John Hawkes on Playing Mark O’Brien in ‘The Sessions

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

The Sessions” and John Hawkes’ performance in it as journalist and poet Mark O’Brien have earned some of the most rapturous praise of any movie in 2012. The film tells the story of how O’Brien, who was confined to an iron lung due to being stricken by polio as a child, hired sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity at the age of 38. Hawkes, who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in “Winter’s Bone,” has talked extensively about his concerns about taking on the role as well as the physical challenges he faced in playing O’Brien.

Hawkes’ biggest concern was whether or not it might be better for a disabled actor to play O’Brien instead of him. As a result, he’s still waiting for some sort of backlash to hit him. Ben Lewin, who directed “The Sessions” and is himself a Polio survivor, did take the time to find a disabled actor to play Mark, but he eventually became convinced Hawkes was the man for the job.

“Of course, that was my first question: Why not a disabled actor? They are a uniquely qualified group of people for this role, who are undervalued and underused,” Hawkes said. “I’ve had a lot of disabled actors come to me after screenings, and they told me to get over it.”

“It is the 800-pound gorilla in the room in a way,” Hawkes continued, “but it’s something that, Ben (Lewin) being a polio survivor himself, and the fact that he put the time in to look for disabled actors, he felt like, would it be politically correct to hire a slightly disabled actor to play a severely disabled actor? He ultimately just hadn’t found his guy. We met, and he felt like I could do it.”

Once cast, Hawkes became determined to mirror the physical condition O’Brien was stuck in for the majority of his life. To that extent, he and the props department created what was described as a “torture ball;” a soccer ball-sized foam pad that he tucked under the left side of his back to force his body to curve dramatically. In addition, he also used a mouth stick which was much like the one O’Brien used to turn the pages of a book or dial a telephone. It was this “torture ball,” however, which threatened to leave Hawkes with permanent physical damage to his body.

“Finding that position was difficult and did hurt. I’ve got a guy that I’ve been seeing for years, who is a combination massage therapist and chiropractor. I’d have 15 minutes with him, two or three times a week, or half an hour, if I was lucky. He told me that I wasn’t doing very good things to my body, but it was my choice. I’m not a martyr or masochist, but when the script says that your spine is horribly curved, you can’t just lie flat on your back and pretend,” Hawkes said.

But ultimately what makes Hawkes’ performance so good is that he doesn’t turn him into just another pity case. Filmmakers are typically expected to give us an emotionally manipulative experience when it comes to portraying physically disabled characters, making us feel sorry for them and of what they are unable to accomplish because of their limitations. Hawkes and Lewin, however, were determined not to go down this route.

“A character like that had every reason to wallow, but that’s just not interesting to watch on screen,” Hawkes said. “I’ve played a lot of underdogs and I like people who aren’t equipped to solve their problems but just keep trying anyway. There’s something really noble and interesting about watching someone keep banging their head against the wall.”

One of the other things which helped Hawkes was watching the documentary “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien” which won its director Jessica Yu the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1997.

“There was Mark’s body, and there was his voice,” Hawkes said, referring to the documentary. “And so, I didn’t invent a lot. I just tried to really take as much of the Mark that I saw and tried to make it my own, to embody him.”

The effect Hawkes’ performance has had on those who were very close to O’Brien has been profound. Just ask Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sex surrogate whom Hunt’s character is based on.

“The first time I heard John I got chills,” said Greene. “I’m sitting there on the set with headphones thinking, that’s Mark. It’s scaring me. John got him completely.”

John Hawkes’ performance as Mark O’Brien looks very likely to earn him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and many will agree that he deserves the recognition for his work. It marks another memorable role for this actor who first came to Hollywood over a decade ago, and he has many more great performances ahead of him.

SOURCES:

Jordan Zakarin, “John Hawkes: Hopeful, but Ready for Backlash and (Maybe) Permanent Back Pain,” The Hollywood Reporter, October 22, 2012.

Christina Radish, “John Hawkes Talks THE SESSIONS, Conveying His Performance Using Only His Face, Being Confined in an Iron Lung, and More,” Collider, October 16, 2012.

Rebecca Keegan, “John Hawkes enters virgin territory in ‘The Sessions,’” Los Angeles Times, October 11, 2012.

Oliver Gettell, “‘The Sessions’: John Hawkes and Helen Hunt on playing real people,” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 2012.

