“Hawking” has nothing to do with avian raptors, but the oddity of a handicapped genius who has become perhaps the most famous living scientist. Stephen Hawking wrote a best-selling book called “A Brief History of Time” in 1988 and became a media star as his physical condition disintegrated. He’s been around Pasadena to visit Caltech’s Kip Thorne, but the documentary “Hawking” is showing exclusively at the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino.
Hawking has outlived his life expectancy. When he was finally diagnoses with motor neurone disease (known in the United States as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or more commonly Lou Gehrig’s disease), he was 21 and he was given two more years to live. That was in 1963.
“Hawking” is more autobiography than documentary in that although Stephen Finnigan directed, filmed and produced the movie was written by Hawking, Finnigan and Ben Bowie. Hawking narrates with the electronic voice he is best known for and tells us this is his story, “a personal journey through my life” and “told in my own words.” There is no critical distance.
Like many biographical movies, it includes dramatizations with Arthur Pelling, Finlay Macrae, Nathan Chapple and Martin King and Joe Lovell playing Hawking at various stages (Sorry this isn’t the 2004 “Hawking” with the lovely Benedict Cumberbatch although Cumberbatch does appear) and Tina Lovell and Tanya O’Regan playing his first wife Jane.
His first wife, Jane, who has since remarried, does appear and politely comments on their marital breakdown. They have become nostalgic friends it seems after the break up of Hawking’s second marriage. The documentary also addresses and dismisses allegations that his second wife and former nurse, Elaine Mason, was abusive. Elaine Mason Hawking, who he married in 1995 after a five-year separation from Jane, in does not appear. Where Jane seems to have been overwhelmed by his celebrity, Elaine seems to have enjoyed it.
Of course, Stephen Hawking did enjoy his celebrity and took advantage of his disability–driving his wheelchair recklessly and reportedly running over people’s toes. Sometimes, Hawking sounds like a bit of a jerk, but now, his childishness has become part of his legend. Jim Carey later asked him to do so for a joke after they did a comedy skit on Conan O’Brien’s original talk show.
In the past, Hawking had been reluctant to step forward and become a spokesman for the differently abled. But that has changed over time. For last year’s Summer Paralympics opening ceremony in London (2012), he narrated the “Enlightenment” segment, saying, “However difficult life may seem there is always you can do and succeed at.”
Hawking, his life, his achievements and his relationship with his children, particularly his daughter Lucy serve as an important counterpoint to the recent documentary about another ALS sufferer, Neil Platt. Platt, a 34-year-old Scottish architect, is the subject of “I Am Breathing.” The 73-minute documentary follows Platt as my colleague Scott Jordan Harris wrote, “a vibrant young man incrementally become a corpse.”
According to Harris’ review, Platt didn’t “want little Oscar’s only memories of his father to be of a living cadaver who did not respond to his questions, laughter or touch.”
In January of this year (2013), Hawking turned 71. Platt died in 2009 at age 34. Did Platt give up too soon?
“Hawking” is a Vertigo Films DSP Production co-production with PBS/Channel 4. Fans of Hawking probably won’t learn anything new and this is a good primer for those who haven’t read “A Brief History of Time” but want to know more about this scientist in a wheelchair who pops up on things like “The Simpsons.”
“Hawking: Brief History of Mine” opens at the Laemmle Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino CA 91316 this Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. For more information, call (310) 478-3836 or visit www.laemmle.com.