The a bare opening foot extracting scene shows a record a close-up album of from its sleeve. Gripping the disc between two toes, the foot gingerly slides it over the spindle of a turntable, then lifts the tone arm and sets the stylus down onto the record. Without cutting away, the camera slowly shifts upward to show that the foot belongs to British actor Daniel Day Lewis. It is an arresting sequence, setting the tone for an unusual and heroic tale. My Left Foot is the true
story of Dublin’s Christy Brown, a famous victim of cerebral palsy. Channelling his intelligence through the only limb that he could fully control—his left foot—Brown overcame enormous odds to become a successful writer and painter before his death in 1981.
Lewis gives an astonishing performance in the lead role—so impressive that the actor almost upstages the character he is trying to portray. Ostensibly, My Left Foot celebrates a handicapped person’s triumphant struggle to express himself. But it also celebrates a healthy
actor’s triumphant struggle to act severely handicapped. The movie has drawn inevitable comparisons to last year’s Rain Man, which starred Dustin Hoffman as a victim of autism. Hoffman won an Oscar for his performance, which amounted to a dazzling sideshow of acting virtuosity. For all its moral sincerity, Rain Man was a Hollywood concoction: a buddy movie, a road movie—above all, a movie. And it made the lopsided intelligence of autism seem more cute than painful. While My Left Foot works surprisingly well as entertainment, it is about a real person battling a disability that is much more difficult for an
audience to watch—and for an actor to simulate.
Based on Brown’s 1954 autobiography, the story begins with his birth in 1932—he was one of 13 surviving children bom to a Dublin woman and her bricklayer husband. Doctors tell the parents that their baby has cerebral palsy and will likely spend his life as a vegetable. But the young Christy (Hugh O’Conor) soon begins to assert a fierce will. At 7, he picks up a piece of chalk with his foot and scratches a mark on the floor. Two years later, he scrawls the word “mother.” His irascible father (Ray McAnally), who had assumed his son was terminally stupid, hoists him onto his shoulders and takes him to the local pub, where he proclaims the boy “a genius.” Lewis takes over the role as the character turns 17. Christy’s family and friends cheer him on through a series of small victories: scoring a penalty shot with his
left foot in a back-street soccer game, learning to wield a paintbrush with his toes and mastering a contorted form of speech. But Brown must also cope with an economic handicap. He is hauled around in a makeshift chariot that his father has hammered together from a wooden box and a pair of pram wheels. His protective mother (Brenda Fricker) keeps a secret stash of savings to buy him a proper wheelchair—but he is 22 before the family can finally afford one.
Brown meets his greatest challenge in the area of romance. He falls in love with a speech
therapist, Eileen (Fiona Shaw), and painfully misjudges the depth of her affection. Through a curator friend, she arranges an exhibition of his paintings. But a celebration in a fancy restaurant after the gallery opening turns sour as she confirms that her love for him is platonic. “I’ve had nothing but platonic love all my life,” stammers an enraged Brown. “I say f— Plato.”
The restaurant scene provides the movie’s most harrowing moment. As Brown gets increasingly drunk and obstreperous, his disability is reduced to a grotesque violation of etiquette. The audience suddenly finds itself in the embarrassing position of identifying with a restaurant full of patrons desperately anxious that “the cripple” be removed. Brutally effective, the scene taps the deepest roots of discrimination against the handicapped.
But, on the whole, My Left Foot is an adventure in joy rather than guilt, complete with a storybook ending in which Brown finds love. If the movie errs, it is on the side of sentiment. However, strong acting, combined with writerdirector Jim Sheridan’s eye for authenticity, keeps the drama well grounded. And the filmmaker remains true to Brown’s spirit—his irreverence and his aversion to sympathy.
In fact, Brown’s character deftly anticipates the most obvious criticism of the movie. Handing his autobiography to a woman he hopes to impress, he says, “It’s a bit sentimental.” Later, he asks her: “What do you think? Too much self-pity?” The answer is no. His modesty is endearing, but My Left Foot takes such courageous strides that it requires no apology.
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