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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 11, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Claire Danes and Temple Grandin

Playing the role of a person with a severe handicap seems to be one of the surest ways to win an Oscar -- Daniel Day-Lewis (cerebral palsy, MY LEFT FOOT), Jamie Foxx (blindness, RAY), Jack Nicholson (obsessive-compulsive disorder, AS GOOD AS IT GETS), Dustin Hoffman (autism, RAINMAN); Hilary Swank (paralysis, MILLION DOLLAR BABY), Holly Hunter (mute; amputated finger, THE PIANO), Tom Hanks (mental retardation, FORREST GUMP), Al Pacino (blindness, SCENT OF A WOMAN) -- and that doesn't include the supporting-actor/actress categories.

Some of these performances truly deserved the award; others seem to have been awarded as much out of sympathy for the condition as for the actual acting. (Did Jack Nicholson in AS GOOD AS IT GETS or Al Pacino in SCENT OF A WOMAN do anything but play their normal shtick, only the guy was handicapped? Was Dustin Hoffman's character in RAINMAN or Holly Hunter's deadpan mute in THE PIANO anything more than a one-note performance?)

The best of these performers don't play the handicap, they play the character; and the best of the scripts aren't about the handicap, or even overcoming the handicap. They're about the character's achievements and contributions to society.

These can be whimsical, like Forrest Gump's invention of just about all of American culture, or they can be real, like Ray Charles's music and Christy Brown's writing (MY LEFT FOOT).

I want to tell you about one of the finest performances I've ever seen -- and certainly the finest performance in the role of a handicapped person. But it won't win an Oscar, because it was in a movie that first appeared on HBO.

I'm speaking of Claire Danes in the title role of TEMPLE GRANDIN.

This is also one of the two greatest biopics (biographical pictures) I've ever seen -- the other being GANDHI (with Ben Kingsley winning an Oscar for the title role).

Temple Grandin is an autistic woman, who, despite her inability to correctly interpret the behavior of other people, managed to find ways around her own limitations and to make full use of her strengths. Her autism took the form of an intense awareness of sights and sounds -- far beyond what normal people can do -- while she had a much harder time doing the abstract thinking and intuitive leaps that are hallmarks of ordinary human life.

Grandin discovered in her youth that she had a strong affinity for animals and a particular interest in cattle. Later, she would theorize that her brain functions in a way very similar to animals' brains. From animals she learned ways to substitute for the human needs that her autism did not allow her to satisfy in normal ways, and then returned the favor by reinventing the entire process of herding meat animals and preparing them peacefully for slaughter.

In the movie, she eloquently resolves the seeming contradiction in the idea of "peaceful slaughter": These animals exist in such numbers only because we eat them -- otherwise they'd just be oddities in zoos. But since we have called them into being in order to serve us with their deaths, shouldn't we treat them with more respect and kindness along the way?

In other words, both her real life and this filmed depiction of it make it clear that Temple Grandin matters, not because of her autism, but because of her real contributions to our society. Like Gandhi, she has shaped her life to do as much good as she can, not just for animals, but also for autistic humans and, in the long run, for the understanding of the human mind.

The problem for the screenwriters (Christopher Monger and William Merritt Johnson) and for the director (Mick Jackson) was to find a way to help the audience understand the unique way that Temple Grandin thinks.

They did even better than that: they actually found ways to let us EXPERIENCE what Grandin experiences, so that in addition to explanation (which we certainly needed!), we also get the instantaneous visual associations and overwhelming sensory overload that autistic people have to cope with.

They also had the good judgment to use these techniques sparingly, so the movie remains completely watchable and understandable.

I'm actually not surprised that Mick Jackson was such an excellent director for this film. He also directed one of my favorite films ever: L.A. STORY, written by and starring Steve Martin. It's a shame that the lackluster performance of some of his later films has relegated him to television work -- but then, that's why he was tapped to direct this brilliant TV movie.

To understand the magnitude of the achievement, you only have to think of what television ordinarily does with stories like this.

The writers created opportunities for actors by developing the most important relationships in Grandin's life -- without ever allowing the "normal" people to become the center of the movie (the way that Annie Sullivan, for example, inevitably becomes the center of MIRACLE WORKER).

SCTV graduate Catherine O'Hara leaves comedy behind to play Grandin's patient, understanding aunt with great warmth. The underappreciated Julia Ormond plays the much more difficult role of Grandin's grimly determined mother. Both of these actresses have triumphant moments, as does David Strathairn as the high school teacher who champions and mentors Grandin as she begins to discover her life's work.

These powerful performances help to support rather than distract from the crowning achievement of this film: the perfect portrayal of Temple Grandin by Claire Danes.

I already knew that Claire Danes, after first capturing our hearts with the short-lived TV series MY SO-CALLED LIFE, had grown up to be the consummate actress who played Sonja Jones in ME AND ORSON WELLES. But as far as I'm concerned, her whole career was preparation for this masterpiece. From this moment on, Claire Danes is making a credible bid to fill Katherine Hepburn's seat as the finest American actress.

It's not just that Danes does a perfect job of giving us Grandin's mannerisms and patterns of speech. She clearly understood that this wasn't enough -- especially if Grandin's autism makes it hard for strangers to feel comfortable with her.

While keeping all the socially off-putting manners of sufferers from autism and Asperger's Syndrome, Danes had to give us the emotional nuances that would make us love and care about a person who, by the definition of her mental condition, is outwardly unlovable.

The script, the director, the rest of the cast, the life of Grandin herself, all of these combine to give her every possible help. But when it comes down to it, the performance depends primarily on Claire Danes alone -- on what she can do with her voice, her face, her movement, and her heart without ever violating the truth of the great woman whom she is portraying.

There are moments of such acting perfection that I gasped: for instance, Danes's depiction of Grandin's terrified response to sliding doors. I was even more moved by the way Danes portrayed Grandin's moment of revelation, when she discovers how being squeezed like a cow in a chute can bring her a kind of comfort that until then she never knew.

Last year might have been financially good for the movies, and films like ALICE IN WONDERLAND and holdover AVATAR might rule the box office this year. Films by directors whose hands are always distractingly visible might win the accolades of the cognoscenti. But TEMPLE GRANDIN is, without pretension, the finest artistic achievement in filmmaking I've seen in years; it easily elbowed its way into my lifetime top ten movie list.

It's an emotional rollercoaster, this movie. I laughed and cried so often I thought I had lived an extra year by watching it. Yet this was not because manipulative filmmakers juiced things up; on the contrary, the writers, director, and performers used amazing restraint. This movie never bludgeons us with something that can be conveyed through nuance alone.

HBO was the only venue where you could have seen the first run of what I feel perfectly safe in calling the best movie of 2010.

It's out of the HBO rotation now. If you didn't watch it or record it already, you'll have to watch for possible sporadic showing.

But on August 17th of this year, the DVD will be released. You can preorder it now online. I urge you to do so -- if you're a movie-lover, you don't want to miss the chance to see one of the finest films ever made.

The only book of Grandin's that I have read (and which I reviewed here in 2005) is ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION: USING THE MYSTERIES OF AUTISM TO DECODE ANIMAL BEHAVIOR. The books the movie was based on are EMERGENCE and THINKING IN PICTURES. Here is a partial list of books authored or co-authored by Temple Grandin. Good as the movie is, you'll want to read what she has to say.


Thinking in Pictures

The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger's

Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals

Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior

The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism

Humane Livestock Handling: Understanding livestock behavior and building facilities for healthier animals

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