Friday, December 14, 2012

"The Sessions": Ben and Judi Put On a Show

“Tis the season when movie award nominations are coming thick and fast. If you live in L.A., you’re bombarded on a daily basis by ads that tout various films “for your consideration.” In a cozy bungalow on the edge of the Pacific, Ben Lewin and Judi Levine are living out an indie filmmaker’s dream. Their labor of love, The Sessions, is on everyone’s radar, thanks to award-caliber performances by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. Both actors have been nominated for SAG and Indie Spirit awards, and now Golden Globes. And the L.A. Times is even mentioning Ben as a possible contender for a screenwriting Oscar.

Not bad for an Australian couple who shot their last feature in their native country in 1994. After almost two decades in California (where in order to support their three children he dealt in antique watches and she worked on catalogues of vintage motorcars), they are suddenly poised to be The Next Big Thing. To which Ben quips, “I’d like to think of myself as the next hot young thing, if no one has any objection.”

Ben’s coup was finding an essay by Mark O’Brien, a brilliant but severely disabled writer, detailing how he set out to lose his virginity at age 38 with the help of a sex surrogate. Because of the essay’s sad ending -- though Mark had been thrilled by his first sexual experience, he held out little hope for a long-term relationship with a woman of his own –- Judi had her doubts. But Ben’s research yielded up wonderful news. Toward the end of his short life, Mark had formed an intimate connection with the woman of his dreams. This woman, Susan Fernbach, became a strong booster of the film, as did the actual surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene. Their help was invaluable, and so were the financial contributions from family and friends. It’s clear this movie was a true Mickey and Judy affair. Using every resource at their disposal, the Lewins were doing “Let’s put on a show!” for real.

Ben’s script, strong enough to attract big-name Hollywood actors, gives cinematic life to both Mark and Cheryl. For me it was Cheryl’s positive but businesslike approach to the mechanics of sex that was the true revelation. Helen Hunt prepared for her role by meeting with the real Cheryl Cohen Greene. By gaining insight into Cheryl’s comfort with her own body, Hunt was able to accept the script’s demands for considerable full-frontal nudity. I asked Ben what he had to do, as a director, to free his Oscar-winning star to bare all on camera. First, he says, she needed to decide he wasn’t a creep. Hunt clearly found reassurance in the fact that Judi dropped Ben off at their initial meeting, after which their eleven-year-old daughter burst into the room to discuss surfing.

That precocious eleven-year-old, Phoebe, appears in the film’s brief memory sequence, shot guerrilla-style on a California beach. Even though Phoebe’s now almost thirteen, her parents were not eager for her to see The Sessions. But when it won the Audience Award at Sundance they finally relented. Judi, parent as well as producer, notes that today’s kids are surrounded by offensive media messages about body image and casual sex. For Judi, it’s much more urgent to monitor her daughter’s TV viewing than a film about “having an intimate and respectful relationship with somebody else, regardless of whatever the circumstances are.” She notes that in this regard the Swedes are well ahead of us. In Sweden The Sessions has been rated G, suitable for children twelve and over.

For Southern Californians: the American Cinematheque will host Ben Lewin and Judi Levine at a screening of The Sessions, scheduled for Tuesday, December 18 at 7:30 p.m. The place is the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90403.


  1. I wish I could be there to see it! The movie sounds terrific - and it's nice to read some good news on this sad day.

    I worked with John Hawkes on a failed TV pilot back in the late 90's - he was a very nice guy and I'm thrilled to see him becoming so well known for so many interesting projects.

    I hope the movie brings all involved great opportunities and much success!

  2. I hope so too, Mr. Craig. Glad to hear that John Hawkes is a nice guy. He is certainly likable as Mark O'Brien, quite a far cry from his role in "Winter's Bone." I enjoyed a quote in today's USA Today interview with Helen Hunt about her relationship with Hawkes: "We didn't know each other" before filming," says Hunt. "We barely know each other now. I think we had instant mutual trust and respect.... We talked very little about it, we planned very little. It was scary and it was supposed to be scary. It was intimate and it was supposed to be intimate. We were strangers and we were supposed to be strangers."

  3. I see how researching this movie brought up questions about female vs male nudity. I'd like to see it!