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My Left Foot: Collector's Series

If you were required to show an English-speaking extraterrestrial exactly what a "movie star" is, you might start with a Cary Grant film; if asked to illuminate the term "sex symbol," Marilyn Monroe would fit the bill. And if further asked to explain just what the heck an "Oscar contender" is, you would have to look no further than Daniel Day-Lewis's paralytic-yet-energized turn in Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot (1989). The ingredients are all there, as plain and trustworthy as grandma's ginger biscuits recipe — as Irish painter Christy Brown, Day-Lewis is artistic, an outsider, relentlessly intellectual, passionate in his convictions, sometimes an arshole, and crippled. Nonetheless, while Day-Lewis's superhuman work here earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor, such doesn't mean that we should dismiss Christy Brown's story, or Jim Sheridan's film, as if it were a bucket of odiferous Oscar-bait. In fact, while the Academy routinely rewards performances of this type due to the sheer obviousness that Acting is being committed before our very eyes, My Left Foot tells a far more touching and subtle story than Day-Lewis's tortured histrionics at first indicate. Based on his autobiography (entirely typed with a single toe), the story of Christy Brown begins when his working-class Dublin parents discover their latest newborn boy has been born with severe cerebral palsy — and this in a time when the handicapped and mute were considered to be mentally retarded. A burden to his proud, hard-drinking father, but the light of his mother's life, Christy grows up unable to speak or communicate, carried around by his family in a wheelbarrow, and denied an education. The only part of his body that he has any control over is his left foot, and one day the always-listening Christy demonstrates to his family that he can write with his toes, causing the sudden revelation that he isn't a mental defective after all. His subsequent forays into painting and writing bring him great renown, if not always a peace of mind. Oscar or no, Daniel Day-Lewis's central work in My Left Foot was not only the most impressive performance on film of the year, but a cinema touchstone that will endure for decades to come. And it's not merely because of Day-Lewis's technical proficiency. It's true that he spent every morning for several weeks at a facility for cerebral palsy patients, and while the film was in production he often refused to break character off-screen, asking various people to feed him and perform other small tasks. But what Day provides is much more profound than a mere mimicry of a soul-smothering disability — within his defined limits, he allows us to see that Christy Brown is a flesh-and-blood human being with thoughts and feelings and opinions, even when those around him don't spot the same qualities. As can be expected, the script is dotted with cloying moments here and there that ask the audience to admire Christy's resilience, whether he's playing goalie in a game of street football, sneaking drinks of booze with a straw and bottle tucked into his coat, or throwing the first punch (so to speak) in a raucous pub brawl. Stand up and cheer if you like — but the picture's most genuine moments involve Christy's relationship with his father (Ray McAnally), a Dublin bricklayer with too many mouths to feed who never knows quite what to think of his abnormally gifted son, and Christy's mother (Brenda Fricker), who loves and understands her child in a way only a mother can. Buena Vista/Miramax's second DVD release of My Left Foot, now as a "Collector's Series" title, offers a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include a behind-the-scenes featurette (10 min.), a look at the real Christy Brown (4 min.), and stills. Keep-case.
—JJB



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