Michael J Fox: the most underrated romantic lead of the 80s and 90s? There’s certainly a case.
Anna Cale (@real_ meaning)
This article originally appeared in Film Stories issue 2. You can order the latest magazine here.
Back in the late 90s, I suffered a career setback. I was in my early 20s and full of hopes and dreams, so I took it badly. As always, the first person I spoke to about it was my older brother, Tony. We talked things through on the phone and agreed that I needed time to lick my wounds. A few days later, a package arrived in the post. Inside was a VHS copy of Doc Hollywood, and attached to it a sticky note in Tony’s handwriting that read “sometimes all you need is a Michael J. Fox film”.
My brother was right. Funny, charming and twinkly eyed, Fox is the perfect antidote for any gloomy moment. He was, of course, a teen heartthrob who defined the 80s – all boundless screen energy and stonewashed denim. But the transition from teen favourite to adult romantic lead wasn’t an easy one, and his performances perhaps didn’t always receive the credit they deserve.
His career began on the small screen, with hugely popular American sitcom Family Ties making him a household name. His big-screen appeal was guaranteed by his unforgettable performance as Marty McFly in Back To The Future and its sequels. It propelled him and his red bodywarmer into mainstream fame. Although not often viewed as a romantic film, there are flashes of magnetism in his performance. But the film is more of a bromance than a romance, the key relationship being the friendship between Marty and Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown.
Filmed in the same year as Back To The Future, Teen Wolf could be viewed as a more obvious vehicle for his transition from small-screen idol to romantic lead. It was the familiar tale of high school nerd blossoming into hero werewolf and winning over his long-standing crush. A fun film with family appeal, Fox showed his comedic credentials and was a successful romantic lead.
He left his teens behind in 1987’s The Secret Of My Success. In this one, Fox plays an ambitious college graduate from a small town, who wants to make it big in New York. Starting at the bottom of the corporate ladder, he falls for executive Helen Slater as he climbs his way up. The film was pure 80s in its aesthetic, but reminiscent of a traditional 50s movie – a simple comedy of mistaken identity and winning the girl of your dreams. Fox displays his characteristic frenetic energy, this time with a hint of arrogance, which would become a theme in his later leading roles.
Then we come to 1991’s Doc Hollywood, the pinnacle of his romantic leading roles for me. Fox plays Dr Ben Stone, an arrogant big city plastic surgeon with a fancy Porsche and an ego to match, who ends up stranded in a rural town. It’s a charming film. A heart-warming tale of finding value in the simple things. The romance is sweet and subtle, and the film is well cast. Like Local Hero before it, the quirky location is as much a star as the actors. As he goes on a journey of self-discovery, Stone’s showy arrogance makes way for genuine affection for the town and its people. No wonder I always find comfort in watching it.
This heartfelt, nuanced performance should have cemented his reputation as a romantic lead, but other films were a bit hit and miss. In 1993’s For Love Or Money (initially known as The Concierge), Fox plays a hotel concierge with big ideas, who gets mixed up with a dodgy billionaire as he tries to find the funds to fuel his dreams. This could have been a great romantic caper in the screwball tradition, but it failed to capture the hearts of audiences, although it still allowed Fox to display his comedic deftness.
He also gave a lovely supporting performance as political advisor Lewis Rothschild in Rob Reiner’s The American President (1995). In a quirky parallel with Back To The Future, the success of the romance between Michael Douglas and Annette Benning at the centre of the film is almost thrown off course by Fox’s mistimed intervention.
Sadly, Fox’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s in the early 90s (and in his first memoir, he recalls the symptoms whilst making Doc Hollywood) pretty much brought his film career to a halt, but he continues to act on the small screen. His Emmy award-winning run in the excellent late-90s political TV comedy Spin City was always on point, and guest spots on Scrubs and Rescue Me more recently remind us of his sheer talent. He might not be an obvious choice for a romantic hero, but I still find comfort in watching Doc Hollywood and losing myself in the romance. For that, Fox will always be my leading man.
Fox’s Top Five
Michael J. Fox films that bring joy to my heart and don’t have the words ‘Back To The Future’ in the title…
Teen Wolf (1985): Charming high school werewolf comedy with teen romance at its heart.
The Secret Of My Success (1987): Pacey comedy (pictured above) with a 50s feel, showcasing Fox’s spirited comic timing.
Doc Hollywood: (1991) Gentle fish-out-of-water comedy with a great cast and real heart.
For Love Or Money/The Concierge (1993): A light and frothy romantic comedy. It’s surprisingly hard to hunt down a copy these days.
The American President (1995): Fox plays a sweet supporting role in Rob Reiner’s romantic take on modern American politics.