‘It’s been an amazing life’: Michael J. Fox tells his story at Sundance
‘With gratitude, optimism is sustainable, and that’s the way I feel about life,’ Fox told his audience following the premiere of ‘Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie’
It was only two words, but they packed a punch.
As Michael J. Fox tells it, hearing the words “Parkinson’s disease” at the age of 29 from his doctor “bludgeoned” him.
The diagnosis came in 1991 — two years after his hit sitcom “Family Ties” ended, and a year after the third “Back to the Future” film hit theaters.
“I’m not someone who’s supposed to get this,” he recalls telling the neurologist during a scene in “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival. You lose this game, he thought. You don’t win.
But then Fox took the news to his wife of three years, Tracy Pollan, who was also his “Family Ties” co-star.
“In sickness and in health,” she said.
Fox’s recollection of this moment is one of the most moving scenes in the film. And it becomes especially clear in this moment that at its heart, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” is not a film about a movie star, nor is it a film about a man grappling with a debilitating disease.
At its core, “Still” is about the people who support you and lift you up, the ones who can cheer you up on even your hardest of days. Nowhere in the film does Fox smile wider and laugh louder than he does when he’s with his family.
When “Still” editor Michael Harte had that realization, it made the daunting task of trimming thousands of hours of footage from Fox’s “incredible story” into a 90-minute film — what he told the Deseret News was “easily the biggest challenge” of his entire career — a lot more feasible.
And after the final product premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Fox couldn’t help but marvel at the people who surround him every single day.
“When I look at the film, the thing that screams at me with how lucky I’ve been and how successful my life has been is the stuff with my family,” Fox said in a post-screening Q&A with the audience. “It’s such joy.
“It’s been an amazing life and the biggest part of it has been them.”
Michael J. Fox’s rise to stardom
In the opening scene of “Still,” Fox recounts his first noticeable symptom of Parkinson’s disease. It was 1990 and he was in bed, hungover (the film gets candid about Fox’s alcoholism, although he’s been sober for 30 years now). As he raised his hand to his face to keep the sunlight from his eyes, Fox noticed his left pinky finger twitching — what he said ended up being “a message from the future.”
The film then cuts to the present day, with Fox standing at his bathroom sink. His entire arm trembles as he squeezes toothpaste onto his toothbrush.
It’s a jarring juxtaposition, one of many throughout the film.
“Still” has a lot of humor — an early scene shows Fox recovering from a fall on a New York sidewalk. As he gets up, the actor calls out to a person passing by: “Nice to meet you! You knocked me off my feet!” But you also see a makeup artist working to cover up bruises on Fox’s face after he falls and hits his face on furniture — not the way he normally hits furniture, he says.
Through a fast-paced sequence of clips from Fox’s career, “Still” shows the actor at the height of his stardom — at one point, Fox had the No. 1 and No. 2 top films in the country with “Back to the Future” and “Teen Wolf.” It then cuts to Fox in the present day, putting all of his concentration into walking across a room with a physical trainer who reminds him to slow down.
“Still” spends a large portion of time on topics other than Parkinson’s disease. One of the most mind-boggling parts of the film is how it uses footage of the roles that solidified Fox’s stardom to help tell the actor’s story.
There’s a thrilling montage that makes use of a revving DeLorean to illustrate Fox’s wildly busy schedule of traveling back and forth to simultaneously film “Family Ties” and “Back to the Future.” At one point, a clip from “Family Ties” shows the father of Fox’s character, Alex P. Keaton, questioning if his son can handle two jobs. Scenes from “Family Ties” and “Bright Lights, Big City,” which both starred Fox and Pollan, help tell the pair’s love story.
When “Still” does get to Parkinson’s disease, Fox shares how he would mask his tremors in the early years by holding objects in his left hand. A montage of film and TV clips from that time period then unfolds, revealing how Fox kept this diagnosis a secret from the public for seven years.
Confronting Parkinson’s disease
The way Fox describes it, he believed thinking about Parkinson’s disease would hasten its arrival. So he turned to alcohol to dissociate. He was angry and sullen.
Fear, he now recognizes, was at the core of that behavior.
At one point, his wife, his grounding influence who talks to him like no one else does, confronted him: “Is this what you want?” Fox recalls her saying. “Is this what you want to be?”
Sobriety initially brought him to an even lower point, Fox said, because he couldn’t escape himself. But he eventually confronted his reality head-on, going public with his diagnosis and founding the Michael J. Fox Foundation to contribute to research efforts.
After the screening, an audience member, who said he has a relative with Parkinson’s disease, lauded Fox and his foundation for all of the efforts to help find a cure for Parkinson’s, including raising $2 billion for Parkinson’s research.
“That number, as impressive as it is, kind of in a way pisses me off, because I’d hope that we’d be done with it by now. But science is hard,” Fox responded during the post-screening Q&A, noting that progress has been made toward finding a cure, including the possibility of a prophylactic injection to prevent Parkinson’s disease.
“People say to me, ‘But that will be after your time, are you OK with that?’” Fox continued. “And I’m like, … that would be great. Just get it done. I don’t care if I’m on the bus or way down the road, get this done.”
Fox called it a “privilege” to be able to use his name to help researchers receive funding to seek answers. ”That’s such a privilege, such a gift that I have nothing else to complain about,” he said.
Michael J. Fox, an optimist through and through
During the Q&A, Fox spoke with the same optimistic tone that permeates “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” which is coming to Apple TV+ later this year.
The actor and author received an emotional standing ovation following the film, and again when the Q&A came to a close. Every single response he gave during the Q&A elicited cheers from the audience.
But Fox made it clear that there are occasions when optimism feels a bit out of reach.
“It got to the point recently with all these injuries where, I never got too grim, but I certainly was disappointed in the way things had been going,” the 61-year-old actor said during the Q&A, noting that he had a sobering conversation with himself about the different directions his life could go. But then Fox remembered a line he wrote in his most recent book.
“With gratitude, optimism is sustainable, and that’s the way I feel about life,” he told his audience. “This rocks. I’ll take this. I love my life. I love my family. I love what I do. I love that people react to what I do. I love that I can be an example to other people and help them deal with their issues. … I’m enjoying it and I’m glad you’re with me.”