“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (2023). Cast: Interviews/Contemporary Footage: Michael J. Fox, Tracy Pollan, Annabelle Fox, Aquinnah Fox, Sam Fox, Schuyler Fox, Siobhan Murphy. Re-creations: Danny Irizarry, Hannah Galway, Kai Kreinman, Miles Meacham, Sherry Klassen, Darren Zimmer. Archive Footage: Barbara Walters, Phil Donahue, Katie Couric, Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, Muhammed Ali, Meredith Baxter, Justine Bateman, Gary David Goldberg, Brandon Tartikoff, Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, Eric Stoltz, Thomas F. Wilson, Sean Penn, Barry Bostwick, Richard Kind, Jay Leno, Johnny Carson, Joan Rivers. Director: Davis Guggenheim. Source Material: Michael J. Fox. Web site. Trailer.
As a society that worships those in the celebrity spotlight, we tend to place these icons on pedestals, imbuing them with almost superhuman attributes. We often look on them as leading seemingly perfect lives. We may even wonder, “What problems could they possibly have?” But, given their seemingly larger-than-life accomplishments, we frequently lose sight of the fact that these luminaries are people just like the rest of us, subject to the same issues and challenges that we all face. We forget that they must ultimately respond to these matters just as we do. And, like us, they might approach them in some of the same ways as us, such as willful denial. That’s why their eventual revelation of these circumstances can carry tremendous weight, reminding us of the common ground that binds us and them. Those kinds of connections can leave a lasting impact on us, as explored through the highly publicized experiences of one such celebrity, a story chronicled in the riveting new documentary, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie.”
In the 1980s, actor Michael J. Fox burst onto the entertainment scene as one of the decade’s mega-stars with the success of his hit TV show, Family Ties (1982-1989), a series whose focus he almost single-handedly changed and earned him three Prime Time Emmy Awards for best leading actor in a comedy. This led to a string of popular movies, most notably the iconic sci-fi comedy, “Back to the Future” (1985) and its two sequels (1989, 1990), as well as such other offerings as “Teen Wolf” (1985), “The Secret of My Success” (1987), “Bright Lights, Big City” (1988) and “Casualties of War” (1989). Fox also became a media darling and high-profile Hollywood celebrity, appearing on a variety of TV talk shows like Donahue and The Tonight Show.
In short order, Fox was seemingly everywhere all at once, a fitting development for someone who had lived his life like that from the time he was a child. This frenetic pace of living had followed him for so long, in fact, that he never learned how to be, as this film’s title suggests, still. He admits that he never really took the time to stop and take stock of his life, particularly looking inward to examine who he was. And, with all of his success and the buildup he received because of it, the once-struggling actor came to believe that he could do anything, that he was virtually invincible.
In 1990, however, Fox received a medical diagnosis that nearly stopped him in his tracks – he was discovered to be suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, an illness that usually strikes in old age, not someone on his late 20s. He had difficulty accepting the news, often asking himself, “How could something like this happen to me? I’m Michael J. Fox!”
Having never learned how to be still and at peace with himself, he didn’t know what to do. His first reaction was denial, a mindset that prompted him to try to escape. He sought refuge in drinking, something that turned from a pastime into an addiction. It didn’t help the management of his illness and placed a strain on his marriage to wife, actress Tracy Pollan. And, even though he eventually succeeded in kicking the habit, he still hadn’t come to terms with his diagnosis.
Fox next sought to conceal his condition, something he did rather successfully for a number of years. He learned how to cleverly mask his Parkinson’s symptoms through a combination of medication, sustained sobriety and throwing himself into a steady work routine, returning to television in the series Spin City (1996-2001) for which he won a Prime Time Emmy Award for best lead actor in a comedy on top of three additional nominations in the same category. But, try as he might to keep things under wraps, he eventually reached a point where he felt he had to openly acknowledge his circumstances, which he did at a high-profile press conference.
With the burden of this secret removed, Fox started work on changing his life. He began focusing on his treatment, which included regimens for his physical symptoms and guidance on how to slow down, look within, and place his personal and professional lives in perspective. He also devoted more attention to his family life, spending more time with his wife and four children. In 2000, he began actively engaging in philanthropic work, establishing The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which has since become the world’s largest charitable organization devoted to this cause, having raised over $1 billion in research funding. And, along with former boxer Muhammed Ali, he testified before a Congressional committee to lobby for increased financial support for this condition.
Through these efforts, Fox has brought a new sense of meaning to his life. He has come to terms with his illness, and he has refused to shrink away into the shadows, remaining in the public eye and continuing to work as a writer and actor. He has brought greater attention to the effects of this debilitating disease. And he has strengthened his relationship with those he cares about most. But, perhaps most importantly, he has finally learned how to be still, a development brought about in an unexpected way but with an undeniable impact, both for himself – and for so many others.
