Is John Hawkes the greatest American actor? Yes, I am paraphrasing one of the most recognizable quotes from the great Pauline Kael on the occasion of her reviewing Morgan Freeman in 1987’s “Street Smart”. I am purposefully being hyperbolic—but I’m not entirely joking. Some seem to think that Daniel Day-Lewis is running away with the Best Actor Oscar for “Lincoln” this year. It’s not a bad bet, and he’d be the first male actor to take the big prize thrice(not counting supporting wins, all you Jack Nicholson and Walter Brennan fans!). Everyone knows DDL at this point, right? No matter if you’ve actually seen his award-winning performances, you know he’s supposed to be one of the very best. And he is. But you should be aware of John Hawkes before you hand over that imaginary title to Danny-boy. John is the real deal. You may not be convinced after watching Hawkes in this fall’s “The Sessions”. It may just appear to be a disease-of-the-week movie with a mostly immobile actor expressing with his face while barely moving the rest of his body(not unlike having only a “left foot”—as was the case for DDL’s initial Oscar grab from 1989). But may I suggest some shopping and comparing? Take a look at John in last year’s largely ignored shocker “Martha Marcy May Marlene”. His Manson-esque character of Patrick will send chills down your spine. Not sold yet? Throw in his Oscar-nominated turn as Teardrop in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone”, the film that put Jennifer Lawrence on the map. Still not there? Try his lovestruck shoe salesman from 2005’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know” on for size. More? How about the doomed Alonzo from Michael Mann’s wildly misunderstood “Miami Vice” feature from 2006? It’s a tiny part, that one, that manages to make a huge impression. Hawkes is 53 years old, so he’s no spring chicken. In other words, one of those “overnight” successes that have actually been busting their hump for over three decades. Morgan Freeman was 50 when Kael and his first Oscar nomination made him an “instant” star. Hang in there, John—it could still happen to you. And maybe his work as the late Mark O’Brien in “The Sessions” will be the film to make it happen.
“The Sessions” is not only getting attention for a body that doesn’t move, but also for one that leaves nothing to the imagination. And that toned and beautiful physique belongs to none other than 48-year old Helen Hunt. Her courageous work as sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene should earn Ms. Hunt her second Oscar nomination, and first since her big 1997 win for Best Actress in “As Good As It Gets”. She’s marvelous here in a sexually frank portrayal that will remind many of the Fonda-Voight coupling in 1978’s “Coming Home”(both Jane and Jon won the top acting gold that year, btw). It reminded me, anyway. But how is the bulk of “The Sessions”? Well, it’s pretty darn good, but it’s those two key performances that push it over the top. The finished product isn’t going to make anyone forget “Lincoln” or “Zero Dark Thirty” when the final winner is read on Oscar night—but that’s okay. Director/screenwriter Ben Lewin accomplishes an admirable enough job with this project—made all the more poignant upon discovering that he is a partially disabled polio survivor himself(it was polio that incapacitated the actual Mark O’Brien when he was just a young boy). I mean it is a disease-of-the-week weepie, I guess, with one essential difference. Instead of being a film about one person’s struggle to survive against all odds, it’s a movie about a man fighting like a tiger to get laid at least once in his life. And Ms. Hunt’s Cheryl is going to try to help him do it. And we know up front that he’s going to get a maximum of six tries—so there is a time limit imposed to help create some filmic tension. It all works, and the vast majority of the “sex acting” falls on Ms. Hunt. And she’s fully up to the task. It’s a wonderful performance. Yeah, it all ends rather abruptly. Things kind of just stop, right when you think there could be a half hour spent on a brand new chapter in O’Brien’s life. Ultimately, it’s primed to be one of those “little films that could”. It’s going to get plenty of awards attention this season(for Hawkes and Hunt especially), even if it doesn’t manage to win anything. But we all know that getting the nomination is most of the battle anyway, so I’ll root for Hawkes and Hunt to garner something during the trophy glut of the next 3 months or so.
Hey, no doubt that the Hawkes/Hunt/Lewin team is the star of the show here. But there is also some terrific support work from Moon Bloodgood as Vera, Annika Marks as Amanda, and the versatile William H. Macy as Father Brendan. The Brendan/O’Brien chats, btw, are the weakest part of the enterprise. It’s an obvious and overused device, that is unfortunately played for a few cheap laughs. But nothing too offensive here. And the film stands as an honorable memorial/shrine to the real O’Brien—a poet and author who finally expired from his illness in 1999 just weeks from his 50th birthday. And it won’t be the first Oscar trip for this inspirational story because a 1996 Documentary Short Subject already won an Academy Award as directed by Jessica Yu. That work featured the real O’Brien and focused on his struggles living as a writer in Berkeley, California while coping with his disability and spending a large portion of his life in an iron lung. “The Sessions” features a scene with Hawkes alone in his apartment in the iron lung during a power outage. It brings home for you the vulnerability of this man as he realizes he will die in a few hours if he can’t manage to dial 911 with a pencil in his mouth and get some help. So, even if it takes the easy road sometimes, it’s a story worth telling. And if John Hawkes is ever given the crown of “Greatest Actor”, this is one more solid notch on his ledger. Grade: B+