Over the years and the fact that people just don’t watch reruns outside of TV anymore The office, friendsand His fieldit’s easy to forget how good Michael J. Fox was family ties. His line reading was just perfect. Here’s this guy, Alex P. Keaton, who keeps a framed photograph of Richard Nixon in his bedroom, and we can’t help but love him. I knew Davis Guggenheims Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie (which premiered at Sundance this week) would delve into the current state of Fox’s health (we’ll get to that in a moment), but what I really wanted was for this film to delve into the era when Michael J. Fox was a sensation . The film begins by asking Fox if he wanted this documentary to be about a famous movie star who suffers from a disabling illness. Fox replies, “That’s boring.” So, yes, I got my wish.
It’s weird to think of Michael J. Fox ever having trouble. But he does talk about how when he first moved to LA from Canada he got roles because he looked significantly younger than he was but the productions didn’t have to worry about actually dealing with a real kid. He got small parts, but after he sold his furniture he was basically on loose change and figured he had to walk to the airport himself and then get a job back home picking up nails from construction sites. (I have to say I was disappointed that this part of the film isn’t a cult favorite at any point Midnight Madness mentioned.) As Fox put it, he still had a chip and a seat. Explain that as long as you still have a chair and a chip at a poker table, you are not out of the game. And his last hope was family ties and NBC CEO Brandon Tartikoff wasn’t a fan of Fox and all kind of a problem. Fox was allowed to shoot the pilot. If it didn’t go well, that was it. Anyway, yes, it went well.
We see a lot of clips from Fox movies here, but maybe not in the way you might expect. Guggenheim uses an interesting device to have scenes in Fox’s films serve as re-enactments of things that happened to him in real life. For example, when Fox was struggling and couldn’t get a job, we see Fox begging for a job The secret of my success. When we see Roger Ebert mention that Fox should play an unruly character, we see that Fox is an asshole The hard way.
The early 90’s seem to be really tough for Fox. He gets his Parkinson’s diagnosis, then takes pills and alcohol and works to try to escape his reality. In a nutshell, he describes his wife, Tracy Pollan, as “a single mom” because Fox was basically making movies non-stop. And the quality of these films began to decline. (Although I will argue from that time Doctor Hollywood and The hard way are both very good.)
The current Michael J. Fox seems to be in good spirits. Though he falls often, something Fox says is only part of the deal. His family advises him to be more careful, but “careful” isn’t really the issue here. There’s literally a scene where he’s walking down the street, a fan says hello, and Fox falls. He gets back up straight away, but he’s not so lucky as he fell off-camera and broke his cheekbone on a table. He explains that he had to have needles put in his cheek to restructure it. But there he is, still in a good mood.
During Michael J. Fox’s most prominent run, say 1984 to 1992, I was between the ages of 9 and 17. I’ve never really thought about it, but it really hit the sweet spot of my most influential years as far as popular culture goes. Watch out Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, it’s not that I didn’t know he was an important cultural figure for me – and for many of us – but it made me realize just how much. And you can really tell how hard he worked for it. He filmed family ties and Back to the Future at the same time for three months. He didn’t have to. He could have gone on Back to the Future after they got back to him after Eric Stoltz didn’t work out. But he knew what this film would mean for his career, so who needs three months of sleep?
Michael J. Fox says in that document that none of this was genuine. At the height of his power, the foundation was paper. It’s fleeting. I get what he’s saying – making a living as an actor in movies isn’t going to last forever; There’s a shelf life that’s shorter than most jobs – but I disagree that it’s not real. At least not in his case. He has brought so much joy to me and so many others over the years, joy that is not always easy to come by. That certainly is real.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.