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The extraordinary struggles of an Irish writer/painter born with severe cerebral palsy are dramatized in Jim Sheridan's 1989 film My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown. Daniel Day-Lewis's landmark performance earned him his first Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the young man born into poverty who, due to the congenital condition, had muscular command of little else but his titular left foot.
Brown (played in his childhood years by Hugh O'Conor) is raised in a house crowded with siblings and without the financial resources to allow him medical treatment, or even a wheelchair. Nevertheless, his determined mother (Brenda Fricker, Oscar®-winner for Best Actress in a Supporting Role) finds ways to stimulate the deprived boy's imagination, and nurtures his ability to express himself, beginning with a piece of chalk held between his toes.
As an adult, Brown manages to express himself through painting, as well as writing (most of the story is told in flashbacks, as a nurse [Ruth McCabe] reads Brown's autobiography). When he undergoes treatment from the unorthodox Dr. Eileen Cole (Fiona Shaw), Brown makes great strides in his physical development. As a bond of friendship forms between them, Brown must face the realization that -- being unlike the typical man -- he may be deprived of the thing he has come to crave: a romantic relationship.
The project came into being during a party in Dublin, where producer Noel Pearson met a somewhat inebriated Day-Lewis and began discussing the life and work of Christy Brown. The episode was later reported in The New York Times: "I thought he was bored out of his brain," Pearson recalled, "He didn't say much, didn't look interested." Nevertheless, Pearson sent Day-Lewis an unsolicited script, and received a call only two days later, "Why didn't you tell me you were doing this?" Day-Lewis asked, "I was fascinated by the story." "Fascinated?" Pearson replied, "I thought you were drunk."
It is said that Day-Lewis was intrigued by the screenplay from scene one, in which a record is placed on a turntable by a foot. "I thought this was one of the most unusual first pages I'd ever encountered," Day-Lewis told The New York Times, "I was delighted with it. Then I thought, how on earth could I do this? It's impossible."
Beyond the challenges of playing a person with severe cerebral palsy, Day-Lewis was fascinated by Brown's battles to express himself. In the book Daniel Day-Lewis: The Fire Within, author Garry Jenkins quotes Day-Lewis: "One of the things I am most intrigued by is inarticulacy. And I don't mean the ability to put words together... Christy Brown's struggle -- as it is for most of us -- was to express himself. And that is the thing I'm nearly always attracted to in a part; the difficulties, the personal problems people have in giving of themselves. Whether it's in words, in painting or passion."
Day-Lewis met with Pearson, who introduced him to first-time director Jim Sheridan, and their mutual passion for the script propelled it toward production.
As it often is with independent films, the final cost of My Left Foot is difficult to determine: 600,000 by some reports, 1.7 million, $2 million, $3 million by others. Regardless of the sum, financing the project proved difficult for producer Pearson, even with a rising star cast in the lead. Biographer Jenkins reports that Day-Lewis agreed to appear in the film for the modest sum of 70,000, plus a percentage of profits. But even that proved more than Pearson could raise. While the film was in preproduction, only 40% of the funds were in place. "'A week before we were due to begin shooting, I had to ring Daniel and tell him we would not have the money to pay him.' the producer remembered later. Daniel's response was instantaneous: 'It doesn't matter,' he said. 'I'm arriving on Tuesday anyway.'"
Production lasted nine weeks, with filming taking place in Dublin and at the Ardmore Studios in County Wicklow, Ireland.
To research the physical aspects of the role, Day-Lewis worked with disabled painter Gene Lambert in Dublin.
He also spent time at a prominent Dublin treatment center: the Sandymount School and Clinic. At first, headmaster Tony Jordan was reluctant to allow an actor to spend time with the staff and patients. "He told me he was Daniel Day-Lewis, which didn't mean anything at all to me at the time... There had been several efforts to do a life of Christy Brown in the past. I wasn't very interested in giving the man much time really." Fortunately, Jordan was acquainted with Pearson, and knew of Sheridan's reputation in the theatre, and agreed to allow Day-Lewis to mingle with some of the patients with cerebral palsy.
After reading the screenplay, Jordan was perturbed by the presence of "Dr. Eileen Cole." In Daniel Day-Lewis: The Biography, author Laura Jackson quotes the Sandymount headmaster as saying, "The character in the film Dr. Eileen Cole never existed. She was supposed to represent an amalgam of several people who helped Christy. Robert Collis was his mentor in every way -- in his education and physical development but, more than that, he encouraged him to paint and write. In fact, he proofread Christy's first book and contacted the publishers for him -- the lot. Dr. Patricia Sheehan, who had played a very important role in Christy's development, was very much against the portrayal of Eileen Cole in the film."
