‘Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie’: 5 Things We Learned About the Beloved Canadian Actor From His New Film
The new documentary 'Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie' charts the unlikely story of how a kid from Burnaby, B.C., became one of the biggest stars of the 1980s while also offering an unsentimental glimpse into what living with Parkinson’s looks like. Photo: Courtesy of AppleTV+
Canadian-born activist and actor Michael J. Fox, 61, was the pop culture darling of the 1980s. Family Ties, Back to the Future, Teen Wolf and The Secret of My Success are among the treasured Gen X nostalgia that get remixed in service of his affecting and entertaining new biographical film.
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie (on AppleTV+ and in select theatres May 12) is a portrait of the beloved Emmy, Golden Globe and Grammy Award-winning actor turned Parkinson’s disease activist who was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative condition at the age of 29. The documentary charts the unlikely story of how a short cute kid from Burnaby, B.C., became one of the biggest stars of the 1980s while also offering an unsentimental glimpse into what living with Parkinson’s looks like. It’s raw and revealing — and witty and fun, too.
Punctuated with intimate new Fox interviews filmed over the course of the pandemic, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) makes ample use of archival behind-the-scenes footage, home movies, celebrity sit-downs with the likes of Barbara Walters and Jane Pauley, and many late-night talk shows and TV profiles, and combines them with subtle re-enactments of the actor’s personal life to tell his tale. But it’s the footage from Fox’s body of work itself, edited to illustrate his life — a mix of cleverly re-contextualized clips from his television and film career, narrated with passages from 2002 autobiography Lucky Man (and three subsequent memoirs) — that make the documentary pop. The Secret of My Success, for example, mimics Fox pleading for the Back to the Future role, and his courtship of wife of 35 years, Tracy Pollan, is conveyed by first date scenes from Bright Lights, Big City (in which they co-starred).
The technique gives Still a form and energy that has earned accolades since its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. They contrast with the quieter moments of frankness where Fox takes us into his journey to stardom and becoming the face and leading force of a movement to find a Parkinson’s cure, and make his reflections on his rise to fame, loving family life with Pollan and their four adult children and activism all the more powerful.
Here, five memorable takeaways from Still.
Michael J. Fox Was Always Restless
“Before Parkinson’s, what did it mean to be still?” is a question the filmmaker poses early on. Fox wouldn’t know: “I was never still.” He’s always been on the move. It dates back to his childhood, as we learn through a charming re-enactment of a toddler Michael slipping out of the house to hit the local candy store counter.
Clips of a restless Fox rushing and running on screen (often set to pop mega-hits from the actor’s 1980s heyday) in many — so many! — scenes and movies give the documentary a propulsive forward momentum. The hyperactivity contrasts with the uneven loping present-day stride and palsy (“The walking thing really freaks people out,” Fox says early on). The metaphor of slowing down, finding stillness and resetting is an ongoing theme of the documentary in the present-day interviews.
In the 1980s, He Worked as Hard as He Played
One of Fox’s earliest roles, at 16, was playing a 12-year-old on the CBC show Leo and Me. From then on he used his diminutive size and boyish look to career advantage, playing teens well into his 20s. Most famous is his triple Emmy-winning run as high schooler Alex P. Keaton (the conservative Republican son of hippies) on the hit sitcom Family Ties.
During a much-hyped Comic-Con appearance last October that reunited him with his Back to the Future co-star Christopher Lloyd, Fox revealed that his mother Phyllis had died at 92. He then mentioned that one of her longtime quibbles was how he’d worked in tandem to the point of exhaustion making both Family Ties and Back to the Future, the movie that is his most enduring legacy.
For nearly four months, Fox filmed his iconic role of time-traveling teenager Marty McFly after putting in a full day as the lead on Family Ties. The documentary dramatizes how Teamsters shuttled the actor around during that time, from home to one set, and then the other, and home again after 20-hour days for a scant three hours sleep. At times he was so exhausted, the actor reveals, that he didn’t even know which set he was on or who he was playing. (He also recently admitted that in the mid-1980s period he was such a workaholic party animal that the did not remember dating Bangles front woman Susanna Hoffs — at all.) The schedule paid off: Back to the Future topped the summer movies of 1985 as a blockbuster while his other movie, Teen Wolf, hit second place, making him a global superstar.
He Learned to Be Upfront About Parkinson’s
Fox wasn’t always candid about the challenges of living with Parkinson’s. When the otherwise-healthy 29-year-old was initially diagnosed with the incurable progressive disease, he recalls that he drowned his denial in wine and later, as his condition progressed, kept symptoms hidden by self-dosing with crushed-up pills stashed in various pockets (and fiddling with props on the set of his sitcom Spin City) to disguise the tremor of his left hand. Since publicly sharing his diagnosis in 1998, however, Fox has been the opposite of quiet. Now, “I am a motivator and someone who tries to demystify and normalize Parkinson’s,” he told AARP in 2021, “to take away any shame or sense that it should be hidden. Because unfortunately, inevitably, it will reveal itself.”
Since it was founded in 2000, The Michael J. Fox Foundation has raised more than US$1.5 billion for Parkinson’s research. In April, researchers announced a major breakthrough in biomarkers for early detection.
He’s in Constant Pain
The reality is that Fox lives with optimism and gratitude while navigating debilitating pain. The film camera is a fly-on-the-wall at therapy and doctor appointments and goes up close as Fox matter-of-factly discusses his worsening condition, its extraordinary physical challenges and emotional setbacks. We watch while he breaks to take a pill and wait for it to kick in to be able to continue a scene, and witness brutal falls and injury recovery. At one point a makeup artist enters the frame to pat concealer on the bruising from an unexpected fall: a black eye and fractured cheek that required surgery. “Gravity is real. Even if you’re only falling from my height,” Fox quips, though even his self-effacing quick wit is no match for the split-second unpredictability of Parkinson’s.
Hope Can Be Heavy
In March, Still won SXSW’s Hope Award, presented to a feature documentary “that inspires us to act for the betterment of our communities and the world.” Indeed for many, the public nature of Fox’s journey has reframed their view (and provided inspiration). Three decades into his diagnosis, the beloved actor and activist has taken his experience and channeled it into progress for others with the disease, all with grace and humour. But his innate likability takes a toll, in its way: in gruelling therapy sessions with his physical trainer, for example, Fox admits the immense responsibility he feels to be a beacon of hope and optimism to those who are similarly facing challenges.
Fox already has the Order of Canada; in 2022, actor Woody Harrelson also presented his pal with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy Awards’ Governors Awards, praising him for turning “a chilling diagnosis into a courageous mission.”
“He never asked for the role of Parkinson’s advocate,” Harrelson said in his introduction that night, “but it is his best performance.”