For anyone who grew up, or was just around, in the ’80s there was no escaping Michael J. Fox. The guy was in Back to the Future, for cryin’ out loud.
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie just launched on AppleTV in May 2023 to critical acclaim (it’s also playing in select cinemas). The documentary, directed by Davis Guggenheim, offers a look at his career, with considerable focus on his debilitating condition—Parkinson’s disease.
This is a fantastic documentary. Very candid. With the now retired actor, at 61, on fine form with his self-deprecation and moving insights into his family life.
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie and the Life of a Disabled Film Star
Michael Andrew Fox was born in Alberta, Canada, and is of English, Irish, and Scottish descent. He moved to LA in America when he was 18 with dreams of being an actor, but struggled to make an impression.
Short in stature (he’s 5’3″), he’d also struggled with bullying during his educational years and found hyperactivity to be a key asset for his success.
Fox has fantastic comedy timing and a ready wit. These attributes (alongside his often described adorable and cute appearance) bagged him the role of Alex P. Keaton in US sitcom Family Ties, which ran from 1982-1989.
He became the unexpected star of the show, launching his career and bagging him the role in Back to the Future (1985). Steven Spielberg specifically insisted Fox star in the film, but as the actor was busy working on Family Ties he had to shoot both simultaneously.
That played out in a frenetic three month run of sleep deprivation for the young actor, who survived off black coffee and youthful energy. It’s interesting watching clips of the film now.
In these scenes, Fox was physically exhausted. In Still, he reveals he was so fatigued he’d arrive on set and often not know whether he was filming for Family Ties or Back to the Future.
Despite being convinced he was doing an awful job, his performances were terrific and launched him to international superstardom.
The hits didn’t stop. He was everywhere and in high demand for films. He was bagging awards left, right, and centre—five Emmys, four Golden Globes, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and a Grammy.
But by 1990 he was showing signs of early onset Parkinson’s disease.
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie builds steadily to this moment, which was (naturally) a lifechanging development for the actor.
One of the most important aspects to his life around 1990 was his wife.
Fox has been married to actress Tracy Pollan since 1988 and the couple have four children. It’s very clear from the documentary it’s this family life that keeps him together, as they function very well as a unit together.
Film critic Dr. Mark Kermode notes in his review for Still: an intimate, uplifting star portrait:
“The real revelations, however, lie in the depiction of Fox’s family life, most notably his marriage to actor Tracy Pollan, who first won his heart by calling him ‘a complete fucking asshole’, and whose unswerving love leaves him all but speechless when he’s asked what she means to him, save for one word: ‘Clarity’. Ironically, while the symptoms of Parkinson’s may create the impression that Fox is never at rest, his relationship with Pollan and their children seems to have finally granted him the stillness he never had. As with the singer Edwyn Collins and his wife, Grace Maxwell, in the wonderful 2014 doc The Possibilities Are Endless, we’re left with the feeling that what we are really watching is a great love story. ‘How’s Tracy?’ Guggenheim asks Fox in one unguarded moment. ‘Married to me,’ he replies, before adding with perfect timing: ‘… still.'”
The pair met on Family Ties, when Pollan won the role of a love interest. And shortly after they starred in a film together.
Fox began noticing his little finger twitching circa 1990 and was diagnosed with his illness soon after. He spiralled into a dark depression, which included becoming an alcoholic, whilst making bad career decisions in film.
He stopped drinking in 1992.
Eventually, he moved back to TV with the hit sitcom Spin City (1996), which was very well received. But this is the most revealing, fascinating part of the documentary.
What Fox had to go through to hide his condition, live on set, whilst still trying to deliver a charming performance and be funny. During scenes, he was constantly aware he had a time limit before his cocktail of drugs stopped working.
Clips from the show reveal what he was doing, tucking his left arm into awkward positions, holding items to disguise the tremors, all whilst his face began to lose the ability to express a wide range of emotions.
Ironically, Fox claims it made some of his performances better as he wasn’t constantly “mugging” for the camera. Self-deprecation is a big part of his appeal during Still.
In 1998 he publicly revealed his condition, which is what led to his involvement in activism and establishing a charity.
Meanwhile, his sense of humour as a coping mechanism is very brave, keeping him from being morose around his family. And it appears to take the edge off what must be a very distressing condition to live with.
We can nod to other documentaries like Still. Such as Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet (2012) and the Frank Williams F1 documentary (2017), revealing heroic struggles against awful disabilities.
You can think of Christopher Reeve, Selma Blair, Bruce Willis, and others.
We can marvel at these people and their strength of character—marvel in a way, we hope, doesn’t come across in a patronising sense. Being a star in this situation has its blessings; more money than the average person, plus the status to make their voice heard.
But then it brings with it international pressure. The need to appear to be bravely battling the odds at all times. It must be a colossal psychological drain.
Michael J. Fox confirmed in early 2023 interviews things are getting worse and it’s a real struggle for him now.
If you watch the documentary, you’ll see he has regular falls.
His walking patterns are troubled and, although he doesn’t mention it during Still, it’s clear he knows he doesn’t have a huge amount of time left.
That’s why he’s done this—the documentary and he’s written a book (and provided an audio reading to go with it).
It’s him getting his memoir down whilst he still can, all completed in uplifting fashion by a quite brilliant individual. We think this is a must-watch documentary, likely to be one of the best of 2023.
And on a final note, his charity (The Michael J. Fox Foundation) has raised over $1 billion in funds to battle Parkinson’s disease.