On March 26, 1990, a small independent Irish film, My Left Foot won two Academy Awards with actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker. This success was greeted with shock, jubilation and intense excitement in Ireland. Thirty years later those emotions have faded, but the implications of those Oscars for Irish film remain immense. Noel Pearson, who had produced the film without Government funding, had managed to revive interest in a dormant Irish film industry with an untypical hero and story.
Christy Brown was a working-class artist and writer in a wheelchair, who suffered from cerebral palsy, painted and wrote with his left foot and had self-described as "a queer crooked little fellow" in his memoir. The heroic nature of Christy's and his mother's bond in challenging society's prejudice and his physical limitations to achieve artistic expression and success proved to be a universally appealing story.
Like its subject, the story of the genesis of My Left Foot is a tale of courage in the face of adversity. That a tiny, independent Irish production company could achieve unprecedented critical and commercial success internationally with its first feature film remains unique. The success of My Left Foot re-invented and re-invigorated Irish film and launched the modern industry that thrives today. That all this success was achieved on a budget of £1.7M, just adds to the David and Goliath nature of the story. The determination that fuelled the film is reminiscent of Christy's own philosophy to "look forward, don't look back and keep on fighting."
When Noel Pearson was manoeuvring to get My Left Foot onto celluloid, there was no Irish Film Board and no government support for film (three years previously, the Irish Film Board had been abolished.) He raised the funds to shoot the film with a mix of resolution, luck and conviction. Brian Friel had described Pearson once as possessing "the head of a business man, the heart of a gambler and the untutored intuitions of an artist" - he would need all three to steer My Left Foot to completion.
Tenacity and determination
Most people, including then Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, thought a film about a handicapped Irish writer and artist in a wheelchair was lunacy. But Pearson had been Christy Brown's manager and friend before his death and had an instinct for a great story, honed during his theatre career. He also shared Brown's tenacity and determination - both grew up in Crumlin in large working class families, post WWII, in a city that was poor but which enjoyed a vivid and vibrant culture of language, song and debate.
The producer had nurtured the idea to make a film about Christy Brown since the writer's death in 1981. Brown had very ambitious ideas about casting: "He wanted Marlon Brando to play him… We used to joke about it. He was always half serious," Noel recalls. When he re-read Christy's memoir later in the eighties, Pearson resolved to make it a film. Years before when he had asked the director John Huston how to start an Irish film industry, the curt reply was, "Go out and buy a camera". Pearson's approach to My Left Foot reflected this 'just do it' ethos.
After getting Shane Connaughton to write a treatment, Pearson employed Jim Sheridan as co-writer on the script. Sheridan wanted to direct the film too but having a first-time director was a major challenge when raising funds. Pearson remembers: "We couldn't get any money with him… It was very tough but he was very persuasive. I am glad he was, as he did a great job."
Recruiting Daniel Day-Lewis for the lead role gave the project momentum but his casting was almost accidental. Day-Lewis, attending a party in Pearson's house with director, Pat O'Connor was intrigued when Pearson started telling him the story of Christy Brown. Pearson recalls: "I got talking to him and I told him about this fellow, Christy Brown, and he told me afterwards 'When is this f***ker going to offer me the job?' It was only later that Pearson sent the script to Day-Lewis, prompted by actor, Tom Hickey who had acted with him in O'Connor's recently shot Stars and Bars.
Three days after he received the script, Day-Lewis replied in the affirmative that he would do it. That Day-Lewis (a striking 6' 3") and Brown were polar opposites physically didn't worry Pearson unduly. He recalls: "This guy was so into it, so desperately wanted it, I said, 'If he wants it that badly he must think he can do it himself, because he's a very intelligent guy'."
In an interview on The Late Late Show, Day-Lewis later explained his attraction to the role: "I was fascinated… The interesting thing about the script, I think, it seemed to me anyway was that it wasn't a predominant feature, his disability. I was just struck more than anything else by his anger and the way he was perceived and misunderstood sometimes and his desire that the record should be set straight. He was a pioneer in a way… he never let up. He confronted his own fears and other people's fears head on."
Day-Lewis's dedication to the role was intense: he spent hours in the Central Remedial Clinic with disabled people, learned to paint and draw with his left foot, went to working class Dublin pubs to learn the accent and idioms of Dublin and, once on set, crouched and contorted his body into the wheelchair he would remain in all day. Not only did Day-Lewis stay in his wheelchair, he also stayed in character. Joan Bergin, the film's costume designer, remembers: "I had never worked with anybody who became their character, imbuing with every sinew of body and soul a total transfer of identity." She continues: "It was a total phenomenon - it was such an extraordinary performance."
