The young woman with a cane hovered protectively over the slight figure in the wheelchair. They both were victims of nature. The woman sitting down--Mexican writer-poet Gaby Brimmer--has suffered from a severe case of cerebral palsy since birth and cannot speak. The woman at her side--actress Rachel Levin--has had two terrifying bouts with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neuromuscular disease that can cause paralysis.
The women were smiling at each other, and for a good reason. In their own way, they each had overcome great physical difficulties. And now they were basking in the standing ovation they had just received at the Los Angeles premiere earlier this month of "Gaby, A True Story," a movie based on Gaby Brimmer's life.
So far in its exclusive two- and three-week run in one theater each in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto, the film has been a "disappointment" at the box office, according to its distributor, Tri-Star. "Gaby" has accumulated a total gross of $60,886. However, critical reception and audience word-of-mouth has been "exceptional," a studio spokesman said.
The Times' Kevin Thomas described "Gaby" as "an emotion-charged expression of the triumph of the spirit." The Toronto Sun called it "an emotional land mine exploding on the screen," while the New York Times said: "Luis Mandoki's film has energy and strength and a superb performance by Norma Aleandro, who is a marvel."
" 'Gaby' is my Hamlet," Levin said proudly, describing the challenge of playing Brimmer, who cannot speak and can barely move. "An actor's tools are her body and voice, and in this role they were taken away. I had to communicate with my toe and my eyes."
Gaby, who spells out what she wants to say by moving her left big toe around letters painted on the footrest of her wheelchair, was very pleased with Levin's performance. "We worked a lot," she spelled out slowly, "and she got my thinking and my feeling." Her brother, David Brimmer, stood to her right and read aloud the letters that she indicated.
Gaby's face involuntarily contorted as she thought about what else she wanted to say. Then her toe began moving: "I want to tell you that the work with Luis (director Luis Mandoki) was also hard, because I wrote the concept of the story before they made it into a script."
"Gaby" begins when her Jewish parents, played by Robert Loggia and Liv Ullmann, settle in Mexico after leaving Europe during World War II. When Gaby is born with cerebral palsy, her parents instill in her the belief that she must never give up, no matter what people tell her. The family's maid Florencia, played by Norma Aleandro, begins caring for Gaby. Over the years the two women develop a close bond.
Despite various setbacks, Gaby goes to college, accompanied by Florencia, and then becomes a writer. A sample of her writing: "How can I scream when I can't talk? How can I stop loving with the seed of a woman inside me? God, if life is so many things that I am not, and never will be, give me the strength to be what I am."
"In playing this part, it was very important to me to please Gaby," Levin said. "We are friends. I didn't want to fail her. And I wasn't going to make her Saint Gaby. A lot of people have problems. Gaby has courage in the true sense of the word. Courage means being frightened and still going forward.
"My greatest compliment came from Gaby's family. After they saw the film, they came up and thanked me for being true to their Gaby."
Noted David Brimmer: "I'm really glad 'Gaby' isn't a sappy tear-jerker. Nor is it a movie about a cripple. Gaby is a person, and she can be sweet and mean and sad and funny."
Levin continued: "When people cry in this movie, of course they feel for Gaby. But life is a struggle for all of us--for food, for money, coping with an unexpected death, coping with a divorce. You cry because the movie touches your own struggle."
More than most, Levin could identify with Gaby's struggle. "God knows, other fine actresses could have played the role," she said. "But I knew what it was like to have dreams and aspirations and not have the body to fulfill them."
In 1979, Levin, then a promising New York actress, developed Guillain-Barre syndrome, a mysterious viral illness that strikes without warning. Her condition rapidly deteriorated and she moved from crutches and braces to a wheelchair and then to total paralysis.
Fortunately, the syndrome often reverses itself. "I made it back to work in 1982," she recalled. "I got a job, but four days later I was paralyzed again."
In 1984 Levin was well enough to return to the New York stage in "Duet for One," a play about a concert violinist who develops multiple sclerosis. "I was very lucky," she said of her recovery. "I tap with a cane occasionally, but I don't need a cane to work."