‘The Lincoln Lawyer’ – The Beginning of the McConaughey Renaissance

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2011, back when the McConaughey renaissance was just beginning. This almost marks the 1,000th post on The Ultimate Rabbit website!

Okay, now how many dramas and thrillers featuring a lawyer as the main character have we had these past few years? Heck, how many novels featuring lawyers have been thrust at us? After everything written by John Grisham and Scott Turow, you’d think the world would have had enough of legal thrillers whether or not they made it to the silver screen. It all reminds me of that joke we’ve all heard:

“What do you call a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!”

As a result, I was in no immediate hurry to check out the latest legal thriller adapted into a movie, “The Lincoln Lawyer.” This particular one is about a defense lawyer who has no scruples about what he does, but he ends up getting involved in a case which haunts his conscience like no other. Looking this plot line over, it sounds like “Primal Fear” all over again. How many times have we been down this road? Yes, I agree, far too many.

But alas, while “The Lincoln Lawyer” breaks no new ground in the legal thriller genre, it does contain many clever twists up its sleeve which distinguishes it from others of its ilk. It is based on the novel of the same name by Michael Connelly who is best known for writing detective novels and crime fiction. One of his previous books, “Blood Work,” was turned into a movie by Clint Eastwood, and it is one of the very few Eastwood directed movies which really sucked. It turns out, however, that “The Lincoln Lawyer” was actually Connelly’s first legal novel, and it introduced the world to one of his most popular literary creations, Mickey Haller.

Mickey Haller is a criminal defense attorney who spends his time defending the kind of people we would all rather see behind bars. Instead of a regular office, he works out of his Lincoln Town Car which he gets driven around in by Earl (Laurence Mason), a former client of his who is working off legal fees he owes. He has an ex-wife, Margaret McPherson (Marisa Tomei), whom he is still on good terms with even though she works on the opposite side of the court as a prosecutor, and they have a daughter whom they both dote on, and you at times wonder why these two ever bothered to divorce. If James Carville and Mary Matlin can maintain a marriage, why can’t these two?

Anyway, Mickey ends up defending Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a Beverly Hills realtor who is accused of viciously assaulting a prostitute. The case, after some research, looks to be an open and shut deal for this ever so confident lawyer. However, more problems arise to where things are not what they appear to be.

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot. To say anymore would be to give away a good deal of what happens. What I will say is that it makes for a good story in how someone has to find a way to find justice without being forever disbarred from practicing law.

Much of the success of “The Lincoln Lawyer” belongs to the actor chosen to play Mickey, Matthew McConaughey. After seeing him in so many useless romantic comedies, he gets one of his best roles to date here. Believe me when I say he is perfectly cast in this role, and he nails Mickey’s sly confidence and cocky demeanor as he works his way through the courtroom to get what he wants and needs. Mickey is to an extent an amoral character, one who appears to care less about whether or not those he represents will commit crimes again after he gets them off. But McConaughey is so cool here that we find it impossible to hate Mickey, and we love his (if you’ll forgive the expression) “Rico Suave” ways which he utilizes around everyone he meets. Whether or not you agree with what he does, we all would love to have his coolness and persuasiveness when it comes to talking with and influencing others.

It also helps that McConaughey is surrounded by a great cast of actors who give him plenty to work with. Tomei remains as terrific and super sexy as ever in her portrayal of Margaret, and she shares strong chemistry with McConaughey throughout. We also get an entertaining turn from the always dependable William H. Macy as investigator Frank Levin, Haller’s right-hand man who succeeds in getting the facts whether he does it legally or illegally. We also get strong turns from John Leguizamo, Michael Peña, and Frances Fisher who all bring their best selves to this material.

But one performance I want to single out here is Ryan Phillippe’s. As a Beverly Hills playboy who has had everything handed to him on a silver platter throughout his life, Phillippe excels in convincing everyone around and the audience of Louis’ intentions. Still, there is that glimmer in Louis’ eyes which suggests not everything he says or implies is on the level. Phillippe has been better known these past few years as Mr. Reese Witherspoon, but however things went down in that relationship, he deserves to be noted for his acting here and in other movies he has been in. Watching him onscreen here is riveting because he always leaves you guessing as to what will happen next.

Directing “The Lincoln Lawyer” is Brad Furman, and the only movie he previously directed is “The Take.” I really liked how vividly he captured the urban environment of Los Angeles, and it never felt like he was filming on some ordinary Hollywood set. With a story like this, Furman could have easily gone in that direction, but he gives each scene a solid reality which doesn’t feel all that far from the one we inhabit. He also keeps the suspense up throughout and gives us some tension filled scenes which keep us at full attention as if someone is about to come from behind us and bash our brains in.

Like I said, “The Lincoln Lawyer” does not reinvent the legal thriller genre, but it reinvigorates the genre with a strong and enigmatic main character and a story with twists we haven’t seen in some time. In a way, this movie brings McConaughey around full circle as he made his big breakthrough in the film adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill.” Soon or later, this man who keeps telling us to just “keep on livin’” had to play another lawyer. I hope for his sake he gets to do a follow up to this one as he has this character down flat. Maybe others could have done it better, but who comes to mind as quickly as McConaughey?

* * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘State and Main’ – A Ralph Report Video Vault Selection

One of my favorite parts of “The Ralph Report” podcast has been the Video Vault segment in which Ralph Garman, Steve Ashton and Eddie Pence recommend movies to watch that people may not be particularly familiar with. One episode had the three recommending movies about filmmaking, and Ralph picked David Mamet’s comedy “State and Main.” While listening to him describe this film, it suddenly occurred to me I had rescued a DVD copy of it from a Blockbuster Video store which was about to close forever. It has stood proudly on my shelf for many years, but therein lies the problem; I never took the time to watch the movie, and it was written and directed by Mamet for crying out loud!

So, the question is this, do I put “State and Main” in the “Underseen Movies” category as it was not a huge hit upon its release in 2000, or do I instead put it the one I lovingly titled “No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now?” Come to think of it, maybe I should create a new category entitled “No Longer Gathering Dust on My Shelf” as there are many DVDs and Blu-rays I own which I promised myself to view one day, and yet they still remain unseen by me. So, what are my excuses regarding this? That was a rhetorical question.

Anyway, “State and Main” starts off with a Hollywood film crew invading the small New England town of Waterford, Vermont to make a movie called “The Old Mill.” We quickly learn this crew had been kicked out of New Hampshire as the movie’s star, Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin), has a penchant for underage girls, something many do not take kindly to (need I say why?). Once the director, Walt Price (William H. Macy) arrives, he thinks he has found the perfect location as the town does indeed have an old mill which the film’s writer, Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has centered his screenplay around. They quickly find out, however, that the town’s mill has long since burned down to the ground, so several things, among others, need to be changed in the screenplay even if it goes against the writer’s original intentions.

Part of the fun “State and Main” is watching how Hollywood succeeds in bringing out the worst impulses in everyone. Whether it’s the film crew, the cast or the townspeople, everyone is out to get their piece of the pie, and everyone is a player. A plethora of chaos ensues, and this all happens even before a single frame of footage for “The Old Mill” is shot.

When it comes to Mamet, his plays and screenplays cut really deep when it comes to the real world, and his take on Hollywood players can be quite scathing. Just look at “Speed-the-Plow” in which three movie studio employees engage in a power struggle to get a certain movie made while moving up the corporate ladder to become rich beyond their wildest dreams. Then there was the political satire “Wag the Dog” in which Robert De Niro and Anne Heche and fabricate a war in Albania to distract Americans from a Presidential sex scandal, and they enlist Dustin Hoffman, playing a famous Hollywood producer clearly modeled on Robert Evans. Both projects leave a bitter aftertaste whether you enjoy them or not as Mamet acknowledges how brutal and competitive Hollywood can be when it comes to what gets made and how much truth gets revealed to the world at large.

With “State and Main,” however, Mamet gives us something lighter than he usually does as he revels in the various problems and complexities the characters are forced to deal with. Moreover, while he revels in exposing the Hollywood players for the selfish schmucks they can be, the townspeople prove to be every bit as devious in their own unique ways.

Watching William H. Macy here makes one realize why he and Mamet have had such a fruitful working relationship for so many years. Macy is well versed in the rhythm of Mamet’s dialogue, and he does an excellent job of making his character of Walt Price into a filmmaking veteran who has directed more motion pictures than we are quick to realize. Walt is a pro at handling every and all problems which come his way, and he only loses so much of his cool when one of his assistants tells him his wife has gone into labor. While some directors may be understanding, Macy makes you see why Walt treats the impending birth of a baby as an annoying inconvenience.

Is tempting to say Alec Baldwin was in his prime when he played movie star Bob Barrenger here, but he is still quite the actor after all these years and not just because of his work on “Saturday Night Live.” Baldwin makes Bob into the kind of star whom filmmakers work with against their own best interests as he wants to change the dialogue in the script because it doesn’t sound like something he would say in real life. You want to berate him for his selfishness and remind him he is playing a character and not himself, but Baldwin reminds you of how actors like this one are on an island with themselves to where their egos get the best of them before they could ever realize it.   

Philip Seymour Hoffman left the land of the living a few years ago, and watching him in “State and Main” is a bittersweet reminder of the amazing talent we lost all too soon. As screenwriter Joseph Turner White, the actor gives us the perfect portrait of a man struggling for truth amongst a film crew whom sees the truth as a major inconvenience in the large scheme of things. Even as Joseph is forced to navigate a realm of endless cynicism and casual indifference, Hoffman renders this character as someone whom you believe is determined to remain noble to his beliefs even as many around him have long since given up on morality as a concept.

But seriously, my favorite performance comes from Rebecca Pidgeon as Ann, a local bookseller who helps to lift Joseph out of his latest bout of writer’s block. Right from the start, Pidgeon is so charming and fetching as she delivers Mamet’s dialogue like a true pro and makes Ann into one of the cleverest characters a movie like this could ever hope to have. She is just so much fun to watch here, and I could not help but root for her throughout.

And, with this screenplay written by Mamet, you can sure bet there are many lines of dialogue which sound like something only he could have come up with. Here’s a few worth noting:

“Everybody makes their own fun. If you don’t make it yourself, it isn’t fun. It’s entertainment.”

“What’s an associate producer credit?

“It’s what you give to your secretary instead of a raise.”

“It’s not a lie. It’s a gift for fiction.”

“I’m going to rip your heart out, then I’m going to piss on your lungs through the hole in your chest! And the best to Marian…”

But my favorite piece of dialogue, and it has always stood out to me even from the film’s trailer, comes from an exchange between Joseph and Ann:

“But it’s absurd.”

“So is our electoral process. But we still vote.”

Now that line remains as true now as it did back when this movie was released, and I can’t help but still laugh at it loudly as the electoral process is being scrutinized today in ways both sound and utterly ridiculous. By the way, Biden won and Trump lost. That is all.

I am not sure where to rate “State and Main” in regards to the other many works of Mamet. At times I wondered if this material might be a little too light for him, but this was clearly not designed to be as emotionally brutal as “Glengarry Glen Ross.” In the end, I think this was a movie everyone in front of and behind the camera had a lot of fun making, and not just because Mamet’s name was on it. A lot of times, movie sets can be nightmarish places regardless of whether or not Scott Rudin is wandering around on them, but the love everyone had for the material is clearly on display here.  

Big thanks to Ralph Garman for giving me and others a reason to check “State and Main” out. Here’s hoping his recommendation will give this film a stronger shelf life than it already has.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

William H. Macy Talks with Jason Reitman about ‘Boogie Nights’

Boogie Nights William H Macy photo

Jason Reitman proudly said he saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” long before everyone in attendance at the New Beverly Cinema on February 21, 2010 had. This was the fourth movie he showed as part of his guest programming at the still standing Los Angeles revival movie theater. It was at a test screening shown at the Beverly Center where he first witnessed this movie which proved to be the breakthrough for Anderson whose previous cinematic effort was the acclaimed but little seen “Hard Eight.” With “Boogie Nights,” Reitman said he saw a filmmaker who knew how to handle all the elements while dealing with twenty characters.

Reitman’s special guest for this screening of “Boogie Nights” was William H. Macy who played Little Bill, the assistant director to Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) who is married to a porn star (played by Nina Hartley) who sleeps with everyone but him. In many ways, Little Bill is the most empathetic character in this movie even though we keep waiting for him to stand up for himself.

Boogie Nights poster

Reitman, who had previously worked with Macy on “Thank You for Smoking,” first asked him how he came upon the script for “Boogie Nights:”

“I got the script through the normal channels,” Macy said. “I think I was still with CAA then, and the script was even more outrageous. I said, ‘Is this a porn film?’ There was actual shtüpping in it! Then I met with Paul and, the actors in the room will love this, I decided I wanted to do it and met with him at the Formosa Café, and it was about ten minutes in when I realized he was selling me. I wasn’t there to audition for him, he was trying to convince me to do it, and it was one of the great moments of my career.”

Reitman replied to this by saying, “I remember having a similar meeting when I was trying to get you to do ‘Thank You for Smoking,’”

 From there, Reitman talked about all the great long shots Anderson has used in his movies. Specifically, he talked about the one where Little Bill was at the New Year’s Eve party and found his wife once again sleeping with another guy. It’s a long tracking shot which goes from Little Bill looking for his wife, finding her, and then going back to his car to get a gun after which he goes back inside and shoots his wife and the other guy dead. Watching it years after “Boogie Nights” was first released, it is still amazing Anderson pulled such a shot off. Macy described how this scene was put together.

“Paul does a couple of his gazunga shots in this one and they are not as hard as you would think,” Macy said. “It took forever to set up, but then after three and a half to four hours of setting it up, the shot’s done. No coverage, no nothing and you move on. Four pages just bit the dust.”

Macy then talked about how much he loved Nina Hartley. The first time he met her was when he went into the makeup room, and she had her legs up on the counter and was shaving herself. At the end of the shoot, Hartley had started this series entitled “Nina Hartley’s Guide to Swinging” as well as one on anal intercourse. Macy then added, “In the end, she gave these films as wrap gifts! It was great to see (the reactions); anal intercourse? THANK YOU NINA!”

There was a number of actual adult film actors involved in the making of “Boogie Nights.” One of the girls who had a small scene in the movie came to Macy’s attention while he was having lunch one day with Anderson. She came down and sat between the two of them and asked Paul a career question, “Should I go legit or should I go anal?”

Reitman went back to the long shot which ended when Little Bill puts the gun in his mouth and blows his brains out. What made this shot particularly dangerous was Macy had to wear a squib on the side of his head. With squibs, the crew doesn’t want you to move around at all for your own good, and Macy went into detail over why it was so dangerous.

“What was dangerous about it was they let me do it,” Macy said. “I found out since then that they no longer let actors use that kind of squib. It’s a little explosive device and it’s called a gore gun. So I had this little backpack with all this blood and brains that would come shooting out the back, and it was wired to the pistol so that when I fired the pistol, that’s what set off the ‘gore gun’ and that’s not allowed anymore. A stunt guy sets off the gore gun now, but there is a cut because we couldn’t figure out how to do the whole thing with a loaded gun and the gore pack. So there is a cut.”

The conversation then went to the tone of a movie and what a director actually does. It’s nowhere as simple as Burt Reynolds’ character of Jack Horner makes it look in “Boogie Nights.” Reitman took the time to explain what he thinks tone is.

“Tone is like this inexplicable thing that, if you ask what a director actually does, it’s not like setting up shots or telling actors what to do,” Reitman said. “Really, what a director does is set tone. It’s not about the words; it’s about the feeling that carries through the scenes, and P.T. A’s movies have a very specific tone to them.”

Reitman then asked Macy if this is something he feels on set or if it was something he didn’t realize until he saw the finished product. Macy said he wasn’t aware of how special “Boogie Nights” was until he saw the final cut, and he was understandably very impressed with it. This led him to talk about when he made “The Cooler” (the mention of it got a strong applause from the audience) which contains one of his very best performances.

“The director kept telling me, ‘Wait until you hear the score!’ To where I finally said, ‘Dude, if you think the music is going to save this then you’re in trouble!’ I was wrong, and when he put that lush score over the film it was a different sort of film, and he had that in his head the whole time,” Macy said.

Macy went on to say the tone of the set bleeds onto the film and the way you comport yourself, or how your first assistant director comports his or herself.

“To my mind, it’s always like going to war then making art,” Macy said. “You need a good general. I’ve been known to call in first time directors and I say to them, ‘If I catch you making art on my time, then we’re going to have trouble.’ You better know what you want because it’s more like going to war.”

One of the best moments of the evening came when Macy talked about the extras who were brought in when Anderson shot the scenes at the adult movie awards. They were all told to bring their best 70’s clothes and that they were working on a Burt Reynolds movie. Then there was that moment where actress Melora Waters is about to give an award to Mark Wahlberg, and it was worded a little differently than what we saw in the theatrical version.

“I’ve seen all his movies and I can’t wait to get his cock inside my pussy, MR. DIRK DIGGLER!”

Macy said the whole crowd just sat there in utter silence, completely unprepared for what they heard. It certainly wasn’t your average everyday Burt Reynolds movie.

All in all, it was another fun evening which provided an in depth look into one of the best movies of the 1990’s, and “Boogie Nights” made clear to the world Paul Thomas Anderson was a born filmmaker.