking the tires. And they don’t fall into any kind of genre. I’m hoping by about the middle of next year, we’ll be into something new and exciting, but I can’t put my finger on what it will be just yet.”

True to Lewin’s philosophy about life and the movie business, nothing is predictable: “Who knows where the river will take you?”


Susan Fernbach on The Sessions

Susan FernbachNM:Ben Lewin described the voice he created for Mark O’Brien as “a kind of blend of Mark’s character and my own, but I felt they were consistent, and I always checked it out with his girlfriend, Susan Fernbach, who knew him as well as anyone. She was a kind of literary soulmate for me as I was developing that voice, and I felt if I would have gone a long way from how she recalled him, she would have told me so.”

SF: First of all, I’m so humbled that Ben said that — that’s so beautiful — because I don’t feel that I had a whole lot of input, I mean I read the script, I read the revisions, I pointed out some places that didn’t work for me, but he had the voice down … and he knew Mark’s sense of humor, I think from some of his essays.

NM: What did you think of John Hawkes’ portrayal of Mark?

SF: I really loved when I first saw John on the monitor when he was filming. The first scene they filmed I thought, ‘This is the closest to resurrection I’m ever going to get’ (laughs). It was so amazing. I mean, his voice is the same, there were certain mannerisms that he got down. And in the script, Mark’s voice is very genuine, very true to self.
When I first heard about John Hawkes, I only knew his work with Winter’s Bone, where he was this terrible redneck old-looking guy-meth-addict, and so I was like, ‘He’s too old!” But he just did such a fantastic job. He and I talked for probably two hours one day at Ben’s house about what questions he had about Mark and how Mark’s body could move or how, just physical things, and then also how we experienced the limitations or whatever. It was very warming to talk to someone about that.

NM: In the movie it’s almost all about the surrogacy sessions, and then the story fast-forwards to his meeting with you near the ending. When you first viewed it in its entirety, did you wish that they had covered more of your relationship with Mark?

SF: No. No, not at all. I think there’s just enough in there to get people interested, sort of like thinking about the possibility that he had relationships after that (the surrogacy sessions). And I think that was all that was required, and I think it’s going to be enough exposure as it is, and I don’t feel like I wanted any more. I was really happy with it.

NM: How long were you and Mark together?

SF: We met in 1995 and he passed away in 1999 — four years.

NM: In the movie, Mark’s poetry is used a lot, like a stream of consciousness or internal voice, his soul maybe. Did you feel that in the movie this did express something of who Mark really was?

SF: Yes. I think once he found his voice in poetry, it sort of brought him out of his isolation. … People got to know him more, and he was more human to people, and I feel his poetry had a great deal to do with that.

NM: Specifically, how were you and Mark “literary partners?”

SF: We co-founded a small press called Lemonade Factory, and I’ve now revived it, because the movie will probably generate some interest in his poetry and we have probably five or six titles. A couple of them we wrote poems for each other, and that was pretty fun.

NM: As this movie becomes known, more people will be exposed to Mark, and some will be people with newer disabilities who haven’t really read his work or heard about him. How do you think Mark will be remembered in the disability community? Will this movie affect his legacy?

SF: I’m not sure that anyone who knew him will have anything changed by the movie, but I think in the disability community he was known for his wit and his humor and his combination of innocence and bitterness. Innocence and pessimism — there was sort of dance between those — I don’t know that the pessimism comes out that much in the movie. But I don’t think folks who knew him will have their perceptions changed, but certainly those that didn’t know him might get a better handle on who he was.


Love Poems — Mark O’Brien and Susan Fernbach

In The Sessions, John Hawkes’ character, based on Mark O’Brien, hopes to one day — after he has learned about sex firsthand — buy a futon, so he may properly entertain a woman. Here is an exchange of poetry that occurred years later, in O’Brien’s real life.

How to Operate Your Futon Frame

For the first anniversary of
our meeting, December 17th,
1995, a date that will live
in famy.

Certain items are necessary:
the base, the back, the arms, all made of oak,
nuts, screws, bolts of stainless steel,
a mattress made of foam, a cotton cover.
Most important: a woman made of love and courage.

She is needed to assemble
the less important materials
with skill and patience,
to laugh at the impossibilities
that arise whenever anyone
assembles the less important parts.

To operate the futon,
the woman needs a man
to tickle, kiss and carry on
when the futon is in Flat Mode (see pg. 7).
If the man is paralyzed,
the woman must do the tickling, kissing
and so forth,
until they both become too tired,
until they make each other real.

— Mark O’Brien, December 1996
If I Were Able

I might collect a comet and several stars for you
I might wrap them in the clover-scented breeze for you
I might bottle the seaweed smell of the bayside rocks for you
I might wrap that in a square of sky for you
Perhaps with clouds like crumpled cotton,
Or the robin’s-egg blue that happens after sunset.
I might throw in the midnight song of the mockingbird,
or the smell of the wild carrots,
or the crazy dance of the cedar branches in a storm.

I would bring all these to you.
I would kiss you
like the fairy kissed the Velveteen Rabbit, and
I would let you lead me, summer in our legs,
to the place where the night wind whispers,
“Wake up. You were real all along. No excuses now.”

— Susan Fernbach, spring 1996
Where to Read More: Mark O’Brien’s and Susan Fernbach’s poetry — and other writings — are available from The Lemonade Factory, P.O. Box 2824, Fort Bragg, CA, 95437.

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