Academy-award nominated My Left Foot (1989) garnered a best actor Oscar for Daniel Day-Lewis who portrays author and artist Christy Brown and a best supporting actress Oscar for Brenda Fricker who plays Christy’s mother.
By Nils Skudra
This week I watched the 1989 film My Left Foot, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown, who suffered from severe cerebral palsy but developed a unique ability to write and paint through the use of his left foot, eventually becoming an accomplished author and artist. Having seen this film on previous occasions, I felt that it merited a review since it not only portrays Christy’s struggle to overcome barriers but also the significant role that his family’s love and support played in helping him succeed. This was particularly important because of the lack of advanced disability services for people with cerebral palsy and the widespread stigmatization that they encountered at the time. In light of the subsequent improvements that have been made in disability services, the film provides a compelling look at the extent of the obstacles that Christy faced during his lifetime.
The film opens during a charity event in which Christy is the guest of honor, and it is here that we are first introduced to him while he waits in a drawing room with his handler Mary Carr (Ruth McCabe). Christy sits in a wheelchair, with his left leg being the only functioning limb, and his speech is deeply slurred due to the severity of his cerebral palsy. He displays an egotistical and entitled side to his personality as he badgers Mary to give him a cigarette; when she states that she is not his mother, he replies, “I don’t need a fucking psychology lesson, I just need a fucking light!” However, Christy also shows a witty sense of humor and warmth, allowing Mary to read his autobiography, entitled My Left Foot, and share her thoughts about his artwork. This leads Christy to reminisce about his formative years.
The subsequent flashbacks depict Christy’s childhood. Born to a poor working-class Irish family in 1932, the young Christy (Hugh O’Conor) is regarded by his father Patrick (Ray McAnally) as a cripple, and he is essentially excluded from the dinner table, lying underneath the stairs. However, his mother Bridget (Brenda Fricker) displays a strong love and tenderness toward her son, comforting him and encouraging him to develop independence when she has to leave for a few days. When she collapses down the stairs while in labour after carrying Christy up to his room, he crawls down to the front door and uses his left foot to kick at it in order to alert the neighbors.
Nonetheless, they cannot believe that a severely disabled child could have raised the alarm, and while staying at one of the neighbors’ houses, he is shown the alphabet, being told that “D” stands for “dunce.” The implicit message, therefore, is that Christy is a dunce in the eyes of his neighbors, with no prospects of showing intelligence or becoming socially integrated.
In spite of the stigmatization from the community, Christy is loved and supported by his siblings, who drive him around in a cart and include him in their activities, at one point hiding a pornographic magazine underneath him before their mother calls them home. When she discovers the magazine in his cart, she asks the parish priest to come over and give Christy a lecture on the dangers of sin. While this provides some comic relief, it also indicates the stereotypical assumptions that Christy’s siblings and other children have about him since they do not expect him to be able to read or understand the magazine, much less pick it up, therefore making him the perfect candidate for hiding it.
However, the family’s perception of Christy undergoes a profound change when he uses his left foot to write the word “mother” and draw an isosceles triangle on the floor, demonstrating his first signs of intelligence for everyone to see. This prompts Patrick to proudly hoist Christy onto his shoulders and carry him to the local bar, announcing: “This is Christy Brown, my son. Genius.”
Over the subsequent years, an adolescent Christy (Day-Lewis) takes part in his siblings’ street soccer games, using his head to stop the ball and scoring a goal by kicking it with his left foot. He also develops a talent for painting with his left foot, but he still encounters social ostracism from other teenagers. On one occasion, he sends a painting to a girl he likes, and she assumes that it came from his brother Tom whom she has a crush on. However, when her friends tell her that it was Christy’s painting and tease her about “being in love with a cripple,” she returns it, saying that she cannot accept it.
Following the loss of his father’s job, the Browns suffer serious financial hardship, having no money to buy coal. Christy cleverly devises a plan to help his brothers steal coal by stopping in front of a delivery truck, distracting the driver’s attention while his brothers unlock the back trunk. This is deeply displeasing to Bridget, but they are able to warm the house with the coal they have stolen. While the fire is burning, the family discovers a tin that Bridget has been hiding in the fireplace, containing the money that she has been saving in order to buy Christy a wheelchair. This enables Christy to have more mobility and sit upright at the dinner table.
