By Karen D'Souza
SAN FRANCISCO -- The late Mark O'Brien never had much in the way of muscle. In fact, he only had three working muscles in his body, one in his right foot, one in his neck and one in his jaw.
But O'Brien had far more backbone than most people. Stricken with polio as a boy, he would overcome paralysis and living in an iron lung to earn a graduate degree from UC Berkeley and become a celebrated writer and poet. So inspiring was the Berkeley's man story that it became the focus of Jessica Yu's 1996 documentary "Breathing Lessons," which won an Academy Award.
Now, another revelatory aspect of his life, his determination at the age of 38 not to die a virgin, has become the subject of "The Sessions," a new film directed by Ben Lewin. Opening Friday in San Francisco and elsewhere in the Bay Area on Nov. 2, this Oscar contender stars John Hawkes as O'Brien and Helen Hunt as Cheryl Cohen Greene, the Berkeley sex therapist who helped him fulfill his dream. The narrative has been adapted largely from O'Brien's article "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," published in 1990 in the literary magazine The Sun.
Greene, a grandma and a cancer survivor who is still practicing her profession at 68, says that working with O'Brien changed her life: "Mark was the bravest soul I have ever known."
"I feel like Mark and I were soulmates in a sense," says writer-director Lewin, 65, also a polio survivor. "I didn't want to make
Hunt, an Oscar winner for "As Good As It Gets," says the goal was to portray O'Brien's journey without indulging in sentiment or cliche. "When you are trying to capture a real person's story, you do feel a lot of pressure to get it right," says the actress. "We wanted to respect his memory."
Felled by polio at the age of 6, O'Brien was immobilized from the neck down, but he was nevertheless always on the go. He checked himself out of a nursing home to go to college.
"The two mythologies about disabled people break down to: one, we can't do anything; or two, we can do everything," he says in the documentary. "But the truth is, we're just human."
O'Brien enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1978, shuttling back and forth between campus and the iron lung that was his lifeline. He earned a bachelor's degree in English and repeatedly applied to the Graduate School of Journalism until he was admitted. He and his electric gurney soon became familiar sights on Berkeley streets. He also co-founded the Lemonade Factory, a small press that publishes the poetry of those with disabilities.
Although he was only 4-foot-7 and weighed just 60 pounds, O'Brien had a big personality. In addition to writing, he was also avid about Shakespeare, baseball and religion (he was Roman Catholic). Jaw-dropping honesty and a caustic wit were his signature qualities.
"One thing that Mark and I share is a twisted sense of humor about life," notes Lewin, who uses crutches to make his way slowly across a room during an interview. "If there is a God, he must have a wicked sense of humor."
O'Brien certainly had a way with words. In his late 30s, when he became desperate to lose his virginity before his body gave out, he placed this ad on his homepage: "I am looking for an intelligent, literate woman for companionship and, perhaps, sexual play. I am, as you see, completely paralyzed, so there will be no walks on the beach."
Of course meeting someone is no small feat if you spend most of your day trapped inside a steel tube. O'Brien worried he would never fall in love.
"I was angry at all women for not falling in love with me," he said in the documentary.
Meeting sex therapist Cheryl Cohen Greene changed all that. She had six sessions with him in which they explored his physical potential for intimacy. As in the film, she used a mirror to show him what he looked like naked. The experience opened his eyes, and his heart.
As he wrote in the Sun article, "I was surprised I looked so normal, that I wasn't the horribly twisted and cadaverous figure I had always imagined myself to be."
Greene admits that her first encounter with O'Brien was terrifying: "It was scary. He was very fragile. When I took off his shirt, he screamed because it hurt so much."
In the movie, the therapy sessions are rendered with great nakedness, both emotional and physical. For O'Brien, sexual activity was the holy grail of being alive. Before these sessions, he had only ever been touched by doctors, nurses and attendants.
"He told me he felt like he was on the outside looking in at a banquet but he knew he would never be able to taste that food," says Greene, her voice thick with emotion. "As soon as I met him, I vowed that he would have a chance to taste the feast."
Greene and O'Brien remained friends long after their sessions were over. They spent his last birthday together, sharing laughs over lobster and chocolate decadence cake.
"I fell into serious like with him," she recalls. "The day that I kissed him on the chest, something that had never happened to him before, he cried and so did I."
For his part, when it came to his review of the act itself, O'Brien was as candid as ever.
"It wasn't as great as I thought it would be," he said in "Breathing Lessons," "but being naked with a woman who was being extremely friendly was the most fun I'd ever had."
For Hawkes ("Winter's Bone," "Deadwood"), the challenge was acting with his face alone.
"I had to get beyond the body to be able to get into his mind and his soul," says the actor. "It's been a great gift to discover him, his voice."
For the record, O'Brien eventually found romance with a woman named Susan. In the movie, he is so tickled when he first meets her that he gushes: "You know, I'm not a virgin."
Lewin's only regret is that he never got to meet O'Brien, who died in 1999 at the age of 49. Greene, who turns to the heavens and talks to O'Brien on occasion, has no doubts that he would approve of the picture: "Mark would be thrilled."
Opens: Friday in San Francisco; elsewhere on Nov. 2
Rating: R (strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue)
Cast: Helen Hunt, John Hawkes and William H. Macy
Director: Ben Lewin
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes