Losing My Virginity:
Oh boy, did this film bring back memories. Even the day after seeing it I’m still revisiting that time—well, if you were a teenage male in the seventies, this was true– between the ages of about sixteen and twenty when a huge proportion of your thoughts were taken up with Losing Your Virginity. That’s how we thought of it…with big capitals. Of course, according to all of us blokes, we had ALL lost it by the age of seventeen. Maybe that really does happen today, but trust me, back then it was a whole different scene. We were just saying that we had because our peer group was saying the same.
In fact, I actually did lose mine at seventeen but I was so bloody traumatised with the whole business that nothing more happened until I was twenty-one. In fact, even thinking of that disaster I am cringing as if it had happened only yesterday. I’m sure that any modern teen reading this reckons that I must have been some sort of slow-witted eyesore. In fact, I was a reasonably confident and good-looking guy. It’s just that times were different, my friends, times were really different.
When our class started on Biology we eagerly looked forward to reaching ‘Section Four’. The older guys had told us that ‘Section Four’ was where all would be revealed! ‘Section Four’ became a part of our vocabulary months in advance. What a bloody disappointment that was when we reached it. In fact I’m pretty sure that it left us more terrified than ever of what we would one day have to face. Those close-up coloured sketches of the vagina: Jesus, compared to the overall simplicity of our own organ this looked bewilderingly complex! So much for Biology.
And films weren’t much of a help. They really let us down, now that I think of it. I loved the old black-and-white movies even then, but watching them get as far as even kissing? Well, after close study it seemed that even tough guys like Bogie would take a deep breath, then pull the girl towards him and keep his mouth closed the whole two seconds. This was pretty much the height of passion in hey-day Hollywood.
Modern films went to the other, equally unhelpful, end of the spectrum. I recall a James Bond movie—I know it was Sean Connery but don’t remember which one it was—where Bond effortlessly shagged five (or was it four?) different women in different locations within the one evening! And he made it look so frigging easy, the bastard!
My life—and that of many of my contemporaries—was saved when there was a TV showing of a movie called Summer of ’42. This was bloody great stuff! These kids may have been American but they had just the same problems as we had when it came to losing the virginity! They even had the same posers thrown at them as regards buying condoms (I’m amazed when I think now of how responsible we were). This was a biggie. There was a story that went round about a young couple of our own age who had been into some heavy petting sans condom and he got so carried away that he put an empty crisp packet on his dick in order to achieve the deed. Well, the poor guy was only destroyed with salt burns and in agony for days afterwards. And we knew that this was true because we had all heard it from someone whose brother knew the guy who it happened to. That gave us pause, I can tell you. (Oddly enough we didn’t think about the lady in question. There’s a moral there somewhere.)
If anyone knows whether or not this particular urban legend is still in circulation let me know. Or perhaps—*gasp*–IT REALLY HAPPENED! Cue creepy music.
The Actual Film
OK. You’re probably wondering why I’ve gone on about this when I’m not in an iron lung and also why am I making light of this guy’s predicament? Well, actually I’m not. To an obviously varying degree losing our cherry was just as important to us as it was to the main character, Mark O’Brien. And to deal with our fear we made as many jokes about it as he does.
Mark (superbly played by John Hawkes) has been confined to an iron lung since a young age, due to contracting polio when he was six. At the point when The Sessions begins he is a 38-year old poet and journalist, although he is unable to move any part of his body except his head. However, he can experience sensation everywhere. He needs almost full time nursing care and can only go on short four hour journeys, still confined to a trestle table.
He is a warm, funny and companionable man and with the exception of a dry old bitch at the beginning of the movie his nurses love him in their way. He even proposes to one of them but she explains that it just isn’t in that way.
He is a regular mass-goer. “I believe in a God with a sense of humour. A wicked sense of humour. One who created me in His own image.”
A new priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy) takes over in his parish and despite being initially rather dismissive of Mark they begin a rather nice friendship in which the priest appears to benefit from looking through a window into another world. Because Mark has decided that he wants to lose his virginity. He seems to think that he needs this in order to feel like a real man; and the irony that he is discussing this and even asking for permission from a supposedly celibate one seems to escape him.
Mark is pragmatic about the whole enterprise and he has decided to pay for the services of a sex therapist in order to initiate him into the mysteries. “Why now?” asks Father Brendan to which Mark answers:
“I never had any cash before. That’s a major factor.”
The priest has a brief consultation with J. C. and he gets the answer I would hope that wise worthy would give: “I think I’ll have to give you a free pass on that one. Go for it!”( Mind you, I would imagine that killjoys like Pope Bennie and his Vatican cohorts would have preferred to see the guy live in misery for the rest of his life.)
This leads to a small sub-text on what is the difference between a sex therapist and a prostitute, one that is never even remotely answered to my mind.
In any case, this is where we meet the remarkable—and, to me, ultimately enigmatic—Cheryl Cohen-Greene, played with enormous bravery and sensitivity by Helen Hunt, who has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.
She has signed on for six sessions with Mark, where she will lead him through body awareness right up to actual penetration. It is startling in the extreme to see Hunt casually strip off full frontal and climb into bed with this paralysed man. All I could think was: Bloody Hell, I remember her as a child actress in the Mary Tyler Moore Show!
Due to her astonishing performance, however, it is no time at all before we stop thinking of her as naked Helen Hunt and see only the character; and due to the skill of writer and director Ben Lewin this film never for a moment becomes voyeuristic. The sex simply becomes something that we accept as happening between two adults, albeit in slightly unusual circumstances.
Hunt has one of those faces that carries with it a real feeling of sadness and vulnerability. And of course Hawkes has only his face with which to work. It is a powerful and funny performance; and a disgrace that he has not been nominated for a Best Actor award next month. But as discussed elsewhere I’m not the only one who doesn’t understand the criteria for that farce. Maybe physically disabled isn’t ‘in’ this year.
I would have liked to have known a little more about Cohen-Greene’s motivations for what she did. Even more so I would have liked to know how Josh, her husband (Adam Arkin) put up with this. I just never got it. I know that he is supposed to be some sort of a free-thinking philosopher who does bugger all that I could see except look after a young fella that’s old enough to look after himself. Nah, not buying that I’m afraid. Then again I’m one of those uptight weirdoes who wouldn’t be happy at the thought of someone else shagging his wife, no matter what altruistic motives were behind it. Give me a break, would you?
But to go further, I would like to have known more about Father Brendan. I mean, apart from the fact that he has hair almost as long as my own, what kind of conditioner does he use?
As he gets more and more into Mark’s confessions you feel that he is relating in some way to something that is missing in his own life. And maybe that’s the point, but I would really like to have known more about him. Is he going through his own questioning of God? Has he lost his virginity before coming to his vocation or is he wondering about things that could have been? Actor William H. Macy has one of those marvellous lived-in faces where even a twitch of an eyebrow seems to tell you a lot. But, again, I would have liked to know more.
These are quibbles and they come from where I am. As a film and as a study of someone who seems to have been endlessly optimistic about what life has thrown at him I don’t hesitate to recommend it.
And do you know what? You’ll emerge at the end thinking that life doesn’t suck for you as much as you might sometimes think it does.
That can’t be a bad thing.