Our current Movie of the Month, John Sayles’s 1992 comfort-watch Passion Fish, is a Southern-fried melodrama about a Rude soap opera star whose career comes to a halt after a paralyzing car accident. It looks & acts like a Normie heartwarmer about a proud woman overcoming sudden adversity, but pulls it off with an unusually direct, vulgar bitterness that cuts through the bullshit. In particular, the way the film depicts its lead’s discomfort, rage, and gradual acceptance of her newfound disability & reliance on a wheelchair feels refreshingly honest & relatably human for a 90s-era VHS rental. As a result, most recommendations of further viewing for anyone who enjoyed Passion Fish probably should touch on its unusually frank depiction of newfound physical disability, which really does set it apart from other, more maudlin works in its genre.
Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience similar depictions of recognizably Real people venting relatable frustrations over their own physical disabilities.
Never Fear (1949)
You might be tempted to ask for a better directorial debut from actor-turned-auteur Ida Lupino than the 1949 sudden-illness weepie Never Fear, but it would be tough to ask for a more personal one. Lupino’s first credit as a director is a well-behaved but harrowing melodrama about polio, a disease that Lupino herself suffered early in her career as a young actor. In fact, it was being bedridden with polio (and losing some mobility in her leg and hand) that inspired Lupino to develop skills as a writer & a filmmaker in the first place, as it was a harsh realization that her career as an onscreen beauty was limited & impermanent. She explained in an interview, “I realized that my life and my courage and my hopes did not lie in my body. If that body was paralyzed, my brain could still work industriously . . . If I weren’t able to act, I would be able to write. Even if I weren’t able to use a pencil or typewriter, I could dictate.” Polio was too sensitive of a subject at the time of Never Fear‘s release and, thus, failed to make a splash at the box office, but Lupino fearlessly tackled it head on from a place of personal frustration & anguish that affords it cultural significance anyway.
A young dancer (Lupino regular Sally Forrest) has her career cut short by a rapidly onset case of polio that leaves her paralyzed. She gradually earns her mobility back through painful months of physical & emotional therapy, but in the meantime struggles to maintain the romance, career, and independence she knew before the disease left her unable to dance. There are about twenty minutes of puppy-love bliss shared between the dancer and her partner/choreographer before polio cuts their ambitions short. The remaining hour is a pitch-black tearjerker that threatens to break that blissful romance apart, both through the introduction of potential love interests inside & outside the hospital and through the protagonist’s self-pity that makes her believe she’s no longer worthy of her former beau’s love & devotion. The resulting film illustrates a complex, nuanced psychological portrait of someone bedridden with polio, one that arrived in theaters while the country was still suffering the darkest days of the epidemic.
Never Fear is a romantic melodrama in which Ida Lupino pulls from her personal experience with polio to illustrate just how isolating & embittering the disease could be. It’s more or less a standard sudden-illness weepie, but it’s emotionally fearless in directly tackling its subject in a way that can be impressively horrific in flashes. It isn’t Lupino’s best work in the director’s chair, but it is a film with surprising emotional depth in her expressions of personal, professional anguish, which makes it a worthy watch for anyone interested in her one-of-a-kind career as one of the most substantial female directors in the Old Hollywood system. It’s also one of the few melodramas of its kind that matches Passion Fish‘s bullshit-free depictions of personal, internal conflicts over sudden physical disability.
If the bitter disability journeys of Passion Fish & Never Fear are too subtle or gentle for your liking, there’s always the Kathy Bates psychobiddy classic Misery. According to Steven King, Misery was written as a metaphor for his debilitating addiction to cocaine, which figuratively held him captive and forced him to write pulpy dreck far beneath his dignity as a Serious Artist. There’s likely some truth to that, but I do suspect King brandishes that anecdote at least somewhat to cover up the novel’s more obvious expressions of his open, seething contempt for his most enthusiastic fans. In the 1990 adaptation, Kathy Bates stars as a disgraced nurse who kidnaps her favorite pulp author after a blizzard-incited car crash and forces him to write novels that fit her headcanon instead of his own imagination. It’s a wonderfully blatant, literal depiction of the increasingly hostile relationships between artists & their audiences in recent years, where fans’ demands are too often allowed to dictate the work. It’s also, on the surface, a torturous body horror about a man held captive by a deranged medical professional who violently hobbles him to delay his recovery instead of working in his own interest.
In the opening sequence of Passion Fish, May-Alice is a big-city Soap Opera Star who’s frustrated that she relies on the whims & the capabilities of the small-town nurses hired to help her navigate her Louisiana bayou home. Things calm down once she finds an unlikely friendship with a nurse on her own wavelength, but that frustration over her reliance on another human being to accomplish mundane, daily tasks never really goes away. In Misery, a big-city Celebrity Author finds himself at the mercy of a small-town nurse who cares more about the fictional characters he creates than she does about his physical health (to put it mildly). Both films traffic in a warmly familiar 1990s mainstream filmmaking sensibility that sets expectations for a wholesome, safe viewing experience. Passion Fish cuts through that expectation with an unexpected vulgarity & bitterness as May-Alice becomes increasingly frustrated with her newly disabled body. James Caan goes through the same struggle as the Celebrity Author in Misery, except with a pronounced layer of traumatizingly gruesome body horror that even more drastically contradicts director Rob Reiner’s wholesome, mainstream sensibilities.
Weirdly, Misery also happens to employ an overqualified cinematographer in Barry Sonnenfeld, which mirrors Passion Fish‘s employment of industry legend Roger Deakins as its own DP.
The Intouchables (2011)
Maybe Misery‘s gory hyperviolence & Never Fear‘s Old Hollywood prestige are too fringe for a proper Passion Fish pairing. Maybe you just want to watch another by-the-books tearjerker that only strays from melodrama conventions by indulging in some occasional vulgarity. 2011’s The Intouchables isn’t exactly a great film the way Passion Fish is, but it does share some of its recognizable humanity that’s often missing from similar sudden-disability melodramas.
Based on a true story, The Intouchables chronicles an unlikely friendship between a paraplegic French aristocrat (who recently suffered a paragliding accident as part of his adrenaline seeking interest in X-Treme Sports) and the underqualified Senegalese ex-con he hires as his live-in caretaker (who only applied for the job as a ploy to remain on welfare). Although it arrived in theaters two decades after Passion Fish, it stumbles a lot more frequently in its own depiction of a budding friendship across race & class barriers (the Senegalese man is a pothead horndog criminal with no sense of public decorum, an often embarrassing line of humor). Still, there is a core sense of mutual respect & playfulness in their relationship that’s surprisingly endearing, especially in contrast to the long line of unsuitable, uptight, white caretakers who also interview for the job. The live-in caretaker is hired because he doesn’t look at his employer’s disability with any sense of pity or patronizing caution. His vulgar, casual demeanor cuts through the bullshit to allow them to meet on equal terms as human beings, even though one needs the other to accomplish most mundane tasks. The central friendship in Passion Fish is a lot more nuanced (and a lot less problematic in its race & class politics), but both movies share that vulgar, humanistic core.
I feel a little conflicted recommending a film I don’t wholly appreciate myself. The Intouchables alternates between charm & cringe so erratically that it’s difficult to be too enthusiastic about the positives when the whole ordeal is through. For perspective, then, it’s a good idea to follow up the film by watching the trailer for its recent American remake, starring Kevin Hart. It’s a quick way to appreciate how much worse the material could have been (and apparently was!) in even cruder hands.