With the passing years and the fact people just don’t really watch television reruns anymore outside of The Office, Friends, and Seinfeld, it’s easy to forget just how good Michael J. Fox was on Family Ties. His line reading was just perfect. Here’s this guy, Alex P. Keaton, who keeps a framed photo of Richard Nixon in his bedroom, and we couldn’t help but love him. I knew Davis Guggenheim’s Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie (which premiered this week at Sundance) would deal with the status of Fox’s current health (we’ll get to that in a bit) but what I really wanted was for this movie to dive into the era when Michael J. Fox was a sensation. The film starts with Fox being asked if he wanted this documentary to be about a famous movie star who has a disabling illness. Fox responds, “That’s boring.” So, yes, I got my wish.
It’s weird to think of Michael J. Fox ever struggling. But he talks about when he first moved to L.A. from Canada he would get roles because he looked significantly younger than he was, but productions didn’t have to worry about actually dealing with an actual kid. He was getting small parts, but after selling off his furniture, he was basically down to spare change and thought he’d have to walk himself to the airport, then take a job back home picking up nails on construction sites. (I will say I was disappointed that at no time during this part of the movie is the cult favorite Midnight Madness mentioned.) As Fox put it, he still had a chip and a seat. Explaining as long as you still have a chair and one chip at a poker table, you’re not out of the game. And his last hope was Family Ties and NBC head Brandon Tartikoff wasn’t a fan of Fox and that’s kind of a problem. Fox was allowed to shoot the pilot. If it didn’t go well, that was that. Anyway, yes, it went well.
We see a lot of clips from Fox’s movies in this, but maybe not the way you might expect. Guggenheim uses an interesting device of letting scenes in Fox’s movies serve as reenactments of things that were happening to him in real life. For instance, when Fox was struggling and couldn’t get a job, we see Fox begging for a job in The Secret of My Success. When we see Roger Ebert mention that Fox should play an ornery character, we see Fox being a prick in The Hard Way.
The early ’90s seem really tough for Fox. He gets his Parkinson’s diagnosis, then uses pills and booze and work to try to escape his realities. To the point, he refers to his wife Tracy Pollan as “a single mother” because Fox was filming movies basically nonstop. And the quality of those movies were starting to have diminishing returns. (Though, from this era, I will argue Doc Hollywood and The Hard Way are both really good.)
Current Michael J. Fox seems in good spirits. Though he does fall a lot, something Fox says is just part of the deal. His family tells him to be more careful, but “careful” isn’t really the problem here. There’s literally a scene where he’s walking down the street, a fan says hello, and Fox falls down. He gets right back up, but he’s not as lucky when, off camera, he fell and broke his cheekbone on a table. He explains he had to get pins put in his cheek to restructure it. Yet, there he is, still in good spirits.
During Michael J. Fox’s most prominent run, let’s say 1984 until 1992, I was ages 9 to 17. I’ve never really thought about this before, but he really did hit the sweet spot of my most influential years, popular culture-wise. Watching Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, it’s not like I didn’t realize he was an important cultural figure for me – and a lot of us – but it made me realize just how much. And it really makes you realize 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 do that. He could have passed on Back to the Future after they came back to him after Eric Stoltz didn’t work out. But he knew what that movie would mean for his career, so who needs sleep for three months?
Michael J. Fox in this doc says none of that was real. At the height of his powers, the foundation was made of paper. It’s fleeting. I get what he’s saying – being an actor in movies for a living isn’t going to last forever; there’s a shelf life that’s shorter than most jobs – but I don’t agree it’s not real. At least not in his case. He’s given me and so many others so much joy over the years, joy that’s not always easy to come by. That certainly is real.
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