STILL: A MICHAEL J. FOX FILM ½
2023, R, 95 mins.
A documentary directed by Davis Guggenheim
There's a moment in the sensational new Apple-produced documentary STILL: A MICHAEL J. FOX MOVIE that does an incredible job of encapsulating just what a good sport the actor is and what a wonderful self-deprecating sense of humor he possesses.
It involves a riotously funny clip from the series CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, which has the star playing himself opposite Larry David. Fox hands over a bottle of soda to David, but when the latter opens it, the contents gush out and explode all over him. David lashes out to Fox, who very matter-of-factly deadpans "Parkinson's" to defend himself from accusations of it being a childish prank.
The Canadian-born Fox, of course, hardly needs any introduction: He rose to meteoric fame playing one of the most likeable hard core teenage Republicans ever on TV's FAMILY TIES before making a successful transition to blockbuster movies like BACK THE FUTURE in that same decade. He would also face the horrible diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease in 1991 at just 29-years-old, a fact that he tried to keep a very well guarded secret from everyone in the industry outside of his own tightly knit family for several years. He went public with the disease and seven years later launched the Michael J. Fox Foundation For Parkinson's Research, and has become a tireless voice for research and treatment. He finally retired from professional acting in 2020 to make the full segue to being a Parkinson's spokesperson. It's clear in the early stages of STILL that Fox still looks deceptively youthful for 61, but his condition has definitely deteriorated. However, as he steadfastly emphasizes throughout the film, he doesn't want pity, nor does he want to play any type of victim card. "If you pity me," he once relays, "It's never gonna get to me...I'm a tough son of a bitch. I'm a cockroach and I've been through a lot of stuff."
It's that healthy mindset and determined attitude that made me admire Fox more than I already did while watching STILL, which is itself based on Fox's own powerfully told 2002 memoir, LUCKY MAN: A MEMOIR. Directed with frankness and sensitivity by Oscar winner David Guggenheim (AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH), STILL charts Fox's humblest beginnings as a struggling actor towards becoming an overnight superstar TV talent, which gave way to him being an in-demand Hollywood film actor and, yes, his recent segue away from the industry and into activism. This isn't told in the same sort of obligatory talking heads style of documentary, even though intimate interviews with Fox (looking directly at the camera throughout) are omnipresent. Guggenheim instead uses multiple methods to chronicle Fox's rise from struggling nobody to award-winning performer: We get a bounty of clips from his TV and film work and archival interviewers, but we also get some inspired recreations of key moments in his life. And, yes, we get Fox himself serving as the narrator of it all, and he's refreshingly candid and doesn't shy away from his career setbacks and personal demons as well. Most crucially, Fox doesn't hide behind his incurable and chronic degenerative disorder, but rather embraces it and has come to accept what it has done to him...and all while still having that rascally wide-eyed charm that made him a star in the first place. He also wisely acknowledges the central irony of his condition. He's always been a figure on the go-go-go throughout his career...always in motion...always going from one project to the next. Now, as he claims, "I couldn't be still until I could literally no longer keep still."
I was quite taken in with Fox recounting the brutal hardships that he faced when he uprooted himself from Canada to a slum apartment in Beverley Hills at the young age of 18. He knew he would experience great difficulty securing certain types of parts because of his diminutive frame (he could pass for 12 at that time in his life), but he instead focused on roles he could nab. He made a start in bit television film roles, which got his foot in the door, but he freely admits that his meager pay checks were close to nothing...and then his agent took ten per cent off of the top. He almost proudly recounts - even with the shocked Guggenheim off camera - how he liquidated many of his belongings each week just to stay afloat ("I sold off my sectional sofa section by section"). One startling revelation is that Fox admitted that he auditioned for Robert Redford's eventual Oscar winning 1980 film ORDINARY PEOPLE, but knew that Redford didn't care for him (Fox admits that the director was too busy flossing his teeth during the audition). His life would change forever after securing what would become a career-defining role as ruthless over-achiever Alex P. Keaton in FAMILY TIES, even though he was far from being Executive Producer and creator Gary David Goldberg's first choice (he wanted Matthew Broderick, but he declined). That show was originally envisioned as focusing on Alex's counter-culture hippie parents and their acclimating to lives of normalcy as parents in the 80s, but as the show took off it became clear that Fox was slowly becoming its main attraction.
