The pursuit of sex is certainly not a new subject in Hollywood. But when the characters are disabled, as seen in a host of award-caliber movies this fall, then it denotes a remarkable shift.
This natural drive looms large and unmistakable in the disabled subjects' minds in movies ranging from The Sessions, Rust and Bone (opening on a limited scale Nov. 23), The Intouchables and even with the polio-survivor Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson.
"It is something everyone thinks about and talks about, but we haven't seen sexuality in terms of disability displayed like this before," says Lawrence Carter-Long, co-host of a disabled film series on Turner Classic Movies and a public affairs specialist for the National Council on Disability. "People are waking up to it. Hollywood is waking up to it."
"This a basic primal human instinct. The inclinations are always going to be there, no matter what body you have," Carter-Long says, adding dryly. "Gosh, it's shocking isn't it?"
It is certainly eye-opening, agrees The Sessions writer and director Ben Lewin, who still uses crutches after surviving polio as a child.
"We're finally seeing the elephant in the room. Whether the subject was discussed or not before, it's always been there," says Lewin of these cinematic displays of sexuality. "I guess that's what this strange word zeitgeist is."
"It's a new thing to have the sexual wall penetrated, if you don't mind the imagery," he adds.
The Sessions depicts journalist Mark O'Brien's (played by John Hawkes) real-life quest to lose his virginity to a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) after spending most of his 38 years in an iron lung due to polio. During O'Brien's research on the possibilities of sexual activity, which he wrote for the Pacific News Service in 1990, he came across an entire community of sexually active disabled participants - one memorable character is portrayed in the film.
"There's a certain kind of shock value seeing someone in a wheelchair talk like a sexual gymnast," says Lewin. "I think if you were to explore the subject in a really thorough and academic way, you would find many more surprises about the sex lives of disabled people."
While sex is an impossibility for the paralyzed aristocrat in The Intouchables, he still hires women to rub his earlobes - the one area he is still able to feel. And FDR (Bill Murray) slips away from his security detail for a highly un-presidential car detour into the fields with a childhood friend (Laura Linney) in Hyde Park on Hudson - one of many romps alluded to in the movie.
"It's a revelatory scene," says Carter-Long."That's certainly not what people think about when they think about FDR."
Carter-Long believes one reason we're seeing the depictions is because "the same story lines of people with disabilities being tragic or heroic just for waking up in the morning are played out."
"Everyone expects stories that are going to have more nuance and depth," he says. "They are going to dig a little deeper."
In Rust and Bone, Marion Cotillard's character comes to the conclusion that no man will want her sexually after she loses both legs in an accident - until she reconnects with the very physical fighter played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who treats her like any other woman.
"My character never saw her as disabled; of course she is, but he saw her without pity," says Schoenaerts.
Their love scenes are shot with Cotillard's legs removed with digital technology.
"Everyone will have their own perception," says Schoenaerts of the powerful scenes. "Some people will think it's repulsive; some people will think it's the right thing to do. And some people will think it's sensual."