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There’s little question the upcoming biopic “Temple Grandin,” airing Saturday on HBO, is Claire Danes’ movie. As Grandin, the autistic doctor of animal science, Danes revolutionizes the livestock industry by devising a system that improves both the treatment of cattle and ranchers’ bottom lines. But Grandin’s achievements may have never come to pass had she not been supported by her indefatigable mother, Eustacia Cutler, played by Julia Ormond.
Standing up to school deans who would rather institutionalize her daughter than educate her, Cutler tried to provide Grandin with as routine and normal a childhood as possible without resorting to special treatment. “She took this role of challenging Temple,” Ormond says. “What Eustacia did was push her out the door to go play with other kids.” She eventually enrolled Temple in a progressive school where she excelled, thanks in part to her teacher, Professor Carlock (played by David Strathairn).
To research the role, Ormond read Cutler’s 2004 book, “A Thorn in My Pocket,” which details her experience raising Grandin during the Fifties, when autism was stigmatized. She also turned to friends with autistic children, as well as several producers on the film, who are parents of autistic kids. “We talked about how incredibly emotionally challenging it is [to parent an autistic child],” Ormond, 49, says. “Temple couldn’t tolerate being hugged, she couldn’t read the emotional messages people give with their faces, and that taps into, ‘How do you love someone?’”
And yet something must have connected. The first time Ormond met Grandin in person, “we talked a lot about how she was given structure and discipline and how it was [that] firmness that helped her....She not only flourished, but was able to be independent.”
Grandin, now 62, is a professor at Colorado State University and a frequent speaker on autism and animal husbandry. Her mother recently accompanied her to a New York premiere of the film and received a standing ovation alongside her daughter. “I know that a driving force for Eustacia was, ‘What is going to happen to her when I’m gone?’” Ormond says. “Her whole motivation was to help [Temple] find more ways to become independent.”