Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Will John Hawkes Keep the Academy's Love of Disabilities in the Best Actor Race?

John Hawkes
This Friday sees the release of the Sundance breakout hit, director Ben Lewin's The Sessions. Starring John Hawkes as a man in an iron lung, the story follows his journey on a quest to lose his virginity at 36. With the help of a sex therapist (Helen Hunt), the movie sounds like a farce of sorts. With Hawkes acting predominantly with his head attached to a stretcher, is it possible for this film to get some traction at the Oscars, or will it just be a sympathy grab for the disabled protagonist?

One of the biggest draws to this story is John Hawkes, who has quickly risen to one of the most acclaimed actors of the past few years.With Winter's Bone, he and Jennifer Lawrence walked away with acting nominations and a lot of projects that furthered them into the pantheon. For Hawkes, he continued with the eerie Martha Marcy May Marlene and occasional turns on Eastbound & Down. He played creepy very well. Nobody could deny his talent for capturing the audience's attention.

This is why it isn't surprising that The Sessions has gotten some attraction. In the limited time between Winter's Bone and now, he has established himself as creepy. In The Sessions, he flips everything by playing a role that doesn't work on paper. He plays a man attached to an iron lung, limited body movement, and it revolves heavily around sex. While it can show the more vulnerable side of Hawkes, it does still seem that the limitations would either play in favor or against the film, depending on how Hawkes played the role.

Despite the skepticism, it has walked away as a Sundance hit, garnering Oscar buzz, and promising to challenge Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln (which Hawkes also co-stars in) and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. That is some heavy caliber material, but if the first half of this trailer doesn't sell you, watch the last half:

The trouble with this trailer for me is the same problem that people had with Silver Linings Playbook. Along with overbearing music, it just looks too sappy. While we get an idea of the Hawkes/Hunt relationship, it still feels like it is playing off of familiar insecure teen comedy tropes in a more adult situation. However, I am more skeptical because the end of the trailer features numerous critical praises of the film. While it isn't always reflective of the film, I always take it as a way of selling a product that doesn't look that great.

The question that should be taken from this is: can The Sessions play well at the Oscars this year? While it seems to be labeled as a drama, the reviews at the end of the trailer imply there is a comedic element. As proven by 50/50, comedies don't do well in the Best Picture race. Labeling this as a drama will probably be the safest way to guarantee the Academy will give it attention. It also shares some themes with Silver Linings Playbook in that it features dysfunctional characters solving their problems in unique ways.

I doubt that this film will be overly sexual. In fact, I am sure that it will be more about the insecurities of a man who has been paralyzed for most of his life. It is also inspired by a true story, which gives it some leeway. However, the biggest chance that The Sessions has at nominations is in John Hawkes, who already has one nomination under his belt. At least, it could show a man with range to be able to play menacing in Winter's Bone and vulnerable in The Sessions. This angle could play well with the Academy, as range tends to be a pleasing factor.

However, does disabilities play well? For the most part, yes. It is the Academy's secret weakness. In fact, Daniel Day Lewis won his first Best Acting nomination for My Left Foot in which he could only move with one appendage. The other winners include an autistic Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, slow witted Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, a mentally broken down Geoffrey Rush in Shine,  the questionably mental Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and most recently the verbally impaired Colin Firth in The King's Speech. Nominees also include TV obsessed Peter Sellers in Being There, retarded Sean Penn in I Am Sam, schizophrenic Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, and hallucinogenic Robin Williams in The Fisher King. Along with wins Best Picture for A Beautiful Mind and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the Academy loves deranged characters, whether mentally or physically. It has even got to the point where Robert Downey Jr. parodied this scenario in Tropic Thunder by telling Ben Stiller that in order to win, you never go full retard.

With that established, chances of John Hawkes, provided that he is credible, can walk away with at very least a nomination. While some cannot act with their entire body, the trailer shows promise of an entire endearing performance done with a mere talking head. The performance therefore could be more taxing and reliant on speech patterns and emoting. If Hawkes is half as good as he was in Winter's Bone, then there is a good chance that he is a shoe-in. However, is he capable of beating Phoenix or Lewis? That still needs to be discovered.

Helen Hunt
The bigger question is can the movie get anything more than John Hawkes a nomination? Since the Best Picture category is now open 5-10 slots, it stands a good shot simply because of the Academy's soft spot for disabilities. The story just needs to hit the right level of emotion, drama, and humor to get a spot. Will it win? Chances are most likely no, as the big contenders this year are Argo, The Master, Les Miserables, and even Silver Linings Playbook have been getting all of the thunder. It would take a lot for a small film that is reliant on one performance to take down all of these figures. With that established, I don't think that Ben Lewin can get a Best Director nomination, either.

However, I am sure that it stands a chance to get a Best Original Screenplay nomination. While it may seem obvious that a character can't move, that just means that the action and dialogue need to be tighter. While Hawkes can sell the film, he needs to have a script to carry him through. It isn't too unreasonable, as this can reflect the Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for My Left Foot, which this movie's odds closely resembles (though Hawkes is not quite as established yet as Lewis). 

It can also be a chance for Helen Hunt to get a Best Supporting Actress nomination. While she may end up being too flat, the field is still unsure and anything goes. After all, Brenda Fricker won Best Supporting Actress for My Left Foot, which wasn't an easy role either. While Hunt may not be as lengthy or emotional as Fricker, she does have enough credibility to get nomination. It has been awhile since she won Best Supporting Actress for As Good As it Gets, and has been in a notable role in general. This could be hyped as one of those comeback stories that I doubt will win, but show a legendary star finally returning to challenging roles. Same goes for William H. Macy, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Fargo. He seems to be mostly there to allow Hawkes to shine. It is doubtful that they will allow the supporting cast to have their big acting moments. 

I doubt that The Sessions will be the big winner, though it is still early enough for it to steal back some thunder. I am almost sure that John Hawkes will get nominated for sure, if just because of his portrayal of a disabled person. The Sessions will have a harder sell on getting the Best Picture nomination, and every other category even harder. It may end up being a crowd pleasing movie, but it still has to fight for positions against some pretty big names, including Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, who have already been believed to have guaranteed spots.

Do you believe that John Hawkes can take home a Best Actor statue? Is it possible for Ben Lewin to get a screenwriting nomination? What traction does this movie need to get to beat out Silver Linings Playbook for a slot at Best Picture? 

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