Throughout filming, Day-Lewis "lived the role" of Christy Brown, replicating the author/artist's physical state as a means of staying firmly in character -- a character who required an extraordinary amount of physical discipline. He remained in a wheelchair throughout the shoot -- even when he was not filming. He also maintained Brown's strained paralytic speech at all times. But Day-Lewis was quick to dismiss the suggestion that he was employing a conventionalized acting technique. "I don't follow the Method," he told The New York Times, "I don't even have a normal way of working. I tend to be suspicious of all systems of acting, so I was just trying to come to terms with the more extreme physical problems of playing someone who is disabled."
In spite of his accomplishments on stage and screen, Day-Lewis seems to have a love-hate relationship with acting. At the time he was first given the script of My Left Foot, The New York Times reported, "He was suffering the somewhat sour aftertaste of becoming a star, the anticlimax that followed the rapid succession of films -- My Beautiful Laundrette , The Unbearable Lightness of Being , A Room with a View , Stars and Bars  -- that had quite suddenly marked him as one of the most extraordinary British actors of his generation," wrote Fintan O'Toole, "He was adrift, depressed, refusing all offers of work."
The physical challenges of playing Christy Brown -- and the pressures of becoming a world renowned actor -- brought about a case of "nervous exhaustion," causing Day-Lewis to walk off the stage mid-performance in the National Theatre production of Hamlet (1989). It was three years before he would return to the screen.
A decade after this break from acting -- a decade in which he appeared in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Sheridan's In the Name of the Father (1993), and an adaptation of Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1996) -- Day-Lewis announced his retirement from the stage and screen, and unveiled his plans to move to Italy and become a cobbler. Day-Lewis made good on his vow, at least until Martin Scorsese convinced him to return from seclusion to appear in his historical epic Gangs of New York (2002), for which he received another Oscar® nomination.
My Left Foot had its North American premiere on September 13, 1989, at the Toronto Film Festival, then played the New York Film Festival ten days later, captivating critics and audiences alike. In his four-star review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote, "My Left Foot is a great film for many reasons, but the most important is that it gives us such a complete picture of this man's life. It is not an inspirational movie, although it inspires. It is not a sympathetic movie, although it inspires sympathy. It is the story of a stubborn, difficult, blessed and gifted man who was dealt a bad hand, who played it brilliantly, and who left us some good books, some good paintings and the example of his courage."
The New York Times heralded the film as "an intelligent, beautifully acted adaptation," but felt it was perhaps too "polite." Vincent Canby wrote, "My Left Foot might have been even better if it had been even more caustic."
Caustic or not, My Left Foot was a triumph at the box-office. It earned $14.7 million in the U.S. alone and, because of its low cost, was ranked the tenth most profitable U.S. release of the year. In addition to the Oscar® wins for Day-Lewis and Fricker, it earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Ironically, My Left Foot had been rejected from the Cannes Film Festival the year before.
In 2007, some controversy was stirred by the publication of the book Christy Brown: The Life that Inspired My Left Foot by Georgina Louise Hambleton, who sought to expose the true character of Brown's wife Mary Carr (who appears in the film as the nurse who reads the autobiography). Carr, the book claims, was not a nurse but a dental receptionist, and alleges that she was a substance-abusing prostitute and lesbian. As a key source of information, the book relied upon Christy's brother Sean, who remarked, "Christy loved her but it wasn't reciprocated because she was not that kind of person. If she loved him like she said she did, she wouldn't have had affairs with both men and women."
Having been a personal friend of Brown's, producer Pearson was no doubt aware of the stormy final chapter of the writer's life, and seems to have consciously skirted the issue of Brown's relationship with Carr -- and the uncomfortable fact that "Christy choked to death on September 6, 1981, while Mary was feeding him a meal of lamb and potatoes" (London Daily Mail). Rather than diminish Brown's triumphs over adversity with a tragic end, Pearson and Sheridan opted to judiciously fade to black and roll the credits just as that problematic chapter of Brown's life was beginning.
Director: Jim Sheridan
Producer: Noel Pearson
Screenplay: Shane Connaughton, Jim Sheridan
Based on the book by Christy Brown
Cinematography: Jack Conroy
Production Design: Austen Spriggs
Music by Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Christy Brown), Brenda Fricker (Mrs. Brown), Fiona Shaw (Dr. Eileen Cole), Ray McAnally (Mr. Brown), Alison Whelan (Sheila), Kirsten Sheridan (Sharon), Declan Croghan (Tom), Cyril Cusack (Lord Castlewelland).
by Bret Wood