Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

19 March 2012

My Left Foot Revisited

Watching My Left Foot (1989) for the first time in a couple of decades, i could not help but reflect on how powerfully our own experiences of the world play into our relationship with film. As anyone who knows me at all will attest, i tend to be a wee bit political, and i couldn't escape that even while watching this very uplifting biopic. Most often, when people talk about this film, what they talk about is Daniel Day-Lewis's tour de force performance as the inspiring Christy Brown, a Dubliner born with cerebral palsy who forces the world to see him as something more than his disability. Indeed, that was very much my reaction the first time i saw the film.

This time, however, i found myself constantly returning to the figure of his mother, a role for which Brenda Fricker won an Academy Award. The sainted Irish mother is a familiar trope, especially in Irish Catholic circles, and indeed, at least as her character is presented in the film, Mrs. Brown appears to have been a good mother, one who refused to accept the doctors' diagnosis or the opinion of her neighbors and husband that her son was intellectually impaired and would never move beyond the developmental level of a small child; nor did she keep him behind closed doors in shame as was sadly too often the case under similar circumstances. Instead, she made every effort to see that young Christy was included in the activities of his many siblings and that he got whatever opportunities she could provide to encourage him and help him improve his ability to communicate.

But it's those many siblings that stopped me in my tracks while watching the film this time. Poor Mrs. Brown is hugely pregnant through most of the film, and in one very dramatic scene she even collapses and falls down the stairs when she goes into labor shortly after carrying young Christy (who appears to be about nine years old at this point) up to his bed. As is briefly mentioned late in the film, Bridget Brown raised thirteen children, and lost another nine in childbirth. The math is simple: the woman gave birth to twenty-two babies. I'm not certain if there were any twins in the Brown family, but even assuming that there were, poor Mrs. Brown would have spent over fifteen years of her life pregnant. Imagine that! Fifteen full years of morning sickness, backaches, and swollen ankles, followed by two-hour feedings, colic, and sadly, in the case of Mrs. Brown and countless other women in similar circumstances, terrible loss. I must admit at this point that giving birth is something i've never done or had much desire to do, but i've been around my share of pregnant women and newborn babies. And as much as i love the sweet little cherubs, carrying and caring for that many of them over that long a span of time seems to me more onerous than serving a similarly long stretch in prison for committing one of your more elaborate felonies.

The Browns were poor, surviving on the ill-tempered Mr. Brown's meager salary as a bricklayer. The film adds a sort of nostalgic charm to the challenges of raising such a huge family on such meager resources. As one example, in a few scenes the boys are shown humorously arranged four to a bed in an alternating head-foot-head-foot pattern; in another, the boys grumble as their mother serves them an especially unappetizing mess of porridge for their supper, because it is all she can afford to put on the table (Note that it is the boys whose situation and reactions seem to be the ones that matter. The girls are presumably sleeping in similarly cramped conditions and dining on the same unappetizing slop, but they are uncomplaining saints-in-the-making, preparing for lives of self-sacrifice and never-ending pregnancy, just like Mam). All of this is done, of course, in a way intended to arouse the sympathies of the audience and thus evoke even greater admiration for both Mrs. Brown and young Christy for overcoming their many obstacles and adversities. Fine. Be nostalgic for the good old days of huge families and porridge for supper, if that makes you feel better about the human race. But nostalgia is one of those things best left safely compartmentalized right next to fairy tales. Would you want to live like Mrs. Brown? Would you wish her life on your wife, sister, daughter, or niece? Even in Ireland, which routinely has the highest fertility rates in Europe *, the double-digit family is largely a thing of the past. Meanwhile, here in the US, i thought we'd settled the debate over women's reproductive rights decades ago. Yet in the year 2012, we are inexplicably returning to the oppressive rhetoric of restricting access to reproductive health care for American women. We have political campaigns and reality TV shows that focus on the barefoot-and-pregnant version of "family values." And so the overtly simple tugging on the heart-strings of even a very compelling, well-crafted, and well-acted movie like My Left Foot is tainted for me at least for the time being. A film that i've loved in the past, today just pisses me off, and that in itself pisses me off even more. 

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