This month marks the 25th anniversary of My Left Foot, the biopic of Christy Brown, the severely paralyzed Irish author who wrote books and poetry using only the little toe of his left foot. The film starred Daniel Day-Lewis. No stranger to immersing himself in his roles, the actor spent eight weeks living in Dublin's Sandymount Clinic for the disabled, learning to paint with his foot. (Many of the works featured in the film were done by Lewis himself.)
During production, the Method actor doggedly remained in character, insisting that cast members call him Christy even after the cameras stopped rolling. For weeks, he was wheeled around and spoon fed. At one point, the family of Christy Brown visited the set — and the actor still refused to break character, speaking to them in the same garbled voice of Brown. “I became grossly inconvenient,” says the actor. Inconvenient or not, his approach was a success. The film was praised universally and Lewis won an Oscar for Best Actor.
Despite the drama on set, however, it pales in comparison to the life of Christy Brown himself. Born on June 5, 1932 in Dublin, Ireland, Brown was the 10th of 22 children born to Bridget and Patrick Brown, a bricklayer. Cerebral palsy rendered Christy unable to stand, walk, or speak — but it left his astute mind intact. Despite grim pronouncements by doctors, his mother never gave up on him. She helped him learn to read, as well as paint and write using the only part of his body not affected by his paralysis — his left foot.
Throughout Brown’s life, his mother was an inspiration. “She refused to accept this truth, the inevitable truth as it then seemed that I was beyond cure, beyond saving, even beyond hope,” he wrote about his mother. “She could not and would not believe that I was an imbecile, as the doctors told her. She had nothing in the world to go by, not a scrap of evidence to support her conviction that, though my body was crippled, my mind was not. In spite of all the doctors and specialists told her, she would not agree. I don't believe she knew why she just knew, without feeling the smallest shade of doubt.”
Brown used his intellectual gifts to their fullest. He wrote My Left Foot in 1954, followed by his autobiographical novel Down All the Days in 1970. An international bestseller, it was translated into 14 languages and earned him $370,000. He later published two additional novels and three books of poetry.
Although the 1989 film version of Brown’s autobiography ends on a high note — with the artist sharing a bottle of champagne with the woman who would eventually become his wife, Mary Carr — his life, sadly, didn’t have a Hollywood ending.
In the controversial 2007 biography Christy Brown: The Life that Inspired My Left Foot, extensive interviews with Brown’s friends and families revealed that his relationship with Carr would usher in a tragic period for the artist. After marrying Carr, the couple moved away from Brown’s family in Dublin. A former prostitute, Carr allegedly had multiple affairs, abused drugs, and neglected Brown, who choked to death in 1981 while having dinner at his home in Somerset, England. He was 49. It’s a sad story that casts a grey pallor over a film that celebrated Brown’s indomitable spirit.
In a 2007 interview with The Telegraph, Sean Brown, the artist’s brother lamented, "The film was great, but there is the impression that everything was flowers between Christy and Mary. How else could they end the film though? They couldn't really show the truth."