Helen Hunt in 'The Sessions' (Photo: Fox Searchlight)
The surprise guest at last week's Manhattan dinner for "The Sessions" at Circo on West 55th Street was Cheryl Cohen Greene, the real-life sexual surrogate played by Helen Hunt in the Oscar-bound indie. The 68-year-old Massachusetts native and Berkeley resident had a glow about her, an open and unaffected sexiness. This joy in life went beyond the obvious happiness she expressed at being portrayed in such a positive light in the movie about the six sessions that transformed Mark O'Brien, a journalist and poet from California who was a polio victim, from virgin to man of the world.
How did Cohen Greene feel about the movie? "I laughed. I cried," she gushed as she sat with her brother, sister-in-law, and supporters. Clearly, the movie experience also validated an unusual profession that, perhaps, had always been giggled about. Oh, you know, she lives in Berkeley.
What struck me, having seen Oscar-winner Hunt, 49, play Cohen Greene onscreen in one of those roles where an actress over 40 shows her bravery by stripping naked, is how at home the real Cohen Greene was in her own body. The blonde has a beautiful face -- she resembles a more robust Judi Dench -- and a body with a little meat on it. She has hips and, yes, a bit of a muffin top. If there was a choice between a beautiful face and a rear end you could bounce dimes off of, Cohen Greene has made hers. This is a real woman, not a reel woman.
The contrast became even clearer when Hunt arrived at the dinner with a movie-star crush (flashbulbs exploding), carrying a pricey Judith Leiber black-and-gold clutch. As she sat beside Oscar-winner Melissa Leo and took a photo with Cohen Greene, I noticed that Hunt has made the opposite choice. In order to maintain a trim body and dime-bouncing booty, the actress has drained away the fat from her face. She seems, well, sorry Hel, a little pinched.
And that was when it hit me about what her studied performance had missed. The real Cohen Greene projected a oneness with her own body, a joy in life, that hadn't quite made it to the screen. Hunt had captured the act of surrogacy but not the therapeutic glow. No fault on Hunt, but as a movie star dropping her clothes in front of the camera, she's limited to a body image that's not necessarily flattering.
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New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote of Hunt as Cohen Greene, "Her ground rules are strict -- the maximum number of sessions is six -- and she voices them with the firmness of an elementary school teacher addressing a class and setting boundaries." While Holden goes on to praise Hunt as the surrogate who navigates "uncharted territory" working with a severely handicapped man, he also captured the quality that didn't work for me. Hunt plays Cohen Greene with a brittleness that doesn't suit the character -- this is Berkeley, baby. Get loose.
In a movie that goes to great lengths to achieve truth, particularly in John Hawkes painstaking replication of O'Brien's incapacities and his iron lung, it's disappointing that the female nudity -- perky breasts and all -- seems forced. When Hunt drops her clothes at that initial session in the hotel room, the message seems to be "Look, it's Helen Hunt baring her breasts, and she has the body of a 20-year-old." It should be "Look, it's Cheryl Cohen Greene, and her body is just one of the tools this empathic sexual surrogate uses to make this man feel whole."
See a clip from 'The Sessions':