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“My Left Foot” explores the genius of Irish 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.
The movie spans most of Brown’s life, from a childhood where he lives near-poverty with his father, who is initially ambivalent and somewhat ashamed of his disabled son, and his mother, who unlike other members of the Brown family and their physicians, believes that her nonverbal son is intelligent and aware of his surroundings. Bridget Brown, who is played by Brenda Fricker, continues to try to find solutions for her son; her first step is to place a board on the ground, with a piece of chalk, near Christy’s foot.
In one pivotal scene, Christy is watching his father interact with his other sons in the family’s home. When his father implies that Christy does not know what is happening, frustration boils over, and Christy is able, for the first time, to pick up the chalk with his toes, and draw a line. This provides all of the proof the family needs to know that Christy is capable of interacting with them, and eventually, Paddy’s dismissive nature gives way to acceptance.
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.”
He became a writer even though he lacked a public education; his life serves as an allegory to how disabled people were mistreated in society until a more enlightened time came about. But still, many of the issues the film addresses – including how the disabled interact with others, and how they often must fight for acceptance – are as prevalent today as they were during Brown’s lifetime.
“My Left Foot” earned two Academy Awards, one for Daniel Day Lewis, who won the Best Actor Oscar, and Brenda Fricker, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. It is available on NetFlix, as well as most video rental establishments.
Of course parents already know their child’s journey is the stuff movies are made of, but as it turns out, there are several movies about individuals with Cerebral Palsy and how their condition has affected their lives. Here are some films that tell stories about inspiring people.