"it is clear Fox is still a creative force, still achieving a lot of good in the world and still treasured as an industry legend"
Michael J Fox's new movie "Still" wasn't what I expected. It's billed as an account of his public life "alongside his never-before-seen private journey, including the years that followed his diagnosis with Parkinson's disease at the age of 29". Fox seems to be in possession of his characteristic wit and upbeat personality despite the demands of his disease. I was curious to see how Fox had come to terms with his life-altering diagnosis or as director, Davis Guggenheim succinctly puts it, "What happens when an incurable optimist confronts an incurable disease?" I was also curious to see how Fox had achieved so much since his diagnosis. Fox has been on an inspirational public crusade for Parkinson's in the past 2 decades. His foundation - The Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research – has issued over $1 billion in research funding.
Still beginning in 1990 when Fox experienced the first twitchy signs of Parkinson's in his pinky finger, Fox's voiceover tells us he was spending his days back then in an 'acid bath of fear and professional insecurity". As we switch to the present day, Fox's blue eyes stare calmly into the camera. He runs his fingers through his now curly hair, a switch that happened when he was 49 apparently. He bluntly states that this won't be a "sad sack story" because "that's boring". His irrepressible spirit and desire to entertain is clear, he's not seeking pity. Fox wants to create awareness of Parkinson's and considers this to be a film for his fans who along with my family have been the reason he has been able to go on.
Fox narrates his rise to extraordinary fame. He tells us he was "never still before" and "couldn't be still until I no longer could keep still." In a retrospective, narrative collage, Fox takes us back to his childhood as a short, baby-faced Canadian kid who found his home in the drama club. We're guided through his early roles and to his eventual move to Hollywood where he spent years struggling as a young actor before landing his breakout role in Family Ties in 1982. From there he grew into the household name we all know and love.
Editor Michael Harte illustrates Fox's biography with staged re-enactments and clips from Fox's work and various TV appearances. This has the peculiar effect of blurring Fox's public persona with his private world and I can't help but wonder if this is intentional. As Fox's career progressed so did his preternatural work ethic. Whilst working on Family Ties he simultaneously worked on Back to the Future. He tells us he only got 2-3 hours of sleep a night. Most of his twenties seem to have been lived in fast forward. The recounting of this whirlwind of activity is intercut with the acute and measured movements of the present day. We see Fox having makeup gently pressed on his cheek to cover a bruise. He tells us he fell and has now got pins in his face. He shares this new information with as little drama as one might mention spilling coffee on their shirt being a continuity issue. Falls, like these, are now commonplace. His reflections about his daily struggles are profound and poignant, but still playful. He reflects on how his face becomes like a mask when his medications wear off, something that must be torture for an actor. Fox quips that his disease is the "cosmic price for all my success". It's certainly the antithesis of the frenetic energy that went before. We watch Fox with his PT trying to learn to slow his mind down so his body can merely keep up. There's evident effort in trying to untangle his uncooperative limbs to achieve moments of solidity and stillness. The footage is arresting in itself, but what was more moving for me is that after 30 years he's still learning about his condition. It's clearly an evolving journey.
Fox is open about how his earlier work demands affected his family and how things have changed substantially since. He's married to Tracy Pollan, his on-screen girlfriend from "Family Ties". Their nearly 35-year marriage is admirable by most couple's standards, let alone Hollywood romances. The fact their relationship has endured and seemingly grown through their considerable challenges is very affecting. Lesser relationships would have surely crumbled. Fox describes his wife with the sort of terms that leave a lump in your throat. He says that he 'lives it, but she makes it work'. He describes her simply and beautifully as 'clarity'.
When Fox was originally diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1991 his symptoms weren't that severe. He was able to keep it hidden by being what he describes as a "pill virtuoso" and doing the "mental math" to work out how long a dose of medication would last. In light of these revelations many of his characteristic high-energy tics, such as grasping his watch or straightening his cuffs as he confidently bowled on screen can now be seen in a different light. He was attempting to still his trembling hands whilst waiting for his pills to kick in. Fox has said in interviews that his first reaction to Parkinson's was to drink. His alcoholism, and his no doubt challenging his recovery from it, were skimmed over in Still. He does state however that "sobriety was like a knife fight in a closet where the truth was the knife." Processing the news of a life-altering diagnosis must have been brutal and I would have loved to have learned more about how this was achieved. "You are only as sick as your secrets", he says. It's unclear what Fox means by this. Perhaps he means being honest with himself because in other interviews he's stated he only went public with his diagnosis in 1998 because he felt bullied by the Paparazzi. He did find going public a relief however. He has said elsewhere it was a "great surprise that people responded the way they responded". Again, I’d have loved to have learned more about this.
A lot of Still focused on Fox's work before he developed Parkinson's. My questions and curiosity mostly related to his life after diagnosis. I felt these questions were tackled in a brief and sometimes superficial manner. Still is a wonderful, beautifully edited trip down memory lane for fans, but it left me with so many questions. Perhaps this creates opportunities for subsequent documentaries. Fox himself says in Still "I have Parkinson's. How do I want to live with that?" Answering such a powerful question would make a wonderful follow up film.
Fox poetically states towards the end of Still he "couldn't be still and present in life until he was shaken awake". We get the sense that "being awake" involves the deep and enriching love of his family. He also says "that movement isn't just about going from place to place, but expression." I hope that we learn more about how Fox expresses himself now in subsequent films and how Fox is living with Parkinson's. Until then it is clear Fox is still a creative force, still achieving a lot of good in the world and still treasured as an industry legend.