“It would not be true to say that I am no longer lonely. I have made myself articulate and understood to people in many parts of the world, and this is something we all wish to do whether we’re crippled or not. Yet like everyone else, I am acutely conscious sometimes of my own isolation, even in the midst of people.”
How those words ring true – and when spoken in the film – it’s equal parts heartbreaking and triumphant.
“My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown” (1989) – an unaffected and revitalizing film about embracing life’s challenges and rewards – opens with a close up of Daniel Day Lewis’ foot grabbing a vinyl of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. We watch as the toes take the record out of its sleeve and carefully place it on a player. We continue observing as the foot turns on the phonograph and then moves to grab the needle and gently places it on a particular groove on the record. Throughout this we hear the strong breathing of the actor in character playing Christy Brown who had cerebral palsy since childhood. What we’re witnessing takes a lot of effort, but this is the way Brown learnt to get on with his life. Day Lewis’ performance in this movie is one of the greatest I’ve seen. It’s a prodigious achievement both physically and mentally. When the actor was at SBIFF in 2013, he talked about that opening scene being the thing that intrigued him about the script because he thought it would be impossible to do. Would he be able to move and have the dexterity and command of his body to move the way Brown did?
The film is an adaptation of the 1954 memoir of the same name by Christy Brown, the celebrated Irish novelist and painter. For eight weeks, the actor prepared for the role at the Sandymount School clinic near Dublin. He learned to paint and type with his foot. Some of the scenes were captured using a mirror as Day-Lewis could better manipulate his right foot. During the six-week shoot, Day-Lewis refused to break character and spent each day sitting twisted in a wheelchair, speaking in the garroted tones of Brown, and being fed and cared for by other cast and crew members. Most miraculous is the spirituality that he’s able to convey through the tics and spasms. His eyes exude a gamut of emotions – defiance, anger, affection, loneliness, frustration and indomitably. There’s a restless soul trapped inside that body. I don’t recall ever feeling somebody’s inner spirit while watching a film. I do when I see Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown.
In one extraordinary moment towards the end of the film, Brown finds out that the teacher, who’d helped with his speech and encouraged his painting and who he’d fallen in love with, is engaged to be married. He creates quite a scene in a crowded restaurant getting heavily drunk. The camera makes you see how he feels internally – circling round the room showing faces of judgement, disgust and pity among the clientele – and then it cuts to Day-Lewis displaying all the hurt and all the anger as he continues downing drinks and being vicious. “I’ve had nothing but platonic love all my life,” he screams. “Do you know what I say? F*%k Plato! And f*&k all love that’s not a hundred percent commitment!” Brown is a very complicated character – a sharply skilled man who just happened to be handicapped. He is intentional and haughty, and Day-Lewis does not strive for your sympathy. He deservedly won the first of his three Best Actor Oscars – the only male actor to have three wins in that category.
The movie makes the point that Brown thrived because of his family. As he was born and diagnosed with his condition, the doctors encouraged putting him in an institution. His father defiantly tells them the poor family will look after him. And they do: rearing him as if there was nothing wrong with him – in particular the mother played magnificently by an Academy Award winning Brenda Fricker. When a young Christy first grabs a chalk with his toes, the rest of his body rebelling against him, it is her that commands, “Go on Christy. Make your mark!”
Jim Sheridan – the celebrated Irish director and screenwriter who has been nominated for the Oscar six times – creates a narrative that is full of humor and that doesn’t sentimentalize. His writing and directing are succinct. Every moment is staged with adroit detail and dryness. A lot of the time we will see and feel Brown’s point of view. Everything is tightly framed in the small living quarters he shares with his big family, yet there’s a sense of warmth in the color scheme – rich browns, reds, yellows – and hopeful greens.
This is a film to be cherished, and one that will help you endure our current situation. To make the best of what you have to work with — this is Christy Brown’s legacy. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, move forward. Nominated for Best Picture, it lost out to “Driving Miss Daisy.” In 2015, the Hollywood Reporter reached out to Academy Members to find out what film truly deserved the top prize that year. They chose “My Left Foot.”
Christy Brown: “All is nothing, therefore nothing must end.”
Available to stream on HBO NOW, HBO MAX, DIRECTV and HBO via Amazon Prime. Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Microsoft, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube, FandangoNOW, Apple TV and Redbox.
Screenplay by Shane Connaughton and Jim Sheridan. Based on the novel by Christy Brown.
