The Outsider Who Finds His Way In:
Michael J. Fox often played the role of the outsider who somehow finds his way to his hearts desire, and eventually back to himself. In the 1986 film Teen Wolf he was the somewhat nerdy boy turned ultra popular…er, wolf, who finds that the friends who were with him prior to his (exceedingly) dramatic change are the ones he values most. He is also faced with the need to integrate the person he thought he was with who he has become, as well as who he ultimately wants to be. It was a silly movie, but a fun one; and one that follows a similar thematic trajectory to many of his films.
As the ambitious young upstart Brantley Foster in The Secret To My Success, Fox’s character had to adopt the false identity of an executive named Carlton Whitfield, in order to fast-track it in the world of corporate America. In some respects the film is the farm boys’ Working Girl. In the film Fox must, once again, circle back to himself and find a way to be the man he aspires to be (rich and successful), and yet maintain the core values of his fundamental self (grounded and real).
Doc Hollywood saw Fox in a reversal of his usual character trajectory. In it he plays Dr. Benjamin Stone, the big city slicker, who learns to love the simplicity and calm (not to mention naked supermodels) that country life has to offer. Yet, once again, he must reconcile his ambition with his values. A lesser actor may have brought a sanctimonious feel to these characters, but Fox always seemed — just human. He is simultaneously charismatic and down to earth.
Fox turned in several performances in dramatic films, yet audiences seemed to prefer him in more comedic roles. Whether portraying a dramatic or comedic character, one thing that remained consistent was his tendency to play men navigating their moral compass against their desires, and the influences surrounding them.
Perhaps the most heart-wrenching example, is his turn in the film Casualties Of War.
This is the film’s official synopsis:
During the Vietnam War, a soldier finds himself the outsider of his own squad when they unnecessarily kidnap a female villager.
We once again see Fox as the outsider, only this time the stakes are so much higher, and the consequences so much more severe. Fox plays Eriksson, against Sean Penn’s Meserve. The two men represent two responses to war: Meserve gives in to every base instinct and violent drive imaginable, while Eriksson, the younger, and perhaps more naive man, strives to cling to what he feels makes him human and whole. Fox, as Eriksson, must find a way to hold onto his sanity and sense of self, in the face of unimaginable circumstances.
Of course, the true tragedy is that the film is based on all to real events.
Fox played another man struggling to maintain a hold of his identity in the face of the seductive glitz, and the intelligentsia glamor of New York in Bright Lights Big City, where he held his own onscreen against Kiefer Sutherland.
Though he delivered a strong performances in these, and other dramatic roles, there is something about Michael J. Fox, and his particular spark, that is best expressed with light material. Perhaps it is his natural optimism and exuberance. Whatever it is, there is something that feels uncomfortable about seeing him set against life’s grittier circumstances. It’s not that he doesn’t have the chops, it is simply a feeling that we made an agreement with him, and in it, he is to make us laugh and believe in life’s greatest possibilities, rather than illustrate the horror of what life sometimes is.