You don’t have to be a fan of film star Michael J Fox to be moved by the tale of his Parkinson’s disease.
Fox was at the height of his powers, aged only 29, with the Back to the Future films under his belt, when the disease struck.
‘How could I have this old people’s disease?’ was his reaction.
For seven years, he kept the news quiet from the movie studios – and his fans. Now, though, the films he was in then have an added poignancy. He could mask the Parkinson’s if he held his limbs still or carried something – that’s why he’s so often holding his wrist, looking at his watch or grasping a bottle. The disease started slowly – ‘The trembling was a message from the future,’ as he wittily puts it – before becoming the all-encompassing horror it is now.
You see him walking down the streets of Manhattan, bent over and scuttling, before an agonising fall on the pavement when he turns to say hello to a passing fan. He struggles to squeeze toothpaste onto a toothbrush.
Parkinson’s is a nightmare for anyone, and particularly for an actor. It’s sometimes hard to hear him speak and he’s forever breaking things in falls – including his hand, arm and cheekbone.
Now 62, he is admirably vanity-free and open to the most direct of questions from the director, Davis Guggenheim.
With his quick, self-deprecating wit, Fox tries to take the edge off his horrible predicament. At one point, he talks about the public reception to the news about his condition and says, ‘I find it extremely moving – no pun intended [given the vigorous shakes he can’t control].’
When he admits, ‘I’m in intense pain,’ he immediately smiles, to avoid appearing gloomy or self-pitying.
Interspersed with the unremitting progress of his disease is his life story. A happy childhood in Canada was unusual only in the detail of his diminutive height. The shortest in his class, he grew to five foot three and then stopped. Acting – in ‘cute elf’ roles, as he charmingly puts it – was his salvation.
The slightly clunky re-enactions of his youth show his desperate bids for stardom: first appearing on screen at 15, and moving to LA aged 18. He finally got his big break in 1982, on the NBC show Family Ties. And then came the megabreak in 1985 – as Marty McFly in Back to the Future.
Fox became one of the great stars of the ’80s – the sex thimble every American Mom wanted their daughter to marry.
Everything went right – he married his Family Ties co-star, Tracy Pollan, in 1988. Family Ties ran from 1982 to 1989; the Back to the Future trilogy from 1985 to 1990.
You remain painfully aware of what awaits Fox, even as you see the pictures of the Ferraris of his youth and the shots of chat shows when he was the Boy Prince of Hollywood.
It began to go wrong in 1991, with the Parkinson’s diagnosis. Fox concealed it until 1998, even as he embarked on another hit show, Spin City.
He continued to act for over 20 years, not least in a funny cameo in Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he cheerfully mocks his Parkinson’s.
But he knew all these years he was acting on borrowed time. In 2021, he retired, defeated by the struggle to smile and the blank countenance of the Parkinson’s-sufferer.
This could have been a schmaltzy feelgood film. But in fact it’s so honestly done that it’s genuinely moving. Yes, Fox has a lovely supportive wife – ‘In sickness and in health,’ she whispered on hearing the Parkinson’s diagnosis – and four adorable children.
But it remains a feelbad film. There is no cure for Parkinson’s, however rich or famous you are. As Fox says, ‘You lose this game. You don’t win this.’