It was probably the departed HBO series Deadwood that garnered him the first steady attention of his career, but John Hawkes has been in show business since the mid-'80s, mostly with one-off TV appearances and the kind of indie films that make other indie films look like blockbusters. Out of nowhere, his impressive work in Winter's Bone garnered Hawkes an Oscar nomination, and he gained more steam playing another creepy villain in last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene.
And now there is The Sessions, which showcases for anyone relatively new to the John Hawkes party—which would be the vast majority of us—an entirely different tool kit. Put simply, this guy is an actor's actor, and it's a genuine pleasure to watch him work.
Hawkes portrays Mark O'Brien, a poet who can't get laid. There is more to it than that, of course, but sexual frustration is the character's existential dilemma. In reality, the actual Mark O'Brien suffered from polio as a child and had to spend most of his time in an iron lung. He got an English degree at the University of California at Berkeley, and freelanced the occasional odd writing job. But at age 38, Mark confides in his priest (William H. Macy) that he's reached his "use-by date," and is considering hiring a sex therapist.
This poses problems on multiple fronts. There is the moral consequence (for a Catholic, at least) of pre-marital sex and hiring a sex worker ... so long as you don't reach all the way back to the Old Testament, where prostitution was more of a gray area. That vexes the priest. There are also Mark's physical limitations: He's confined to a gurney and only able to move his head.
Mark's polio is, if not exactly played for laughs, the subject of some of the film's consistent levity. Mark wants to be normal in every way he can, and neither he nor the film uses his disability to wring extra sympathy out of the audience. He's come to terms with the person he is and what he has to offer, and after a few minutes, viewers do, too.
It's always a delicate balance in these situations, but writer-director Ben Lewin—who based his screenplay on Mark O'Brien's own article on this subject—never presents Mark as a doomed character or one defined by his polio. Perhaps that's because Lewin is himself a polio survivor, and has achieved a 35-year career behind the camera in spite of it; he knows firsthand that contracting a disease doesn't make someone a permanent victim.
Mark's quest leads him to Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate who will work with him, not just to have sex, but to find emotional and physical comfort through it, which she believes will give him more self-esteem. The handful of sex scenes go from hilariously brief to more delicate and heartfelt. They're also not shy scenes, if you catch the drift. And they need to show as much as possible, less because of Mark's sexual naïveté and more because of his issues with intimacy, which are different animals.
Because Lewin doesn't see Mark O'Brien as a protected species, The Sessions is allowed to be as funny and absurd as any other movie about virginity. That really is what's on the table here; it's just not viewed through the eyes of a pimply high school kid or Steve Carell. But the ups and downs are remarkably similar, even if The Sessions has a more mature way of processing them.
You can find a documentary online called Breathing Lessons. It was produced in 1996 and won an Oscar; it details Mark O'Brien's life and work. It is probably best to see The Sessions first and then compare, if you wish, the performance by Hawkes with the real thing. Hawkes' portrayal is remarkable on its own, but seeing it side by side with the actual Mark O'Brien not only instructs you about how close he came to the target—but how difficult of a target that was to hit.
Although Mark (who died in 1999) couldn't move his limbs, he wasn't just lying comfortably; in fact, his spine was wildly contorted. That meant John Hawkes couldn't rest comfortably, either. He and the props department developed a device to push his spine in one direction during scenes, and the actor now reports that he may have unwittingly migrated organs during the process, pushing things where they're not meant to be. Hawkes has said during the press rounds for the film that he may carry some pain with him for the rest of his life. And once you see The Sessions, it's likely that you'll carry some of that with you for a while yourself.