What we choose to see when we bear witness to a body or mind wrecked by disease has everything to do with how we define disability. Calling someone "disabled" is an ultimate injustice, because we opt to see a wheelchair or iron lung before acknowledging the person who requires such machinery.
Additionally, we marginalize those with mental illness, taking note of physical ticks or lack of social barriers instead of accepting a freedom-aching spirit.
Three life-affirming new films, part of a stellar lineup at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, reminded me that attention must indeed be paid to a unique breed of heroes--not cape-wearing pretenders, but Earthbound mortals no less extraordinary. I'm happy to report that all three movies will be coming to a cineplex near you this fall and, if my guess is right, they'll be greeted with critical and audience acclaim.
Like most baby boomers, I loved watching Bill Murray mug his way through Saturday Night Live, Stripes and Caddyshack. But in Hyde Park on Hudson, Murray portrays Franklin Delano Roosevelt with so much charm and ease that audiences may wrongly dismiss his precise performance.
Murray is more than a delight; he is pitch-perfect in a movie that is a natural companion piece to Oscar winner The King's Speech. In fact, Hyde Park on Hudson chronicles the visit of King George VI to FDR's upstate New York country home, prior to World War II. And with audiences already familiar with King George's stuttering affliction, Hyde Park on Hudson now asks us to reconsider how our polio-victim president held an economically ravaged nation in his heart while squeezing his limbs into a wheelchair.
Murray will need to introduce himself to John Hawkes. They'll both be vying for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Hawkes stars in The Sessions, a beautiful portrayal of poet-journalist Mark O'Brien.
In an odd bit of cinematic irony, polio also is integral to this film. O'Brien, struck down by the disease as a child, spent most of his life in an iron lung. While O'Brien is an immobile man--he has no control over any of this body's muscles--his dreams have wings. He first reaches out to a priest (William H. Macy) with a unique request: He desires carnal knowledge. When a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) enters O'Brien's life, it's impossible not to be moved by a tenderness never seen before on film. What ensues is a very mature consideration of intimacy in its purest form.
One of my biggest surprises thus far at TIFF 2012 is how much I unabashedly loved another film that examines disability with genuine humor: Silver Linings Playbook. It is, without question, the best film you'll ever see about mental illness, professional football and ballroom dancing.
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are wonderful as two volatile young adults who hurt more than they can ever say, though they can't seem to stop talking. Directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter), Silver Linings Playbook reminds us that life--sometimes quite literally--is a dance and requires a bit of choreography. Some of us just take a little longer to learn the moves.