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Michael J. Fox made a name for himself on American television on the hit family show Family Ties. Meant to be a show about the difficulties of a pair of 60s hippies raising children in the 80s, Fox became the breakout star and the show switched gears, putting much of the emphasis on him. The actor’s natural charm and hometown good-looks gave him wide appeal and it wasn’t long before he was starring in major motion pictures, with his greatest success coming in 1985 with the start of the Back to the Future franchise. And while is work as Marty McFly is certainly some of his most celebrated and recognized, he managed to be consistent in producing great work in all of his film, blockbuster or otherwise.
With 1988’s Bright Lights, Big City, Fox delivers what is easily his best dramatic work, with his fine turn in Brian De Palma‘s Casualties of War the following year a very close second. He plays Jamie Conway, a country boy who once dreamed of being a writer, but now spends his days working as a fact-checker in New York for a high-end magazine. He’s married to a pretty young wife (Phoebe Cates), with whom he seems to share nothing in common. Following him to the city, she quickly finds fame as a fashion model and naturally, as the chasm separates them, leaves him. Meanwhile, Jamie indulges in his nightly addiction to parties, alcohol and cocaine, all filling him with guilt over the choices he has made, but most especially of the loss of his cancer-stricken mother. He lives in the shadow of a fading hope, a life he felt destined to achieve.
Directed by James Bridges and based on the book by Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City casts Fox as an ambitious and hungry young man caught up in the NYC night life, abusing his body with chemicals as he struggles with crushing disappointment. It’s a far cry from the wholesome Marty McFly and Alex P. Keaton, and for audiences hoping to see more of these kinds of characters on screen, it was certainly jarring to see instead their hero sorting coke and getting wasted. Filled with self-loathing and burdened by expectations he can no longer sustain, he keeps balance of his hazy life with self-destruction. It might have turned fans away, but it is a performance that deserves greater examination. This is a deeply complex character who is far more than the superficial drug addict populating many Hollywood films. Here is a man shattered by the failure of his prospects and the weight of expectations from a mother who only now lives in the painful memories of his clouded mind.
Throughout the film, Jamie is involved in a number of relationships with varying people, some good some bad. These range from his younger brother who comes to visit, only to see the worst, to a friend named Tad (Kiefer Sutherland), a self-centered fellow partier. He also meets Vicky (Tracey Pollan), Tad’s cousin, a university student with whom Jamie becomes enamored. It is this relationship that brings out the best in Jamie, but also the most powerful moments from Fox.
At one point, as everything has fallen apart for Jamie, he becomes increasingly shaken by the reoccurring memories of his late mother and the never-ending need to fill the gaps between with powerful drugs and drink. His partying has become so excessive he is in a near constant state of confusion and miscomprehension, obsessing over a story for the magazine he works at about a pregnant woman in a coma, metaphorically attaching himself to the tragedy.
While at a party, in the early hours of the morning, he finds himself in a bathroom, coked up and wasted. He gets a look at himself in the mirror and becomes disillusioned by his reflection. On impulse, he picks up a wall phone and dials Vicky, waking her miles away. Spurred by the girl’s voice, Jamie, high strung but lucid, confess to her that his mother is dead, but more importantly, about how when her pain was unbearable and she refuses medicine, she told him the dying have a responsibility to the living, a sentiment that moves him to tears as he tries to imagine him having the strength she once had.
This confession of real pain is the bookmark to an earlier scene where we witnessed Jamie’s last visit with his mom (the incomparable Dianne Wiest), bed-ridden and trying to keep positive about the last time she will see her son. In their last encounter, she talks with him about his sex life and the difference between girls he loved and girls he has not. Of course it is more about the bond she has with Jamie, the knowledge that she knows the depths of her son’s passions and pains. As her own pain intensifies, racking her body, she talks of him being born, and compares it with her agony and let’s him know that this is why she loves him so much. It’s a devastating moment.
Back on the phone, Jamie’s seemingly meandering words may seem empty of purpose, but Vicky recognizes quite well that he is calling for help, and she is smart enough, and kind enough, to give the hurting young man the time to let go his pain. This is the spark for Jamie. He is transformed. And so it is how two women, a year apart and both in bed, shape two distinct journeys for Jamie Conway, a man loved by one and soon to be by the other.