It's pretty amazing to witness Fox's rise, especially when we're given photos of him from his youth and teens when he looked so embarrassingly smaller than anyone else on his hockey teams or drama clubs ("I was just a little elf!). His stardom hit whole new levels when producer Steven Spielberg was actively campaigning to secure Fox for this then-in-production BACK TO THE FUTURE, which was shooting with star Eric Stoltz, who was infamously let go during production. In an astounding piece of recreation in the doc, we see how Fox maneuvered daily and nightly from the FAMILY TIES set and to the BACK TO THE FUTURE production (he shot the show all day and then shot the film most of the night and only had a few hours of sleep in-between...for several months...kind of mind blowing). His time on FAMILY TIES would prove to be remarkably important on a personal level because of having been introduced to the woman that would eventually become his wife, Tracy Pollen, who played Alex's love interest on the show before departing. They were platonic friends until reuniting in the 1988 film BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY, and soon after became a hot item and eventually married. The pair have remained inseparable to this very day and have four children together.
At this stage in his career, Fox had it all and was pretty unstoppable, until a fateful day while shooting 1991's DOC HOLLYWOOD (a very underrated Fox film, BTW!), he woke up after a night of partying to notice that his one pinky finger was twitching abnormally. After seeking medical help, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, which predictably ravaged his whole world. Being deathly afraid of not being hired in the future, Fox kept his diagnosis to himself and his family for years and - as he explains in the doc - went to great efforts to hide his condition on movie and TV sets, especially for his small screen comeback on SPIN CITY. When he finally revealed to the world his condition he further clarified how worried he was that casting agents (and the public) would not find him funny anymore, mostly because they wouldn't be able to look past his disease. These are arguably the most sobering and sad sections of STILL, which shows Fox reminiscing about masking Parkinson's symptoms while shooting SPIN CITY and, perhaps even more troubling, his keen understanding that he most likely will not live another ten to twenty years based on the evolution of his disease. STILL never tries to cover up how physically tough Fox has it now, with even routine daily tasks taking their toil on him. There's a shocking moment of him passing by a fan with his trainer on the city streets, which leads to him awkwardly and abruptly falling down. The fan looks dismayed, but when Fox gets back on his feet with help, he drolly tells her that she knocked him off his feet."
So much of STILL reminded me considerably of VAL from a few years ago, which was another documentary about a prominent actor (Val Kilmer) who achieved huge success in movies, but then also had his life devastated by illness (in his case, by a cancer diagnosis) that derailed his career indefinitely. Both films rely on interviews (both old and new) of their subjects and both frame them without coming off too mawkishly. Both VAL and STILL cover two extraordinary lives of two very different actors that have been deeply affected by two distinct diseases, but they don't fall back on sympathy card parlor tricks either. Like Kilmer, Fox is pretty vanity-free and doesn't bury some of the skeletons in his career closet. He freely admits that - just after being diagnosed - that he turned to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism to numb his pain. He became (in his own words) "sullen and angry" and did everything he could to disassociate from Parkinson's, but with the detrimental effect of nearly destroying his marriage with Pollen, who gave him a stern ultimatum to get over his addictions...or else. To save his marriage and career, Fox gave up pills and booze and has been proudly sober for three decades, even though during the more difficult times in the doc he freely admits that staying clean (at least early on) was a Herculean effort and challenge.
But this is a large part of the intoxicating allure of STILL. The film's most hypnotizing - and often difficult to watch - segments simply involve Fox looking right into the camera at us the viewers and admitting all of his triumphs and tragedies in life, and considering what a self-described "tough son of a bitch" he remains, it's admirable to see this man in heavily declining health maintain such a modest aw-shucks attitude about his work accomplishments, family, and great difficulties making it through the days as of late. And when he digs deep into the most frustrating aspects of his condition - like, for example, frequent falls that end up breaking multiple limbs - he still doesn't demand or want your tears. He accepts the fact that - as of now - he's in tremendous pain every waking moment of his day, but he miraculously doesn't let that phase him. If you look into his eyes and past his dwindling condition, you can still see a man that wants to make people laugh while still winking at them to let them know he's in on the joke. That's beyond commendable, which is why STILL emerges as not only a must-watch for fans of Fox, but also an inspirational tale of one man facing unheard of adversity and finding the inner drive to persevere, even when he knows his time on earth is shrinking by the day. The doc is a staggeringly effective, moving, and joyous celebration of Fox the man, the actor, and the activist. It also serves to remind those that also suffer from Parkinson's that you never become the disease in question...you're still who you are...no matter what.
And even though you can see that Parkinson's has started to get the better of Fox, he remains the everlasting and upbeat optimist. What a true inspiration. And considering what he attained in his life on and off camera, what a lucky man, indeed.