Drawing from Fox’s writings about his life, director Davis Guggenheim’s latest documentary feature tells the title character’s story using an inventive combination of archive footage, interviews with Fox, actor-based re-creations of incidents from his life and footage from his treatment sessions that candidly depict how his condition has progressed. There are also a number of sequences in which Fox’s story is told through fittingly appropriate clips from his movie and TV projects, enhancing the themes that have run through his life and ironically reminding us that art can indeed imitate life. The result is a unique biographical composite that provides an insightful look at one of the entertainment industry’s biggest stars who just happens to be wrestling with issues that extend beyond the boundaries of celebrity.
It’s been said that, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. It’s also been suggested that the “teacher” may not take an expected form, perhaps not even that of a human. Indeed, as many students have discovered, their best teachers have not at all been what they imagined, coming along at a seemingly unexpected time and disguised in a form far from what was anticipated. However, in those instances, the lessons taught – and learned – proved to be among the most powerful and meaningful those pupils have ever experienced.
Michael J. Fox can certainly attest to that. His illness brought him the “teacher” he needed in so many respects. And drawing those circumstances into his life proved valuable in helping him learn the lessons he needed to get. Such are what’s possible through the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw on the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents in manifesting the reality we experience, including the elements needed to teach us valuable life lessons. Fox may not have been aware of this school of thought nor of the timing or form of the teacher that materialized in his life, but its appearance nevertheless helped to bring about the education he needed.
As many of us have discovered, adversity often has a tremendous impact on us. It forces us to slow down and take stock of ourselves and our lives, giving us the time and attention needed to turn introspectively without distraction. And, with such intangible resources available to us during these periods of convalescing – elements that may well not have been available to us previously – we can focus on what we may have heretofore ignored, avoided or not taken the time to address. It can be quite the learning experience, taught by an unlikely teacher.
By his own admission, this was very much the case with Fox. As a child, he had trouble keeping still. And, once his career began to take off, he didn’t have the time to examine this issue. In describing the development of this jam-packed career, he talks about the period when he was simultaneously shooting “Back to the Future” and recording episodes of Family Ties. His days were filled with work on his TV series, and his nights were spent on the movie set, leaving him with little time for virtually anything else. Subsequently, his life was swamped with other projects, having made five movies in three years. And, all throughout this period, he was busy with doing publicity work and interviews to promote these projects. Whatever “free” time he had was spent “relaxing,” which largely consisted of hedonistic pursuits, activities that flew by at almost the same frenzied pace as his work life. This left Fox with little time for introspection and looking into long-ignored life lessons.
Parkinson’s changed all that. It imposed changes on him, some of which Fox was slow to accept. But, with the passage of time, he had to reconcile himself to his new normal. And, gradually, he did so, finally seeing what this experience had to offer him. It may not have been what he was expecting, but it provided him with what he needed.
Ironically, the illness that many would say trapped him ended up liberating him in some very important and meaningful ways. It taught him how to become still. It helped him develop a greater appreciation for spending time with his wife and children. It enabled him to see the gift that life is. But, perhaps most importantly, it provided him with an opportunity to give back through his philanthropic work, most notably through the establishment of his charitable foundation. His celebrity also made it possible for him to draw highly visible attention to his condition, lending credence to such initiatives as his testimony before Congress. And who says there’s nothing good to come out of seeming misfortune? Talk about silver linings.
Fox’s journey may have been an unexpected one. And, even though it might have taken him some time to discover the underlying meaning of his circumstances, his experience proved to be a valuable wake-up call. The realizations to come out of it managed to surface and had a profound impact, both on him and on others in the Parkinson’s community. Better late than never.
Director Davis Guggenheim’s latest documentary feature presents viewers with a compelling and touching tale, one that goes beyond the bounds of celebrity and coping with a debilitating disease. It shows us what can come out of conditions like these and the impact it can leave. And it accomplishes these goals in an inventive way through its intriguing mix of elements, content that’s blended seamlessly to drive home its messages. Admittedly, the film has some initial difficulty finding traction to tell its story, but, once past these minor stumbles, it proceeds smoothly, growing ever more insightful and compelling as the narrative plays out. “Still” offers us an honest look into the life of a very public figure who has been fighting a very private battle and the effects that effort has had on shaping and evolving his professional, personal and philanthropic pursuits. Most of all, however, it shows us how we can identify what’s been missing from our lives and take steps to implement it, no matter how unusual the means may be for showing us the way. The film is playing in limited theatrical distribution and is available for streaming online.
When we first look at an oyster, we may have a hard time envisioning the pearl within. Yet, when we open it up and gaze upon what’s been hiding inside, we’re often overwhelmed at what we see. So it can be when we examine experiences like those depicted in this film. At first glance, we may be shocked, saddened and appalled at what we’re witnessing. But, when we work more closely, we can see the gift that awaits us. Michael J. Fox has been fortunate enough to discover this for himself through his introspective journey, and we’d be wise to follow his lead if we were ever to find ourselves in circumstances like his. Recognizing what it has to offer us can give us a whole new outlook on life – and what it may have to offer us as we move forward into the future.
Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.