The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Michael J. Fox
Michael J. Fox
Being a bad ass is about more than just brawn. Courage is a lot more bad ass than muscles, and Michael J. Fox, who’s struggled publicly with Parkinson’s Disease for twenty years, is an inspiration to anyone who’s ever faced adversity - all of us. But, as fits this column, he has made some great friggin’ movies.
Fox, a nice Canadian boy from Edmonton, became a household name in the eighties, first for playing Alex P. Keaton, the conservative son of hippie parents, in the iconic sitcom “Family Ties” (a staple of my early childhood). In ‘85, he broke through to massive international stardom with his iconic casting as Marty McFly opposite Christopher Lloyd’s Doc in Robert Zemeckis’s BACK TO THE FUTURE. Always grateful to his small-screen family, he stayed on “Family Ties’ until the end, but had two more big hits, the comedy TEEN WOLF and the eighties yuppie satire THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS. After a detour into drama, Fox made two back-to-back BTTF sequels, but then his big-screen career cooled off a bit, with a string of uninspiring vehicles broken only by a supporting part in THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT and the lead in Peter Jackson’s THE FRIGHTENERS.
Soon, he went back to TV on the massively successful “Spin City”, before handing off the reins to Charlie Sheen after the symptoms of his illness became too much. Soon though, Fox was back, with parts acknowledging his condition on “Rescue Me” and his own sitcom “The Michael J. Fox Show”.
I doubt there’s any movie out there, except maybe GHOSTBUSTERS or the James Bond film OCTOPUSSY (don’t ask) that I’ve seen more often than BACK TO THE FUTURE. It absolutely boggles the mind that the movie quite nearly came out with Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly than Michael J. Fox. This is no sleight on Stoltz, who’s a great actor (seriously - check out MASK from the same year), but Fox IS Marty. The character doesn’t work without him in the part, and he’s as essential to the film’s success as Robert Zemeckis’s script (with Bob Gale), his direction, Christopher Lloyd or the Alan Silverstri score. He’s magical in the part, and to my mind it ranks as one of the most iconic performances of all time, up there with Humphrey Bogart in CASABLANCA or Sean Connery as 007. The first film is, from the first second to the last, a masterpiece and a movie I watch at least once a year (in HD of course). I’ve even seen it theatrically a few times in revivals, and it remains a touchstone movie of mine, and one of the first films I can actually say I consciously watched as a child (on the Canadian HBO, First Choice). God bless everyone involved with this movie - it’s a gift.
Which brings me to the sequels. Many of you will think I’m nuts by calling them overrated, especially the beloved second, but to me neither fully recaptures the glory of the originals - although they have their moments and are certainly very good films. Yet, they’re just not classics like the first one is, but Fox is great, and his chemistry with Lloyd is superb. My feeling is that Zemeckis’s attention was too split between the two films in order to make one truly great sequel rather than two really good ones.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY was Fox’s first attempt to be considered a “serious” actor, with this being an adaptation of the Jay McInerney yuppie-cocaine opus many of the Brat Packers wanted to make, but only Fox had the clout to get going. Here’s the thing - he’s miscast. Fox is too sympathetic and sweet for the part, and his co-star, Kiefer Sutherland, walks away with the movie. Still, it’s a fascinating time capsule. Fox would fare much better in drama a year later, in Brian De Palma’s CASUALTIES OF WAR, which I actually think he steals from Sean Penn, who chews too much scenery.
Another movie of Fox’s I loved growing up was the charming DOC HOLLYWOOD, where he plays a plastic surgeon blackmailed into being a small-town doctor for a month, only to find himself falling in love with the lifestyle (and his nurse - played by Julie Warner). This is a great little movie, with Fox at his winning best.
The short statured Fox always said he admired the similarly built James Cagney, who was famous for punching out guys that dwarfed him in his movies. Fox does something like that with Biff in BACK TO THE FUTURE, kicking off a chase that had every kid who saw this immediately ask their folks for a skateboard.
5. THE FRIGHTENERS
4. THE HARD WAY
3. BACK TO THE FUTURE PART 2 & 3
2. CASUALTIES OF WAR
1. BACK TO THE FUTURE
Fox mostly sticks to voice-over parts these days, but is still active, showing up at the Oscars last month, where he exited the DeLorean with Seth Rogen. And if Hollywood ever dares go-back to the BACK TO THE FUTURE well, they better do it with Fox as Marty. They just better.
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