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Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie
Photograph: Sundance Institute

8 unexpected things we learned from the new Michael J. Fox documentary

‘Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie’ is brutally honest and seriously moving

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen
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One thing the Sundance Film Festival delivers almost without fail every year is a new doc that offers startling insights about the troubled life of a much-loved public figure – or, as was the case last year, Kanye West. This year there are two to pick from: Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, about 1970s child star Brooke Shields and her bitter introduction to Hollywood, and Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, a buoyant but bittersweet portrait of the kid from Edmonton, Canada who became a Hollywood icon.

Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), Still charts the euphoric highs and deep lows experienced by the one-time Marty McFly and Alex P Keaton. With new interviews, archive footage, some smart reconstructions and a tonne of spiky wit and still-boyish charm, the 61-year-old looks back at his Hollywood breakthrough, that cruel Parkinson’s diagnosis and a stirring comeback story in a heart-filling story of resilience under pressure. Here are five unexpected revelations from the documentary. 

Initially, he thought his Parkinson’s disease was a bad hangover

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie opens, Apocalypse Now like, with a blurrily drunken hotel room encounter with its subject. The reconstruction shows Fox waking up after a night’s drinking with his old friend and Doc Hollywood co-star Woody Harrelson, shaking and unable to focus on the finger in front of his face. ‘The trembling was a message from the future,’ Fox recalls. It turned out to be a sign of Parkinson’s disease. A formal diagnosis came in 1991 but, as the doc charts, it’d be seven more years before he revealed it publicly. 

He self-identifies as ‘a cockroach’

Okay, not literally in the scurring-around-your-basement sense, but figuratively as a survivor and no one’s idea of a victim, Fox identifies with cockroaches. I’m a tough son of a bitch,’ he tells Guggenheim in one of the film’s talking head interviews. ‘I’ve been through a lot of stuff. You can’t kill a cockroach!’. Still is a doubly ironic title. because Fox was non-stop as a kid (‘I couldn’t be still’, he says) and Parkinson’s manifests in shaking and balance issues. But that steel shines through – as does his sense of humour. ‘The walking thing really freaks people out,’ he notes, dryly, at one point.

The Secret of My Success
Photograph: Universal PicturesMichael J Fox in ‘The Secret of My Success’ (1987)

His first acting role was as Rumpelstiltskin

Diminutive and blessed with a magical touch, the Grimm brothers’ folk favourite seems like an apt first role for the 5′ 4″ actor. ‘I was a cute elf,’ he notes in the doc. That first stab at acting didn’t come until he was 16, and was mostly driven by the fact that drama class ‘was where the girls were’.

He could be ‘a complete and utter asshole’ 

Fox met his future wife Tracy Pollan in 1985 on the set of Family Ties when she was cast as Alex P Keaton’s girlfriend, Ellen Reed – and it didn’t go that well to begin with. The fast-rising Fox, the 300 lb gorilla on the TV show’s set, welcomed her with a cutting aside about her post-lunch garlic breath. Unintimidated, and to new-found respect from her co-star, Pollan retorted that he was ‘a complete and utter fucking asshole’. In the doc, Fox admits that he could be ‘a dick’ in those early ego-led days, but adds: ‘In the face of all evidence to the contrary, I was a massive bath of fear and professional anxiety.’ It all worked out swimmingly for him and Pollan, though: they were married three years later. 

He might have worn a hard hat instead of a baseball cap

In an alternative reality to rival the dystopian Hill Valley of Back to the Future Part II, Fox planned to follow in his brother’s footsteps and become a construction worker if his acting career didn’t ignite. In the doc, he remembers his early days in Hollywood involving a tonne of auditions, but also a slew of rejections. And the jobs he did get paid peanuts, leaving him subsisting on packets of Smuckers jam in his tiny apartment.

Teen Wolf
Photograph: Atlantic Releasing CorporationFox with Susan Ursitti in ‘Teen Wolf’ (1985)

Robert Redford was rude to him in an audition

One of Fox’s earliest – and worst – audition experiences came at the hands of Robert Redford. Fox went to read for the Ordinary People role that eventually won Timothy Hutton an Oscar, but failed to make an impression. He remembers Redford spending his audition flossing his teeth throughout.

He’d clap back at studio powerbrokers

From Family Ties and Back to the Future to The Secret of My Success and Doc Hollywood, Michael J Fox’s on-screen presence was built on his preternatural charm and chutzpah – as well as an ability to get one over the local bully. In Still, he recalls an NBC studio exec dismissing him as funny on-screen, but unlikely to adorn too many lunchboxes. Fast forward past his successful Family Ties screen test and a hit first season for the show, and Fox was giving the exec a surprise gift: a lunchbox with his picture on it.

His real-life family ties are strong

One of the many moving aspects of the doc is Fox’s honest self-appraisal. He remembers pursuing Hollywood success at the expense of his family and a complex relationship with his dad, William Fox, who was initially set against him pursuing an acting career. That all changed when Fox finally rocked up in Hollywood. ‘You’ve got the world by the tail,’ his dad told him. ‘Just hold on.’

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival

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