High Praise for John Hawkes and Helen Hunt in The Sessions

Lisa Schwartzbaum at Entertainment Weekly gives the film a B+ and writes about John Hawkes:

But The Sessions is first and foremost about Hawkes’ virtuoso performance, one of those My Left Foot-y transformations that make audiences verklemmt and generate awards talk. And second, it’s about the elegant matter-of-factness with which the 49-year-old Hunt bares herself, body and actorly soul, for the job. (Because it must be said: wowza.) In an extraordinary approximation of the real O’Brien, Hawkes continues to burnish his reputation as one of those rare artists who know how to disappear into a role with a modesty that cloaks the complexity of the work. And in the lovely choreography between Hawkes and Hunt, as natural-looking as it is unusual, The Sessions becomes a dance of joy in the midst of severe challenge, and a movie with a light spirit that lifts a tale of heavy fate.

Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers gives it three and a half stars:

And Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, Deadwood) does the kind of acting that awards were invented for. Having learned to twist his body, use a mouth stick to dial a phone and type, and suggest the sheer effort it took for O’Brien to simply breathe, Hawkes and his technical virtuosity are astounding. But it’s how Hawkes uses his voice and expressive eyes to reveal the inner Mark that makes his performance a triumph.

Steven Holden at the New York Times says, “At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I would like to nominate John Hawkes and Helen Hunt in The Sessions as the movie couple of the year.”

Their extraordinary connection while re-enacting the true story of a disabled, virginal 38-year-old writer and his sexual surrogate infuses the movie, written and directed by Ben Lewin, with a piercing depth of humanity and no small amount of humor.

…From the moment Ms. Hunt appears, “The Sessions” becomes a different movie on a much higher plane. Cheryl has never worked with someone like Mark, who must remain on his back, his thin, fragile body painfully contorted. This married woman is exploring uncharted territory every bit as much as Mark, and the therapy is a dual journey in discovery. Inevitably, she makes mistakes.

…Mr. Hawkes is entirely convincing in his portrayal of a man who is by turns vulnerable, wittily self-lacerating, charming and erudite. You can feel how increasingly difficult it is for both partners to follow the rules once they have reached a certain level of intimacy.

At the Los Angeles Times, Betsy Sharkey writes, “The shocker about The Sessions, starring Helen Hunt and John Hawkes, is not the full-frontal nudity, or its provocative story of a sex surrogate who helps a 38-year-old in an iron lung lose his virginity. It’s not even the priest’s blessing allowing the out-of-wedlock sex acts.

Rather, it’s the humanistic way in which “The Sessions” deals with what sex at its best can be — emotional, spiritual, physical, pleasurable, soul-satisfying, life-affirming. In a country that embraces cinematic violence with such ease but blushingly prefers to keep sex in the shadows or under the sheets, the grown-up approach of “The Sessions” is rare.

…In “The Sessions,” O’Brien’s disability and desires are fully exposed. Hawkes’ body, twisted and still, his voice squeezed by the weak muscles, mirror, don’t mimic, O’Brien’s difficult reality. Because his character’s wry cynicism keeps things light, it makes for a memorable change from the darker roles — “Winter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” most notably — that had come to define the actor.

…The challenge for Hunt is to channel Cheryl’s pragmatism about what is going to happen. Somehow she makes it possible to relax and just go with the story. Her performance is a brave one. Hunt truly does turn herself and her body into an instrument for healing. It is the best work the actress has done since her Oscar turn in 1997’s “As Good as It Gets.”

27 Comments on this Post

  1. houstonrufus

    Sounds like it is going to be one of those years when it’s painful, no matter who ends up winning the major awards.