Bridget subsequently introduces Christy to Dr. Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw), who specializes in integrative treatment for cerebral palsy patients. She takes him to her school, but he displays an aversion to being away from home in the company of mostly child patients, and therefore they agree to hold sessions in his family’s house. During their sessions, Eileen teaches Christy how to enunciate more clearly in his speech, and he becomes very articulate in reciting Shakespeare, giving his mother concern about his growing self-confidence, as she worries that he may only encounter disappointment and heartbreak. As Christy falls in love with Eileen, he soon discovers that heartbreak is indeed a part of adulthood; during an exhibition of his artwork, he declares his love for her but learns that she is engaged to her friend Peter, prompting Christy to become increasingly intoxicated and bang his head on the dining table in despair.
As Christy contemplates suicide following his rejection by Eileen, his mother and siblings decide to build a studio for him so that he may have his own room, adjacent to the family home, and continue his artwork since it gives him inspiration and focus. When his father discovers what they are doing, he brings in more bricks and actively participates in the construction of the studio. This prompts Bridget to proudly remark: “Well, Christy, that’s the nearest he’ll ever come to saying he loves you.” Following Patrick’s death of a stroke, however, a grieving Christy provokes a brawl in the bar when one of the attendees insults his father’s memory, using his left foot to shatter the man’s pint upon being told, “I don’t fight cripples.”
Christy soon starts writing his autobiography, documenting his artwork and the narrative of his lifelong struggle with cerebral palsy. The book’s publication earns Christy widespread acclaim, leading to a resumption of his friendship with Eileen who informs him of the charity event being held in his honor. We are then taken back to the present, in which Christy, having developed a rapport with Mary, asks her to go out with him, but she is very resistant to his advances. During the reception, the host reads a speech that Christy has written, which gives profound insight into his reflections about his experiences:
I was born in the Rotunda Hospital on June the fifth, 1932. There were 22 children in all, of which 13 survived. 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. And I often give up hope of ever being able to really communicate with them. It is not only the sort of isolation that every writer or artist must experience in the creative mood if he is to create anything at all. It is like a black cloud sweeping down on me unexpectedly, cutting me off from others. A sort of deaf-muteness. I lay back in my chair while my own left foot beat time to a new rhythm. Now I could relax and enjoy myself completely. I was at peace. Happy.
This speech is highly illustrative of the strides that Christy has made in his life, as well as the social obstacles that still surround him. While he has achieved success as an artist and writer, he is nonetheless conscious of the fact that his life is one of isolation and loneliness due to the stigma associated with his disability. However, using his left foot to creatively express himself provides him with the sense of purpose and fulfillment that he would otherwise have been denied, and it gives him the encouragement to pursue his dream of finding a soulmate. This is finally realized at the climax of the film, when Mary agrees to go out to the countryside with him, drinking a toast to Dublin since it is the city of his birth. An epilogue then states that he and Mary were married in 1972.
My Left Foot is a truly inspirational film, characterized by superb performances and a moving storyline. Daniel Day-Lewis is renowned for his work as a character actor who diligently immerses himself in becoming the role that he plays, which he demonstrated brilliantly in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, and he delivers a phenomenal performance as Christy Brown in this film, capturing his physical challenges and his personality with charm, sharp wit and determination. In the special features, the producer states that Day-Lewis devoted himself to studying cerebral palsy in order to get in character, visiting a clinic for cerebral palsy patients and consulting with doctors about its symptoms. Consequently, his portrayal is highly convincing, and although critics would argue that the casting of an able-bodied actor poses significant representational issues, I feel that he brings great sensitivity and empathy to his performance, which earned him an Oscar award for Best Actor. On a personal level, I would rank this as one of my top three Daniel Day-Lewis films, alongside Lincoln and Gangs of New York.
Brenda Fricker also delivers a compelling and sensitive Oscar-winning portrayal of Christy’s mother, conveying a strong and supportive maternal love and a driving motivation to see her son achieve success. In addition, Ray McAnally superbly depicts Christy’s father, capturing a personality that is at times abrasive and tumultuous but nonetheless deeply affectionate.
Moreover, the film is a profound illustration of the challenges that individuals with cerebral palsy faced during the early to mid-20th century, when it was considered a crippling disease for which institutionalization in hospitals was considered the only solution.
Subsequent advances in disability services have enabled cerebral palsy patients to enjoy successful social integration, and today we might take these services for granted. Watching My Left Foot will not only provide viewers with new insight into how limited these services used to be, but also hopefully with the inspiration to support disabled family members so that they can achieve their aspirations.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I’m now working on a secondary Master’s in Library Science. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.