Directed by Jim Sheridan
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Ray McAnally, Brenda Fricker, Cyril Cusack, Fiona Shaw, Hugh O’Conor, Adrian Dunbar, Ruth McCabe and Alison Whelan
Daniel Day-Lewis on Joining “My Left Foot”
As the story goes, the script of My Left Foot came in over the transom, literally dropped through the mailbox of Day Lewis’s London home last year. He was tempted to ignore it. It was only after reading the producer’s name on the cover sheet — Noel Pearson, an Irish theater producer and a longtime friend of Christy Brown’s — that Day Lewis connected the script with an almost-forgotten conversation he had had at a party several weeks before, when a bespectacled Dubliner, Pearson, had bent the actor’s ear with the story of Christy Brown. Although the film’s financing was still dicey, Day Lewis met with Pearson and Sheridan, a theater director turned screenwriter and film director. The chemistry seems to have been automatic. Day Lewis wormed a six-week hole in his schedule and signed on. “All I knew is that I found Christy irresistibly attractive,” says Day Lewis, who carries an Irish passport. “I didn’t even think the film would be made. There was no financing. Noel had never produced a film before; Jim had never directed a film before. We were quite a threesome.”
Sheridan insists that Day Lewis’s eight-week residence in Dublin’s Sandymount clinic for the disabled and the intensity of his work (many of the paintings seen in the film were painted by the actor) were the actor’s ideas. “Was it difficult to learn to write with my foot — was it difficult?” Day Lewis asks with an incredulity somewhere between mock horror and actual disdain. “What do you think? You’re an intelligent woman, don’t demean yourself by asking those kinds of questions. I could say it was difficult or at the same time that’s the easiest stuff. Anyone can learn to paint with their foot. But not everyone has to learn to paint with their foot.” Day Lewis’s insistence on remaining in character throughout filming, however, proved somewhat problematic. One day, the actor inadvertently met Brown’s relatives on the set, an encounter during which he never broke character or rose out of the wheelchair but spoke to them as the mangled Brown. “I became grossly inconvenient,” he says without elaboration. “You imagine that you’re beginning to clutter up the landscape with your frail, unappealing body. And sometimes I did cause a lot of trouble. Christy gave me great license to say what I really thought. People have such firmly rooted fears of disability, of confronting something that offends our sense of order and aesthetic beauty. It’s only the disabled people themselves that force us to confront that, and Christy was one of the pioneers.” Day Lewis speaks repeatedly of “the terrible tension between the anchorage of [Brown’s] body and the flight of imagination. I think he wanted desperately to normalize himself. That’s the fascinating thing about Christy. In a very intense way, he lived out the things we do. He had to discover his sexuality and try and fulfill it. He fought with his father and had to come to terms with a very close relationship with his mother. In this very intense way, he had to come to terms with everything we do.” (rollingstone.com)
Co-Screenwriter Shane Connaughton on “My Left Foot”
“How I got involved was a complete accident. It was during the Dublin Theatre Festival one year and I decided to go in and meet some actor mates in a pub which was acting as a theatre festival club. It was up round Grafton Street some place, and I walked in, and I said to myself ‘Oh I don’t want to have a night out, I’ll go home’, ad then I said ‘Ah while I’m here I may as well go in the door’, so I pushed the door open at the exact moment that Noel Pearson, whom I never met, never knew, was standing with his back to the door, taking to an actor called Alan Devlin. He had just said to Alan Devlin ‘I’m thinking of doing a film of ‘My Left Foot’, do you know anybody that would do the script?’ And at that moment I opened the door and Alan Devlin looked up and said ‘There’s a fella there he’ll do it.’ And Pearson turned round and that’s how I got that job. It was a complete fluke. The best things happen by accident.” (iftn.ie)
About Author Christy Brown
Christy Brown was one of the 20th Century’s most unique voices; he was a writer and an artist that pushed past his own physical limits to leave a compelling legacy that extends well beyond his native Dublin. It was his condition that drove Brown, who was diagnosed with severe spastic Cerebral Palsy shortly after his birth in 1932, to write an autobiographical tome in 1954 that covers his life from humble beginnings in Dublin flat with his parents, Bridget and Paddy, and 12 siblings, to his struggle to train the only part of his body that worked – a foot – to write, paint and inspire the literary world. That book was called “My Left Foot,” and in 1989, it was made into a film of the same name starring Daniel Day Lewis in the eponymous role. The movie was an unexpected hit, and it led to the rediscovery of Brown’s work by a new generation of readers. The film adaptation of “My Left Foot” lays bare the trials and tribulations of Brown’s life, many of which were caused by his nearly-complete quadriplegia due to Cerebral Palsy. Growing up in the 1940s and 50s, Brown was finding his footing during a time when people with physical disabilities had few options in terms of treatment, and often endured a social stigma.