  2. Who will win, is one thing, but who will be left off come Nominations Morning ? We already have 5 official, remarkably strong contenders, several of them in potential BP/BD frontrunners/nominees (Daniel Day-Lewis, Joaquin Phoenix, Bradley Cooper, Denzel Washington, John Hawkes) AND a quartet of unseen players (Hugh Jackman, Anthony Hopkins, Jamie Foxx, Matt Damon), any of whom could have the potential to just make a last-minute splash and finish first in the end, not to mention apparently Argo was a huge hit at the Academy screening last weekend, so if they REALLY loved it, even Ben Affleck could sneak in ‘M$B’-style. 10 potential frontrunners already, most of them in films with viable bp/bd chances.

    Considering the massive competition, it’s probably down to those 10, and if that’s the case
    – as baity as the role is, as well-received as the performance is and as beloved as HE is, Bill Murray won’t even come close to the top5 with ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’
    – they love Brad Pitt, but it is a genre performance and Weinstein already has 2+1 viable contenders in the Best Actor race
    Richard Gere‘s work will go unnoticed by the Academy…AGAIN
    Tommy Lee-Jones will get his nomination for ‘Lincoln’ in supporting instead of for ‘Hope Springs’ in lead
    Jean-Louis Trintignant will be probably overshadowed by Emmanuelle Riva

    The one contender I could see emerging out of nowhere, is Joel Edgerton (Zero Dark Thirty).

  3. F*ck DDL – and I love DDL – but this is Phoenix’s real competition for Best Actor. Don’t get me wrong, DDL will get his high praise and nomination, but this race is between Phoenix and Hawkes. Unless of course Jackman knocks it out of the park for LEZ MIS and the Academy wants to honor an actor in a musical for a change.

    That being said I am still going with Phoenix vs. Hawkes in the end.

    I also wouldn’t underestimate a Supporting Actor nomination for William H. Macy who has also been getting glowing reviews along with Hunt and Hawkes.

  4. Jon

    Agreed on Macy, but I think that even though Phoenix SHOULD probably win, his anti-Oscar statement might just have destroyed his chances even at the nomination…ESPECIALLY if PSH goes lead…ESPECIALLY because there are already 5+3 (DDL, Phoenix, Hawkes, Washington, Cooper + Jackman, Hopkins, Foxx) contenders for 5 slots.

    Sure, we could say that Bradley Cooper is out of his league here, but then again, he is the lead of the at-the-moment BP-frontrunner which is also a Weinstein-crowdpleaser and those WON Best Actor in the last two years, even when the contender was a complete unknown (Dujardin)…and Cooper is a movie star.

    We might consider the option that Les Miserables AND Hitchcock AND Django Unchained disappoint, but at this point, that’s highly unlikely, and even if they do, the individual work of Jackman/Hopkins/Foxx could still pique the Academy’s interest.

    Denzel Washington has to face the fact, that his film might be the least ‘Oscary’ in the Best Actor race, and John Hawkes’s will be the least high-profile. BUT both are very popular, former’s film is bound to become a BO-hit, and latter’s is bound to become a critical darling and arthouse hit.

    Then there is the phenomenal Joaquin Phoenix in a controversial film and already saying he doesn’t want any part of the Awards Season…

    So based on all this, who will be left off in the end?

  5. Very good analysis Phantom, but I still think Hawkes-DDL-Phoenix (even with his comments) are as close to locks as it gets. While Hawkes is the least known of the three, he is still a past nominee, respected – not to mention a helluva an actor – and I think will be rewarded for this role (which also is not a surprise, he has been discussed since January). In my opinion it really is a question of the last two spots which will fall to Cooper, Jackman, Washington, or someone else I am leaving out.

    Does Helen Hunt have a shot at winning supporting actress? If Hathaway is disappointing in Les Mis, is it between Hunt and Amy Adams?

  6. I think Hunt should campaign lead for this. It feels like a lead part. We see her character Cheryl outside of her arc with Mark.

    Conversely, I think Jen Lawrence should campaign supporting. Her character’s arc is for the most part involved with Bradley Cooper’s Pat.

    Alas, their campaigns are flipped.

