WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME (Isla Nublar)
FORMAT: Blu-Ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Tired, trying to cram this in before work.
So, if you thought I was freaking out when I saw my first DeLorean, you’ll never guess how much I lost it when a certain somebody came strolling through my city just four days later…
Tony’s Donut Shop, located in scenic Portland, ME. And Michael J. Fox, located in picturesque My Childhood.
No, I never ran into him, though I did type up a couple mildly desperate tweets before I knew that the poor guy was in town for a funeral. I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Fox.
Needless to say, when I sat down for my weekly viewing of Back to the Future as mandated by the Cinema 52 project, I had Michael on the brain and figured it was time to analyze his work as Marty McFly. Yet, as much as he is a central part of the film, it’s difficult for me to break down his performance. I’m going to level with you: I don’t really know how to talk about acting.
I once directed a no-budget short film in college (don’t look for it, it never happened) and was told by pretty much every member of the cast and crew that I have no idea how to direct actors. At the time, I didn’t know how to direct anything, but they were right on the money. When I’m analyzing a movie, I tend to focus on story, cinematography, visual effects, dialogue, score, and Foley artistry before I even have a thought about the acting. Have you been reading my Time Out articles? Each one has a couple paragraphs for acting, but I’m mostly wiggling my way through eight or nine buzzwords that I hear repeatedly from my favorite film critics. I might as well rename that section “Do They Look Like They’re Reading Cue Cards?”
More often than you might think, actually.
Still, while I was dreading this self-inflicted assignment, I found a few things that I could praise using real English words and without reading any Stanislavski textbooks. For starters, I like that Michael doesn’t come off as cocky. This may stem from residual hatred for Maverick from my year of Top Gun, but nevertheless, the movie sets up Marty as the coolest kid in school, yet Michael manages to play him as a likable guy. Marty is vulnerable and afraid of failure, and I think Michael keeps that in mind so as to tone down the “radness,” even when he’s cruising around town on his skateboard or delivering a clearly-written-for-the-trailer line like, “Yeah, well, history is gonna change.” He’s not flexing his macho superiority at Strickland when he says it; he’s just letting him know that he doesn’t have time for his negativity.
Or his lack of regard for personal space.
Of course, Michael really hits his comedic stride as soon as he’s introduced to time travel. When it seems like Doc Brown just blew up a dog, Marty goes into full-on panic mode, and nobody does panic like Michael. He can barely stand, he takes quick short breaths, his vocal range shoots up and down, and he looks in every direction at once. His mind is absolutely blown. There’s a reason everyone who attempts a Marty McFly impression does this scene.
“Marty, can you keep it to a dull pants-shitting? I’m trying to take notes here.”
It only gets better when Marty arrives in 1955. Despite my inability to describe acting, I know what works when I see it. I once had to present a screenplay I’d written to a class and bring along film clips to illustrate the tone I was going for. My movie was about a guy who jumps between alternate universes without any control over it, and to show what kind of performance I was looking for when it first happens, I showed Marty crashing into Old Man Peabody’s barn and his subsequent attempt to rationalize it as being a dream. The way Michael says, “Sorry about your barn,” you can tell that Marty’s brain has honestly just stopped working. He’s so shaken up by everything that it’s the most coherent sentence he can put together.
“I… the mall… not here… Van Halen.”
A lot of the overtly funny lines sound less scripted thanks to Michael’s skilled delivery. This is also true of his work on Family Ties. When I watched a couple seasons of the show last year (most of it is streaming on Netflix), I couldn’t help but notice that when anybody else spoke, I pictured the writing staff hammering away at the script for one of the many formulaic domestic sitcoms they’d been hired for that week. When Michael spoke, I usually laughed a little. That’s not to say the other actors were bad (Michael C. Gross is my homeboy), but Fox just has an innate finesse for elevating comedic dialogue. He’s a comedy dialogue elevator.
Ha la la la…
Again, I don’t know the technical theatrical jargon behind what Michael does so well, but I see that same expertise at work in Back to the Future. Take, for example, the 1955 dinner scene. Stella Baines asks Marty if she knows his mother. Marty, seated right next to his teenaged future mother, says, “Yeah, I think maybe you do.” On paper, that line is a punch-in-the-face gag, one that another actor might ham up. But Michael channels all the anxiety of his character’s situation and tries to answer quietly and politely, while his face shows that he’s internally screaming, “Is this really happening?!” It’s a scene that works far better because of what Michael brings to it, whereas another actor might read the script and think, “Funny line, gotcha, be funny.”
“Mother? I barely know ‘er! Pause for laughs.”
Shia LaBeouf. I put it right in my notes… if they remade Back to the Future and cast Shia LaBeouf as Marty McFly, he would bring the wrong sense of humor to the role. At least, the Shia LaBeouf that was in the Transformers movies.
I never said my acting was any good.
The last acting thumbs-up I jotted down was how Marty shares many characteristics with his father. The movie shows us time and time again that Marty is more confident than his dad, but Michael makes sure that there’s still that same layer of George McFly doubt behind even his most confident of actions. You see it when he gets rejected from the Battle of the Bands, you see it when he’s conflicted over telling Doc about future events, and it’s especially prominent when he scraps with Biff. In the scene where he pulls Biff away from Lorraine in the cafeteria, he knows he’s doing what’s right, but rather than following through with bravado, he’s genuinely worried by what he just started. And look at his face after he punches Biff in Lou’s Cafe; his expression almost mirrors that of his father’s after doing the same.
“Why’d we do that?”
Well, there it is. I like Mike. And my personal goal of making this article longer than just its title was successful.
BONUS “YOU CAN’T UNSEE IT” MOMENT THAT WILL HAUNT ME FOREVER:
The bricks of George McFly’s house totally form an eye.
“I am the watcher of time… I see all… I consume all…”