Also depicted is Christy’s relationship with his physician, Dr. Eileen Cole. The physician is an expert in disorders such as Cerebral Palsy; she’s fascinated with Christy and believes she can help him. Christy benefits immensely under his tutelage; she introduces him to what is now called physical and occupational therapy, and works with him to develop speech skills. This sets the stage for his ability to pursue his writing career, and learn to paint. The film also depicts how this relationship, at least for Christy, becomes complex. “My Left Foot” delves into Christy’s burgeoning relationship with Mary Carr, a private nurse who would eventually become Christy’s wife, and the beginning of what would be his path to becoming one of the most important voices in Irish literature, aside Irish novelist and poet James Joyce. Other issues that affected Christy’s life, including those of class and place against the vibrant but often rough backdrop of Dublin in the mid-20th Century, are explored in the film. Christy – who died in 1981 at 49 years old – was fairly prolific in his writing career after the publication of “My Left Foot.” His fictionalized version of his life, “Down All the Days,” is widely considered to be his master work. He would follow up that book with four more novels, “A Shadow on Summer,” “Wild Grow the Lilies,” “Ordinary Lives,” and “A Promising Career.” He also published two collections of poems called, “Come Softly to My Wake,” “Background Music,” and, “Of Snails and Skylarks.” An additional book was published after his death called “The Collected Poems of Christy Brown.” (cerebralpalsy.org)
About Director and Co-Screenwriter Jim Sheridan
Born in Dublin in 1949, Sheridan attended University College Dublin in 1972, the year in which he married and started a family. He studied at the Abbey School of Acting, and co-founded Dublin’s Project Theatre. Moving to New York in 1981, he became Director of the Irish Arts Centre. Returning to Ireland, Sheridan made his first feature, “My Left Foot” (1989), based on the autobiographical novel by disabled Dublin working-class painter and writer, Christy Brown. Mixing Hollywood biopic elements with an examination of social contradictions – disability and ability, art and commerce, conflicting class perspectives – it was a huge success, and Daniel Day Lewis and Brenda Fricker won Oscars for their performances. Sheridan’s adaptation of John B. Keane’s rural play, “The Field,” featured an intense Richard Harris as Bull McCabe, a Famine-obsessed farmer who has spent his life cultivating a desolate field owned by a local landlady. Brilliant at times, “The Field” (1990) was marred by shifting the action of the play back to the 1930s, replacing Keane’s socialist critique of Ireland’s ’60s capitalism with a vague articulation of the influence of the Famine on contemporary Ireland.
In 1993, Sheridan and Arthur Lappin established the company, Hell’s Kitchen, and made “In the Name of the Father,” adapted by Sheridan and former political prisoner Terry George from Gerry Conlon’s autobiography, “Proved Innocent.” The film deals with events surrounding the wrongful imprisonment of Conlon and others for the IRA bombing of a Guildford pub in 1974. Combining powerful drama with a high voltage flow of factual information, it forcefully exposes corruption within the British legal system and remains Sheridan’s most skillful and contentious work. In 1997, Sheridan produced and co-wrote “Some Mother’s Son,” a political drama focusing on two mothers whose sons are involved in the 1981 IRA Hunger Strikes, which was directed by Terry George. Sheridan’s “The Boxer” reunited him with Daniel Day Lewis (who had played Gerry Conlon) in a film which examines changing Republican attitudes in the wake of the Belfast Agreement. Danny Flynn, ex-boxer, ex-IRA prisoner, attempts to redress his past by running a non-sectarian boxing club in Belfast…Sheridan has since co-produced “Agnes Brown” (d. Anjelica Huston, 1999), “On the Edge” (d. John Carney, 2000), and “Bloody Sunday” (d. Paul Greengrass, 2002). “In America” (2003), written and directed by Sheridan, relates his family’s experience in New York in the ’80s. (screenonline.org.uk) His most recent projects include “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” (2005), “Brothers” (2009), “Dream House” (2011), “Surf City” (2014), “The Secret Scripture” (2016), “11th” Hour (2017) and most recently, “In Absentia” in 2020.