    Re: Macy. If Arkin is getting a nod for crowdpleaser Argo and DeNiro is getting a nod for crowdpleaser Silver Linings, then William H Macy should be in the same boat for crowdpleaser The Sessions. With Seymour Hoffman and Lee Jones, the category is complete. Except we haven’t seen DiCaprio and Crowe yet. And Henry and McConaughey may just be snubbed.

  7. Unlikely hood

    I liked the first time I saw Helen Hunt play this role, when it was called The Waterdance

  8. alan of montreal

    I saw the film last night. John Hawkes is amazing–he certainly is a chameleon of an actor, and is the epitome of “character acting.” I agree with the reviewer who said it was a brave performance for Helen Hunt–to be naked in the way she is naked takes a lot of commitment, and if she had any doubts about it, it didn’t show at all. The only negative thing I would say is about her character and not her–I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that the way she’s written at the end of the 2nd act makes me think it was more what O’Brien believed rather than how she actually felt. I agree with Joseph, though, that Hunt should campaign for lead. Given the amount of screen time she’s given and her importance to the narrative, coupled with the weak showing in the category thus far, I think she would definitely have a good shot at a nod there. I didn’t find that Macy did all that much in the film other than acting as a moral sounding board for O’Brien. Who did surprise me in the film is Moon Goodblood. She isn’t required to emote much at all in the film, but she still managed to convey much intelligence and sympathy through her line delivery and subtle changes in facial expression. I’d like to see her given more challenging roles and see what she does with them.

  9. Jon

    In my opinion, it is unlikely they would give Helen Hunt a second Oscar, but at this point in her career, a second NOMINATION would be fantastic for her already. I think the SUPPORTING ACTRESS race looks something like this at the moment :

    POTENTIAL FRONTRUNNERS
    1. ANNE HATHAWAY (LES MISERABLES) – Early frontrunner.
    2. AMY ADAMS (THE MASTER) – Brilliant but overshadowed ?
    3. SALLY FIELD (LINCOLN) – Oscar legend directed by Spielberg.
    4. HELEN HUNT (THE SESSIONS) – Small film and category fraud ?
    5. JACKIE WEAVER (SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK) – Great role, great actress.
    6. KERRY WASHINGTON (DJANGO UNCHAINED) – Paid her dues.
    7. SCARLETT JOHANSSON (HITCHCOCK) – Ditto.
    8. JESSICA CHASTAIN (ZERO DARK THIRTY) – I think she’ll go lead.
    9. SAMANTHA BARKS (LES MISERABLES) – Internal competition
    10. AMANDA SEYFRIED (LES MISERABLES) – Ditto.

    WILD CARDS
    11. KELLY REILLY (FLIGHT) – All about Denzel ?
    12. PAULINE COLLINS (QUARTET) – Wonderful scenestealer with little buzz.
    13. REBEL WILSON (PITCH PERFECT) – Ditto.
    14. JUDI DENCH (SKYFALL) – Her role is bigger AND directed by Mendes.
    15. ROSEMARY DEWITT (PROMISED LAND) – Not much info on her role.

    FADING BUZZ
    16. MAGGIE SMITH (THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL) – Popular AND relevant.
    17. HELENA BONHAM CARTER (GREAT EXPECTATIONS) – Mediocre/divisive film ?
    18. ALICIA VIKANDER (ANNA KARENINA) – Ditto.
    19. NICOLE KIDMAN (THE PAPERBOY) – Ditto.
    20. WINONA RYDER (THE ICEMAN) – All about Shannon ?