Pearson had seeded the initial development himself by mortgaging his house, then RTÉ put up the first external funds, followed by Pearson's friends, who individually put up sums of £50K to £100K. A US producer, Paul Heller, introduced Pearson to Granada in the UK who eventually put up the lion's share of the budget, £1m. Pearson's overtures to Granada took time to be reciprocated: "They liked the script and they liked Daniel. Daniel Day-Lewis attracted them more to it and then Brenda Fricker and Ray McAnally." However the Granada million didn't arrive until the shoot was already two weeks underway, a sobering lesson in the complexity of film contracts.
Putting the crew together was easier. Pearson recalls: "Everybody wanted to work on it. I got the cameraman in the bar of the Shelbourne… Jack Conroy. He'd never shot a feature either before." He continues: "I think the longest take was the scene of putting on the record, it took forever." Other scenes were shot in Lock's Restaurant, Pearson's home in Rathmichael and the back streets of Bray. Despite the lack of experience, it was an efficient shoot conducted in six weeks which came in under budget. "It came in a £100K under budget and I gave it back to Granada," Pearson laughs.
The initial edit was underwhelming. Pearson confesses: "The first edit was dreadful, both myself and Sheridan thought it was dreadful. Paul Heller had worked on it... we didn't know anything about editing so during the shooting of the film he was assembling the picture. So we went on the piss that night; we drank a bottle of whiskey and we started from scratch again, the two of us."
When My Left Foot eventually had its first screening before Christmas 1989 in Bray, Anjelica Houston and Jack Nicholson attended. Pearson remembers: "It got a great response." Later there was a "huge premiere" at the Savoy with a party in the Powerscourt Town Centre. The reviews were almost unanimously "excellent". Then the US rights were sold to Miramax by Granada. It was only the company's second or third film and they threw their all into promoting it for the awards season.
In America, Pauline Kael of the New Yorker raved about the film and it won the New York Film Critics Award. Pearson recalls: "She was considered the biggest critic in America. Then it started to get nominated for all sorts of things." Critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of four and declared, "My Left Foot is a great film for many reasons, but the most important is that it gives us such a complete picture of this man's life. It is not an inspirational movie, although it inspires. It is not a sympathetic movie, although it inspires sympathy. It is the story of a stubborn, difficult, blessed and gifted man who was dealt a bad hand, who played it brilliantly, and who left us some good books, some good paintings and the example of his courage."
The momentum grew and grew until the film was eventually nominated for five Oscars: Best Director for Jim Sheridan, Best Film for Noel Pearson, Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis, Best Supporting Actress for Brenda Fricker and Best Adapted Screenplay for Jim Sheridan and Shane Connaughton.
To Pearson, the ceremony was both long and tense. "I didn't think it had any chance of winning Best Picture because everybody said the 4th of July would." However as both Day-Lewis and Fricker collected their statuettes, the possibility of success in the Best Picture category loomed. Pearson recalls: "Sheridan said to me, 'If you win this have you got anything written?' and I said 'No'". So we went out to the loo and I got a bit of loo paper and I wrote a few names down on it." He continues; "I was so sweating, my shirt was stuck to my back, that I was dreading winning; if we won, going up there."
The nerves were wasted - the film didn't win in the other nominated categories but two Oscars were excuse enough for two parties. The first was in the Beverly Hills Hotel; the second - in Billy Gaff's LA home - went on until 7am. Gaff, a music industry manager from Kildare, had been one of those early investors back in Dublin and served smoked salmon and Irish stew to his guests. Michael O'Dwyer, the Irish Times film critic, reported that celebrities attended the parties "along with what seemed to be every Irish person who was in Los Angeles on the night, including singers Bono and Bob Geldof."
Joan Bergin, who went to the ceremony, recalls the surreal nature of the night: "Daniel at the party gave me his Oscar and then Brenda left hers behind and I picked it up. There I was in the Beverly Hills Hotel, walking with two Oscars and singing, 'If they could see me now those little friends of mine...'" She adds: "It was that feeling which is very American and not particularly Irish of 'Yes, it can happen' and 'Yes, it can be done'."
Other major awards the film collected included: the Award for Best Actor (Day-Lewis) and for Best Supporting Actor (McAnally) at the BAFTAs; Best Foreign Film at the Independent Spirt Awards; Best Actor (Day-Lewis) and Best Supporting Actor (Fricker) at the LA Film Critics Awards; Best Actor (Day-Lewis) and Best Film at the National Society of Film Critics (USA); Best Actor (Day-Lewis) and Best Film at the New York Film Critics Awards; and Best Actor (Hugh O'Connor) at the Young Artists Awards. Pearson also won the Donatello (the Italian Oscar) for the Best Film. It was an amazing haul for a novice producer, director and crew who had brought a uniquely Irish story to screen against all odds.
1990 was the year that low-budget independent productions triumphed over Hollywood blockbusters as epitomised by My Left Foot. Pearson reflects: "Well I think it's because it was true, that's why it resonates and Christy Brown himself was such a heroic guy. The performances were amazing; Daniel was brilliant." He concludes: "A lot of water under the bridge since then. It was a good laugh - we had a great time."