Christy Brown was a genius of the Irish lower class: a first-rate painter and writer, a swiller of Guinness, and an SOB who fought just as dirty whether he was in love or in a pub brawl. Christy Brown also happened to have cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair. But if you think Jim Sheridan’s movie about Brown’s life follows the typical noble-cripple script, forget it. My Left Foot didn’t receive five Oscar nominations by being conventional.
And Daniel Day-Lewis didn’t win the Best Actor Oscar by appealing to the Academy’s tender sentiments. His physical transformation alone is worthy of Lon Chaney: His body becomes misshapen, his face distorted; his voice evolves painfully from a strangulated adenoidal honk to the sly brogue of a respected Irish man of letters. Day-Lewis uses every tremor to convey the persnickety spirit within. Brown could paint and type only with his unpalsied left foot, and Day-Lewis makes his left big toe the most expressive in film history. The man is every inch an actor.
But ”My Left Foot” is not a one-man show. While Day-Lewis takes us inside Christy Brown’s head, Sheridan’s camera catapults us into the hardscrabble life of Dublin: family quarrels in close quarters, the overwhelming influence of poverty and Catholicism, and soccer games on cobblestone streets (with Christy as goalie and star placekicker). The movie’s robust sense of place and the rich supporting cast make it clear why Brown would fight so fiercely to fit in.
”My Left Foot” looks fully Oscar-worthy on tape. But I have one quibble with Day-Lewis’ Academy Award: It ought to have been awarded jointly to Day-Lewis and Hugh O’Conor, who plays Christy as a young lad. The scene in which he finally proves, with a piece of chalk desperately clutched between his toes, that he’s not the wordless half-wit his family presumes him to be is the most exhilarating moment in a picture packed with them.