  10. Can someone just give Kerry Washington an Oscar nomination already?

  11. As much as it’s fun to predict different possibilities, if there is one thing for certain this year, it’s ANNE HATHAWAY HAS IT IN THE BAG. No I have not seen it, but I don’t have to: the writing it on the wall. Beloved musical, singing live, physical sacrifice (hair, weight), she just got married in real life. If the trailer is any indication, the movie will be average at worst. She just donated the proceeds from her wedding photos to the Marriage Equality campaign. She’ll be singing Sally Bowles for a night next week. Who knows if a pregnancy announcement is around the corner …

    The girl is playing her hand and she’s playing to win. She is making it very subtle, but clear: It’s her turn. I don’t believe Amy Adams has a say in the matter. (But, her Oscar prospects edged up a smidgen today when news of the Janis Joplin biopic made another blip on the internets again after a long drought).

    And, Helen Hunt? To quote Heathers during one of the croquet scenes, “No way no day … give it up girl.”

    As we all know, Heather Duke made the miracle shot, but Heather Chandler ended up getting the upper hand (in that scene).

    “Why?” pleaded Heather Duke.

    “Why not?” sneered Heather Chandler.

  12. Houstonrufus

    “She just donated the proceeds from her wedding photos to the Marriage Equality campaign. She’ll be singing Sally Bowles for a night next week. Who knows if a pregnancy announcement is around the corner …

    The girl is playing her hand and she’s playing to win. She is making it very subtle, but clear: It’s her turn.”

    You’re suggesting Hathaway is orchestrating all these decisions for a play at oscar? Maybe I’m naive, but this seems a bit of a reach. I agree she’s a favorite at least for a nomination. But to suggest she might be planning a pregnancy around an oscar campaign doesn’t really strike me as subtle.

  13. Phantom:
    Supp Actress predictions: why Weaver? No buzz, few mentions on reviews. Don’t believe Maggie Smith is fading–just won her third Emmy, “Marigold” just hit DVD shelves, “Quartet” to come (Globe nod likely for Comedy Actress), and season 3 of “Downton” is on air now in England for British block of Oscar voters and coming across the pond soon to be seen by U.S. Academy members around nomination time. Mark her down as a solid #5!

  14. Houston Rufus,
    If one thinks suggesting the aforementioned events as Oscar strategy is a reach, then why would that same person believe a pregnancy as overt?

  15. alan of montreal

    I wouldn’t necessarily say that Hathaway has it in the bag. I think as far as Les Miz goes, it will depend on how Samantha Barks does in her role. Fantine is a tragic figure, certainly, but at least on stage, it’s Eponine you remember.

    I’m also wondering about Stoker. Judging from the trailer, it looks like a great showcase for Nicole Kidman, whose cosmetic surgery for once actually helps her. She seems to be returning to the malevolence she conveyed to great effect in To Die For, except without the irony. I’m not sure if her role is lead or supporting, but either way if that tone in her performance that we see in the trailer is sustained throughout the whole film, then we could be looking at a very strong challenger in either category. As for Mia Wasikowska, I found it difficult to get a clear read on the quality of her performance. She seems like a more dour, gothy version of Teresa Wright’s character in Shadow of a Doubt.

  16. Totally agree with @alan of montreal – nobody has anything in any bag as yet, especially this year.

    Hawkes has a good shot, especially if he can nab a critics’ award or two, which will be difficult given the competition. Great character actor, major role for him, and well-deserving, so I hope he can make it in with the hi-glam boys DDL/Phoenix/Jackman/whoever will be #5

    Hunt? Sounds like a lead to me, so I hope there’s no category manipulation. It could actually be tougher to make it into Supporting than Lead this year, anyway.

  17. rufussondheim

    Even though she has no dialogue in the trailer, it’s clear the plotline in Zero Dark Thirty revolves around Jessican Chastain. At this point I find it hard to imagine she won’t go lead, especially since there’s not a ton of competition this year.

    And considering her great buzz from last year, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she won especially since the film looks boffo good.

  18. McGregor

    How the hell are they gonna pick 5 guys for Best Actor?! Anyway you look at it, someone big is being left out!

