In February, Daniel Day Lewis became the first actor to ever win a 3rd Academy Award for Best Actor following his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. While he is known for his many great performances and inspiring roles over his career, his best performance may be one in which he transforms into Christy Brown, an author and painter with Spastic Quadriplegia Cerebral Palsy. The movie is My Left Foot – The Story of Christy Brown (1989) and is based on the true story of a man who overcame many obstacles to become a successful artist and author.
Because I had never heard of this film – it was, in fact, released when I was 8 years old – I wanted to say this movie is not well known. Yet Daniel Day Lewis won his first Best Actor Academy Award for his role! The movie sheds light on the (mis)perceptions people had, and to some extent still have, towards people with physical disabilities. We are taken through the his story with details of how his family coped and of his personal struggles of living with cerebral palsy in an era when so little was known about the condition.
Christy Brown was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1932 to a working class Irish family. Soon after his birth, when it was discovered that Christy had a severe neurological condition, his parents refused advice to have him admitted to a convalescent care hospital and decided to raise him, instead, at home with the rest of their large family.
An early scene in the movie shows Christy’s mom carrying him, at age 9, upstairs to bed, but labouring quite a bit afterwards. She subsequently fell down the stairs and lay unconscious at the bottom step. This is where we first see the cognitive and physical potential of Christy, as he was able to climb out of bed, drag himself across the floor and then down the stairs, and proceed to bang on the front door with his left foot until a neighbour answered and called an ambulance.
As he grew, it became evident that Christy not only had the cognitive ability to understand spoken language, read, and even perform math problems, but also the physical ability to write and paint – all with his LEFT FOOT!
He went on to author an autobiography, titled My Left Foot, which was the inspiration for this film.
From a therapist’s perspective, this film had several interesting events and commentaries.
You get a glimpse into how a large family, at first barely tolerating Christy, was able to grow to not just accept him as an individual, but respect his abilities as an artist and writer. My favourite scene of the movie was of a teenage Christy playing soccer with his brothers against the neighbourhood boys. He plays goalie and makes an excellent save with his head, before also taking a penalty kick and, of course, scoring easily by surprising his opponent with a rocket-like left footer.
Remembering that the movie is set in Ireland during the 40’s and 50’s, it’s not surprising that Christy didn’t have access to a wheelchair. The family, instead, made him a wooden wagon. We have come a long long way in seating and positioning technologies, but I was intrigued that the family totally made this wagon work.
As an adult, Christy was taken to what appeared to be a rehab hospital which, in movie time, he tolerated for about 3.5 seconds. You could tell he was bored with the therapy and it looked pretty boring. The therapy looked like therapy probably occurred 40 or so years ago, but the sad reality is that this type of therapy still occurs.
The movie was able to demonstrate that individuals who may be considered physically and/or mentally disabled are people. They might experience the world in a different way, but not necessarily just because of a physical or cognitive deficit, but because of how they are treated by society.
My Left Foot and Daniel Day Lewis are deserving of all the accolades received 23 years ago. The acting was superb and the story inspiring, and I would recommend this to all of my clients and their families.