The crowd leapt to its feet as Michael J. Fox took the stage at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday for the premiere of a new documentary about his life, career and work as a public advocate for Parkinson’s research. He was joined by Davis Guggenheim, the director of “Still: A Michael J. Fox Film,” which Apple will release this year. And what moved the crowd so intensely, both during Fox’s remarks and throughout the documentary, was his optimism in the face of a devastating disease. It’s one that has impaired his speech and movement, but not his razor-sharp wit.
Fox’s sense of humor is what struck Guggenheim when he read an interview with the actor in the New York Times, and then sought out his memoirs. “His writing…was very surprising,” Guggenheim said. “It was very touching and very real, but it was also funny and insightful.” When Guggenheim approached Fox about making a film about his meteoric rise to the top of Hollywood and medical struggles, the answer was simple. “I thought, ‘I have nothing to do in the next six weeks,’” Fox quipped.
The movie they made together is inspirational, but it doesn’t shy away from the difficulty of living with Parkinson’s, a disorder that affects the nervous system and the parts of the body it controls. On screen, Fox talks about the many falls and spills that have left him with broken bones, dislocated shoulders and bruises. At times, he admitted during a post-screening Q&A, it had gotten so tough that he began to ask difficult questions.
“It got to the point recently with all these injuries where, I don’t want to get too grim, I certainly got disappointed with the way things were going.” But, Fox said, he soon realized, “This rocks. I’ll take this. I love my life. I love my family. I love what I do…I love that I can be an example to people and help them deal with their issues.”
Fox’s family, which includes his wife Tracy Pollan and four children, is a big part of what keeps him going.
“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,” he said. “It’s such joy.”
Before Parkinson’s changed everything, Fox was on top of the world with roles in “Back to the Future” and “Family Ties.” It was a period in which he says could be spoiled and self absorbed, as well as a time when he drank too much (“Still” is frank about Fox’s alcoholism). But it also gave him the kind of roles in the type of projects that have made his work so memorable and meaningful to generations of fans. Fox used his time on stage to pay tribute to one of his co-stars, Christopher Lloyd, who played his mad scientist mentor in the “Back to the Future” films. The two actors have gotten closer in recent years as they’ve appeared together at fan events.
“He’s getting younger, I’m getting older,” Fox said.
When a member of the audience praised Fox for raising $2 billion for Parkinson’s research, he had a sobering response.
“That number, as impressive as it is, kind of in a way pisses me off, because I thought that we’d be done with it by now,” Fox said. “But science is hard.”
Ever the optimist, Fox then pivoted to the progress that had been made towards finding a cure. There may eventually be a pill that people can take that would prevent them from ever getting Parkinson’s, he said.
“People say, ‘But that will be after your time, are you ok with that?’” Fox asked rhetorically, before answering his own question.
“Shit yeah,” he said. “That would be great. Just get it done. I don’t care if I’m on the bus.”