    John Hawkes
    Daniel Day Lewis
    Hugh Jackman
    Joaquin Phoenix
    Denzel Washington
    Ben Affleck
    Richard Gere
    Anthony Hopkins
    Bradley Cooper

    I think it’ll be the first five, but you can’t say that if the Academy likes SLP that they won’t push for Cooper. Plus Hopkins has a lot of internal love. And Richard Gere has the overdue factor.

    A lot of possibilities…

  19. alan of montreal

    I wonder what this year’s come-out-of-nowhere Oscar contender will be? There’s always at least one (good or bad).

  20. Stoker comes out in 2013

  21. I finally got to check The Sessions out earlier this week, and had been hoping I’d be able to define for myself whether Helen Hunt really ought to go Lead or Supporting.

    I don’t think these count as SPOILERS, but if you literally don’t want to know anything about the film before seeing it… why are you reading this in the first place?

    The verdict? Hers is the definition of a true borderline case. On the one (Supporting) hand, she enters the film later than the main lead (Hawkes) and leaves it earlier than he does. She also does not have a COMPLETE arc of her own. On the other (Lead) hand, we do get to follow her home and see some character development outside of her time with Hawkes. Plus, her character is absolutely integral to the story — without her, there are no titular “Sessions”. A legitimate case could be made for either categorization, so if Hunt’s camp sticks with Supporting then I think she’s in.

  22. houstonrufus

    Vince, that is sort of my point. None of the dots you’re connecting strike me as subtle if one believes they are calculated to win an oscar. None of those events strike me as connected to oscar at all, overt, subtle or in between, at least in terms of Hathaway’s intention. Granted, I’m not privy to her intentions, but neither are you.

    I’m not saying those things don’t matter. But I’m not buying the image of Hathaway you present. Believe it or not, I actually suspect oscar watchers and awards obsessives (myself included) spend a great deal more time thinking about actors winning oscars than most of the actors do.

  23. I saw Sessions at TIFF and it was phenomenal! If John Hawkes does not get an Oscar nomination for this, I would call bullshit… yet again! Helen Hunt was fantastic too, and her body is gorgeous! This was a very, very role for her… she came out of nowhere to do this and I was stunned. The TIFF audience gave this film a standing ovation afterwards. People go on and on about the brilliant DDL, but, this is either Joaquin’s award, or John’s… dammit.

  24. unlikely hood

    McGregor we’re way past that. Your Top 5 is locked. Hopkins is doing something weird with the makeup/voice, and the role isn’t as baity as it looks – no pathos, no arc. Cooper and Affleck will get the same fate as a lot of other great-looking young lead males (you know, like DiCaprio and Damon most years, and like the one who has YOUR last name) – no nom. Gere has actually suffered the same fate since Looking For Mr. Goodbar and American Gigolo – he’s a pioneer of that syndrome, really.

    At this point it’s all about who’s gonna win. But I only just learned that The Sessions is a true story! Directed by a polio survivor. Uh oh, MAJOR Oscar narrative here. I smell quite enough to ride to a BP nomination. Which Hawkes will need to have any chance of winning the statue.

  25. Houstonrufus

    unlikely hood, I agree on Hopkins. This is based on nothing, obviously, but I’m just not buying him as Hitch and I’m having a hard time seeing him get nominated, especially considering the competition.

  26. unlikely hood

    Roger that rufus. I’m basing it on nothing more than the trailer either, but it feels like he was cast more on persona – chunky Brit moves to America in middle-age, becomes beloved, shows young Yanks what for – than ability to really pull off the role. I hope I’m wrong. Anyhoo, maybe he sneaks into the Golden Globe nominations, but that’s partly because Jackman will be in the other category.

  27. McGregor

    Yeah, I am starting to feel that way. I just sometimes feel like the Academy will pull the rug out from under, like in the case of Damien Belchir last year. The one I really feel could surprise is Bradley Cooper – if the Academy really buys into SLP.

    But you’re right, the top 5 feel very set in stone.

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