I had to return to Daniel Day Lewis‘ Oscar acceptance speech from the spring of 1990 — God Bless Youtube — to make sure I was remembering it right, that he saluted the Academy for “providing me with the makings of one helluva weekend in Dublin” followed by a tribute to the young actor who played the even-younger Christy Brown in the early scenes of “My Left Foot.”
That Day Lewis, the oft-nominated, three-time Oscar winner who is basically the Brando, DeNiro and Streep of his generation of actors, could transform himself into the memoirist, poet, painter and novelist Christy Brown — born with cerebral palsy — seems like a given today. He’s simply the very best at what he did before he retired and gave the rest of the Screen Actor’s Guild a chance.
But watching the film anew, I was stunned at how good young Hugh O’Conor, a mere boy of 13 charged with managing the same transformation as Day Lewis, was and is in the film. He’d played a troubled epileptic child whom a young priest (Liam Neeson) takes an encouraging interest in for 1985’s “Lamb.” So he had to be the most qualified actor in Dublin for those early scenes. Still, he’s astonishing in a physically demanding role, managing the spasms, the “I have no mouth and I must scream” despair of an unspeaking, unable-to-write child whom everybody in 1930s and early ’40s Dublin assumed was “an idiot,” thanks to his birth defect.
Day Lewis is amazing in the film. Hugh O’Conor breaks your heart.
What drew me back to this Oscar-winner was this awards’ season, and the presence of yet another performance that might get dismissed, as some wags are wont to do, as a “stunt.”
Think of Ray Milland’s convincing drunk in “The Lost Weekend,” Joanne Woodward’s multiple personality disorder turn in “The Three Faces of Eve,” Jon Voight’s paraplegic performance in “Coming Home” or Dustin Hoffman’s autistic savant “Rain Man” and you see evidence of actors in the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences recognizing excellence, degree of difficulty and showmanship in a performance.
Day Lewis edged out fellow nominee Tom Cruise’s best shot at an Oscar for his paralyzed Vietnam vet turned anti-war protester in “Born on the Fourth of July” back in 1990.
So Brendan Fraser, putting on pounds, donning a fat suit and and assuming the role of “The Whale” is part of a long Hollywood tradition, with an Oscar nomination instantly part of the conversation.
But what Day Lewis and the other examples cited above managed to do, something Fraser pulled off as well, I think, is transcending the “disabled struggle” story trope to create a fully-formed, emotionally-flawed and complicated character.
With Christy Brown having passed just a few years before this film, based on his memoir, and some of the people involved in his life still around, “My Left Foot” still paints a complex and sometimes unflattering portrait of a man whose every day was an epic struggle, and who did not suffer this misery in silence.
We see a Brown who self-medicates and is an abusive drunk, a needy and demanding man who did not suffer anyone — fools, the well-to-do, fellow artists or the women who came into his life — easily or gladly.
Whatever “weekend” Day Lewis experienced in the pubs of Dublin, it’s hard to imagine having much fun with a brilliant, cutting and never-quite-self-pitying Brown, should you find him your drinking mate for the evening.
The movie tracks Brown from childhood, recreating that “Eureka” moment when his large, distracted and working poor family realized that his one controllable foot and its dexterous toes could write (seen above), and into adolescence and his celebrated adulthood as a man or art and letters.
Brenda Fricker collected an Oscar playing Brown’s sainted mother. Ray McAnally is his loving but dismissive-at-first hard-drinking Da’ and Fiona Shaw deftly plays a composite character, a doctor who recognizes Christy’s “poet’s soul” and the artist trapped in that barely-functioning body, and becomes Brown’s first serious romantic interest.
If anything, “My Left Foot” went a little light on the miseries of Brown’s 49 years on Earth, which is to be expected.
But Daniel Day Lewis, Hugh O’Conor and director Jim Sheridan made damned sure that whatever Hollywood thought, whatever “rewarding a stunt performance ” rationale might enter in filmdom’s collective mind about this bit of work, their combined efforts would be never less than a wholly realized human being.
This Christy would have good days and bad days, show off his love, devotion and charm, and his prickly side when he was in his cups.
It’s a performance and a film that I have to say still holds up. That makes “My Left Foot” well worth tracking down this Oscar season, and any Oscar season where you hear a whiff of “stunt” blowback against a demanding, wholly-committed performance like this one and every single other one I’ve mentioned in this appreciation, including Brendan Fraser’s.
Rating: R, violence, nudity, alcohol abuse, profanity
Cast: Daniel Day Lewis, Brenda Fricker, Ray McAnally, Fiona Shaw, Adrian Dunbar, Cyril Cusack and Hugh O’Conor.
Credits: Directed by Jim Sheridan, scripted by Shane Connaughton and Jim Sheridan, based on the memoir by Christy Brown. A Miramax release on Amazon, Tubi, PosiTV, etc.
Running time: 1:43