sex, surrogacy and supper: the movie the sessions, part 1

by nikki meredith

coming homeLast week I was having dinner with six of my friends – all of them, to one degree or other, hip or at least hipish. I mentioned that I saw The Sessions, the recently released film starring Helen Hunt and John Hawkes. I was fired-up about the film and I wanted to discuss it. Specifically, I wanted to talk about the following:

—  I know Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sexual surrogate on whom the Helen Hunt character is based in real life and as much as I love Helen Hunt, and as much as I admire her for tackling the role, I found her performance wanting. A characteristic that the real Cheryl Cohen Greene has, a characteristic that anyone who has ever met her will attest to, is her warmth. While Hunt portrays the quality all therapists must possess — unconditional positive regard — her version is crisp, clinical.

— Ordinarily I don’t think a discrepancy between an actor who portrays the real life person in a film and the real life person is a valid criticism. (Except maybe in a biopic.) A film creates its own reality and its own set of rules and the characters should only be judged on what makes sense in that reality.

— But this discrepancy is a problem in the reality of The Sessions.  In the course of the therapy, the sexual surrogate develops deep feelings for her client, feelings that lead to a mutuality that goes beyond professional limits. We are to believe that said mutuality is intense enough to worry the surrogate and the surrogate’s husband. To demonstrate the growth of her feelings, Hunt relaxes her crispness but not convincingly enough to make the mutuality believable. Rather than the emotions welling-up unbidden, they seem contrived, pasted-on. If an actress had been able to capture what is so unique about the real Cheryl Cohen Greene – a blend of nurturing warmth and professionalism, the mutuality would have been more convincing – at least to me.

— The problem of mutuality in the film isn’t only with Hunt’s performance. Mark O’Brien, the patient played by John Hawkes, never transcends his patienthood. Right up to the last orgasm, mutual or not, (I can’t remember) we never see him as Hunt’s equal. This bothered me because it was a missed opportunity. Disabled people are so rarely portrayed on screen as sexual beings that if you’re going to do it, you owe it to us and the film to make it believable.  If you doubt that it’s possible, rent Coming Home with Jon Voight and Jane Fonda. I grant that it was easier because, unlike Hawkes, who played a quadriplegic, the Voight character had the use of his upper-body and hence had more ways of displaying his masculinity (biceps to die for and masterful skill with his wheel chair.) But don’t forget, Jane Fonda’s first introduction to him at the hospital involves a broken urine bag – his. Not an auspicious beginning to hot sex.

— In The Sessions, without the use of his body, Hawkes’s appeal had to be conveyed by the force of his personality; the primary way this was done was to show the reaction of the people around him.  They laugh at his jokes and are moved by his poetry. But his jokes aren’t very funny and his poetry isn’t very good. (It reminded me of how unsuccessful party scenes are in movies. For example, in It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep and her friends sit around laughing like school girls at all things sexual. The filmmaker seemed to believe that if they all cackled loud enough we’d be included in the fun. It wasn’t fun. It was embarrassing. )

— In The Sessions, I assume they used Mark O’Brien’s own words since he was a poet and the film is based on an article he wrote. I also assume Mark O’Brien, who died in 1999, was a sweet, decent guy whose honesty and self-deprecating style made it easy for people to be around him. In person, it probably worked. But in the movie he needed to be larger than life. His personality needed to fill the screen. To see a non-fiction version of this, take a look at Errol Morris’s documentary, A Brief History of Time.   Stephen Hawking, who is slouched in his mechanized wheel chair, his body distorted by ALS, his synthesized voice sounding extra terrestrial, nonetheless communicates charisma through his ironic smile, his owlish blue eyes, his humor and his enigmatic dispatches about the cosmos. I’m not saying Hawking would be a candidate for Playgirl’s centerfold, but in his own way, he was easy on the eyes.

But, last week, I never had a chance to discuss any of the above because as soon as I explained what The Sessions was about, one of the women pronounced Cheryl Cohen Greene a prostitute.  There was murmuring agreement around the table. I was gobsmacked.  I thought this issue had been settled decades ago, even before the shrinks decided homosexuality wasn’t pathological.

“I’m not sure I have it in me to argue about this right now,” I said, as I sank back in my chair. I wanted to be a film critic, not a defender of something that shouldn’t need defending in the 21st century.  I should have moved on to a different topic but I couldn’t let it stand.  Instead of launching a cogent defense, I flailed.  “She’s not any more a prostitute than a talking therapist is.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said one of my friends.

“No it isn’t,” I said.  A talking therapist may not use her body, but she sells her verbal skills and her emotions. She requires payment for something she gives away for free to friends and family.   Not perfectly analogous, I know. Among other differences, a therapist is trained, your Aunt Edna isn’t. A therapist sets limits, and, because she doesn’t have skin in the game, is able to be more objective. But it’s not 100 percent imperfectly analogous either. Research shows that the most important variable in a successful therapeutic relationship is not the modality nor the therapist’s particular approach. A successful outcome is associated with the quality of the rapport.   In a previous life I worked as a psychotherapist in private practice and I didn’t like it because I felt as though I was charging money for my humanity. It didn’t feel right.   (I can hear a chorus of outrage from my therapist friends and I acknowledge I’m a little screwed-up when it comes to money but that exploration is for another day.)

My flailing continued. I echoed Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography. I may not be able to precisely define prostitution but I know it when I see it. Cheryl Cohen Greene is not a prostitute. For one thing: prostitutes are all about repeat business; to a sexual surrogate, success is achieved when a client no longer needs her business. For another, Cheryl Cohen Greene only takes referrals from medical doctors and therapists. Hookers, I’m quite sure, have a different referral source.

Driving home that night I had one of those moments the French call l’esprit de l’escalier which more or less refers to the remarks you think of as you walk down the stairs leaving a dinner party, remarks you wish you’d thought of at the dinner party.  If Cheryl Cohen Greene is a prostitute because she gets paid for having sex, was Chloë Sevigny a prostitute because she gave Vincent Gallo an actual blow job in the final scene of the film The Brown Bunny? I assume she got paid for the film. Hence, she got paid for sex. Did you ever catch an episode of Tell Me You Love Me?  A 2008 HBO series that featured graphic sex? At the time, most viewers assumed the sex was not simulated and the producers wanted to keep it that way.  In the episode that I watched, all of the sex seemed both icky and gratuitous and I couldn’t fathom why an actor would want to be involved, simulated or not. I’m sure they told themselves it was all about art. In all likelihood, it was more about employment. Isn’t that what prostitutes are all about too?  Whether sex on the screen is art, entertainment, pornography, simulated, not simulated – I care not – but if we’re going to judge by Victorian standards, let’s start there and leave sexual surrogates out of it.  The word I would use to characterize someone who uses her own sexuality to help people connect with each other intimately is noble.