My Left Foot (1989) ****
Directed by Jim Sheridan
I’m sure the late Christy Brown wouldn’t want to be patronized, so my saying that the film based on his autobiography comes across quite sentimental and slightly scattered probably wouldn’t bother him any more than it would bother anyone else I’d say that to. That being said, My Left Foot is ultimately an inspirational cinematic treasure which does justice by not only showing Christy’s story in a deservedly triumphant way, but it also teaches us that the expectations and limits we artificially and stereotypically ascribe to people oftentimes fall short of their true potential. As a man born with cerebral palsy in a poor family in
Daniel Day-Lewis gives the performance of a lifetime as Christy Brown—at least it would be the performance of a lifetime for a lesser actor. One mustn’t forget that he won his second Best Actor Oscar as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood this year. Add in his performances in In the Name of the Father and Gangs of New York, and you’ve got a handful of performances that are extraordinarily impressive. His performance in My Left Foot, which won him his first Best Actor Oscar elevated him to a higher level of prestige in the public’s eye, and he’s more than lived up to it.
Sure, he’s got the mannerisms of a man with cerebral palsy just right, and even more difficult, he is able to adjust them as his character gains maturity and skills to help him control his twitches. Yeah, he develops the voice of his character throughout and remains consistent in every scene, which is saying something considering the fact that the older he got, the greater his mastery of speech. Still, Day-Lewis’ triumph lies in what he delivers beyond the externals. Especially in his scenes with Ruth McCabe as his love interest Mary, he’s able to display his character’s emotions even though he doesn’t steady his mouth or his eyes because of his twitches. He portrays anger, humor, sarcasm and embarrassment clearly all while displaying a mastery of the external motions that go along with his disease. As is the case with Daniel Day-Lewis performances, he does border the line separating acting and overacting at times, especially after a funeral in a bar, but he doesn’t cross it. Never once did I see a man playing a man with cerebral palsy. All I saw was the character of Christy Brown himself. Actually, I just now realized that when I’ve been thinking of the real Christy Brown while writing my review, I still thought of Daniel Day-Lewis’ face. I suppose Christy Brown looks different than Daniel Day-Lewis—hmmm, interesting.
Brenda Fricker won an Oscar for her role as Mrs. Brown, and though she’s had one of the worst post Oscar careers in film history (a Brenda Fricker movie marathon would have to include Home Alone 2 and The Love Guru), her performance is pitch perfect. She doesn’t try to steal her scenes at all, which makes her character’s love and generosity feel genuine. I also loved Ray McAnally’s performance as Christy’s dad. Believe it or not, I actually loved the character of Mr. Brown himself even though he has moments in the film which make him look like a monster. His deep imperfections make the character feel more genuine, and he really does love his family, which we do see throughout. It seems like he really is doing the best he can to provide for everyone he loves.
I also enjoyed Fiona Shaw’s performance as Dr. Eileen Cole, a specialist in cerebral palsy that helped Christy acquire much of the skills he would use to become an independent adult. Unfortunately, Christy falls in love with her, and when he learns she’s engaged, Christy causes an extremely uncomfortable scene in a restaurant. It’s totally believable that Christy would fall in love with this character and much of the credit for this belongs to Shaw herself. Her smiling demeanor and genuine interactions with Christy made me have a little crush on her as well. It’s through this relationship that we really come to learn that Christy isn’t perfect—not by a long shot. At times, Christy can be a pigheaded, stubborn, pain in the ass. Christy Brown and the film itself must be applauded for their willingness to show the character’s dark sides. My Left Foot isn’t a condescending love fest; Christy’s ability over and over again to be a jackass makes a love fest impossible.
For a few years, I worked at a summer camp which integrated special needs campers with a general population of kids. It was a great experience for everyone involved to get to know individuals with disabilities, and it’s amazing how comfortable kids are when they get the chance to be exposed to these individuals. There was a man with cerebral palsy in his forties named Bobby Mita that had been coming to the camp for almost twenty years. His elderly parents would take care of him during the winter, and they’d leave him at camp so they could have the summer off. Bobby looked forward all year to the summer even though he had to sleep in a cabin with no air conditioning and bratty kids. I know that he got very lonely during the winters, and he loved spending the summers surrounded by people who loved him, and boy did we all love Bobby Mita! The camp has since shut down, so I’m sure Bobby’s summers are much lonelier these days. I was lucky enough to know Bobby Mita, and knowing him has forever changed the way I look at people with cerebral palsy. For those people out there who don’t have a Bobby Mita in their life at least have the character of Christy Brown in My Left Foot to enlighten and inspire them!