Celebrity Jewsby nate bloom
|Follow j. on||and|
Local connection to ‘The Sessions’
“The Sessions,” which opened in San Francisco last weekend to rave reviews and talk of Oscar nominations, is about the relationship between the late writer Mark O’Brien and Berkeley-based sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene, now 68. O’Brien was stricken with polio when he was 6; in order to breathe he had to stay in an iron lung machine for most of the day. A smart and funny guy, O’Brien earned undergrad and graduate degrees from U.C. Berkeley in the 1980s and was a respected poet and journalist.
When he was 38, O’Brien decided he wanted to lose his virginity before his body gave out and asked his priest for advice. The priest suggested he see a therapist, who in turn arranged for him to see Greene.
“The Sessions” co-stars Oscar-winner Helen Hunt as Greene and John Hawkes as O’Brien. Robin Weigert plays Fernbach and Adam Arkin plays Michael Cohen, Greene’s husband until 1995. William H. Macy plays O’Brien’s humane priest (Greene tells me his character actually is a composite of several of O’Brien’s pastors).
Greene is upbeat and very open, just as depicted in the film. Equally candid is her new autobiography, “An Intimate Life: Sex, Love and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner.” Born and raised in Salem, Mass., she came from a stable, working-class Catholic family, and the church’s strict stand on sexuality morality was part of her upbringing. But, Greene says, by the time she was in high school she had fallen away from the church and its teachings.
In the film, Greene’s conversion takes place while she is treating O’Brien. This shift allows Lewin to include a scene in which Hunt, as Greene, enters the mikvah. Very artfully, Greene’s dip in the mikvah and the comments of the female attendant, played by Rhea Perlman, 64, subtly reference O’Brien’s physical condition.
In 1968, Michael and Cheryl moved to Berkeley. In 1973, after some training, she became a sex surrogate. She’s since earned a doctorate in the field. Greene says she began her four sessions with O’Brien with great trepidation due to his fragile body. But she liked him from the first — there was his wit (“I believe in God because I have to have somebody to yell at”) — and his soul. O’Brien told her, “I feel like someone outside looking in at a banquet never able to taste that food.” Greene says, “I vowed that he would have a chance to taste the feast.”
Greene couldn’t be happier with “The Sessions.” “I had no vocabulary to draw on to express my emotions the first time I saw the film,” she says. “It was overwhelming, from the top of my head to the bottom of my toes. I still get emotional and I cry.”