Sarah Polley has long been a favourite of mine, both as an actress and a writer/director. Her performances in films such as The Sweet Hereafter (1997), My Life Without Me (2003) and the exquisite The Secret Life of Words (2005) earned her acclaim around the globe, but frankly she deserved more, like attention from the Academy for her stunning performance in The Secret Life of Words. A Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination should have come to her for her haunting Nicole in Atom Egoyan’s superb The Sweet Hereafter, which remains one of the finest films made in Canada.
Polley’s feature film directorial debut was one of the greatest in the history of the cinema. Away from Her (2007) is a love story about a senior couple dealing with the nightmare of Alzheimer’s. Polley gently directed the great Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie to career best performances, earning Christie an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress and Polley an Oscar nomination for her exquisite screenplay adaptation. The film was frequently included on Top Ten lists, swept the Genie Awards before they became the Canadian Screen Awards, and made Polley one of the most exciting new filmmakers in the business.
Her next film, Take This Waltz (2011), did not find the acclaim of Away from Her but was a fine film. Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen gave beautiful performances about the end of a marriage and birth of a new relationship.
The following year she found herself winning the prestigious New York Film Critics Award for Best Documentary for her brilliant film Stories We Tell (2012) in which she turned the camera on her family as she sought her birth father. Brave? Beyond brave, Polley focused on the strengths and weaknesses of her parents, her mothers’ affairs and the fact the man she had known as her father was in fact not her biological father. Critics rained praised down on the artist and once again she was toasted around the globe. Not bad for a patriotic Canadian who turned down the plum role of Penny Lane in Almost Famous (2000), written for her, to make films she felt were more important as art.
Polley has been curiously absent from the film industry for a few years now, an accident hurting her and leaving her wondering if her brain would ever work the same again. A heavy fire extinguisher fell from above her and hit her on the head, stunning her and she knew at once something was very wrong. Her vision, her thinking, her hearing, balance, gait, everything was off. Her sister told her she had a concussion, but it did not heal like a concussion and for years Polley dealt with this injury and the devastating side effects. At the time she had been contracted to write Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, but found she could no longer write, and was forced to withdraw.
Eventually she found help with an unorthodox doctor who has saved her life. An artist must be able to create. She is back now and has written a superb book about the struggles in her life through the years. She writes clearly and honesty about her experiences with director Terry Gilliam on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen who did not seem to recognize (or care) he was putting Polley in danger while making the film. She writes honestly about her memories of her mother, her father and her brothers and sisters, she discusses what it felt like not to be taken seriously with her ailments, especially the brain injury.
I did not think it would be possible for me to admire Sarah Polley more, but her book gave me deeper regard for her and great admiration for her courage.
In 2001, I was hit head-on by an oncoming vehicle speeding furiously on a wintry, icy day. He crossed into my lane and hit me hard, knocking me cold. Choppered to Sunnybrook Trauma Centre, my injuries included 18 breaks in my legs, above and below the knee, an open book fracture in my pelvis (meaning it was snapped open like a book), my entire rib cage was broken, my right arm broken through the elbow and my heart was crushed by the sac around it, filled with blood. At some point during the 14-hour surgery, I slipped into a coma, where I stayed for three weeks. The long physical process to walk again was brutal, but I had great support from my phsyio team and my wife and I walked out of the rehab hospital three months ahead of schedule. To this day, I struggle with chronic pain, worsened by physical activity, but I do it.
Reading Sarah’s struggles felt familiar even though they were very different. As a film critic, I am dead tired of superhero films, but Sarah Polley might be my superhero. Beyond being an exceptional artist, wife, mother, daughter and friend to those who know her, I think she is an extraordinary human being. I hope I have the chance to speak with her about her book, it is magnificent, so beautifully written and filled with humanity.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.