How Sarah Polley, Child Star and ‘Canada’s Sweetheart,’ Grew Up Way Too Fast
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- March 1, 2022, 5:00 a.m. ET
RUN TOWARDS THE DANGERConfrontations With a Body of MemoryBy Sarah Polley
One of the most quietly accomplished films I’ve seen in recent decades is the 2006 independent feature “Away From Her.” Adapted from an Alice Munro short story, it depicts a long-married couple grappling with the wife’s advancing Alzheimer’s and the chasm of memories the dementia simultaneously dredges up and erases. Its writer and director is Sarah Polley, a Canadian artist who was 27 at the time and who had been a well-known child actor, appearing at age 8 in Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and then starring in the hit series “Road to Avonlea.” How “Canada’s sweetheart,” as Polley came to be known, had grown so quickly into a filmmaker whose creative vision was as far beyond her years as the characters she’d put onscreen (Julie Christie received an Oscar nomination for “Away From Her,” as did Polley’s script) was a question I asked myself more than once in the ensuing years.
Polley’s authorial debut, “Run Towards the Danger,” does as good a job of answering that question as anything probably could. In six sprawling yet meaty essays, Polley, now 43, recalls a life in which playing the roles of children was mandatory and nearly constant (her first acting job was at age 4) but actually being a child was regarded an unnecessary encumbrance for all involved. Born into a theatrical family, she was 11 when her mother died, after which her father, who “prided himself on ‘not being a father,’” retreated into a solipsistic funk. With her much older siblings long out of the house, Sarah decided at 14 she was grown up enough to leave home and, by 15, was living with her 19-year-old boyfriend. The following summer, she began a residency at the Stratford Festival playing the lead in a production of “Alice Through the Looking-Glass.”
The book’s opening essay, “Alice, Collapsing,” is about the misery of the Stratford production, one in which Polley, who is by now famous on television but new to theater, develops such debilitating stage fright that eventually the “fear turned to madness, and I myself went through the looking glass.” She is also suffering from scoliosis, a diagnosis she received shortly after her mother’s death and has been left to manage more or less on her own. Having put off an inevitable but not-yet-urgent surgery, Polley becomes so desperate to quit the show that she finagles a medical excuse and schedules the procedure as quickly as possible, leaving an understudy scrambling to take over her role.
Polley devotes several pages to the 10-hour surgery and lengthy recovery. It’s telling, however, that the most gut-punching detail of this essay is the fact that Polley’s departure from “Alice Through the Looking-Glass” caused a subsequent run of the show to be canceled. When Polley wins a $500 prize from the Stratford Festival for “best newcomer,” she leaves the cash in an envelope for a castmate who had been counting on the money to buy a carpet to cover the cold floors of her daughter’s bedroom. “I couldn’t look anyone in the eye,” Polley writes of her adult colleagues. “I had cost them their winter income.”
Even more burdensome than the financial pressure is Polley’s duty to dole out a steady stream of narcissistic satisfactions to various elders in her orbit. When she is cast in “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (a production whose special effects are later revealed to have posed serious safety hazards) she witnesses in her “Monty Python”-loving father “a pure, unmitigated elation. … The pinnacle of my success, and of my father’s pride, had been reached. I was 8 years old.”
Other essays recall more medical ordeals — the near-hallucinatory stress of her first pregnancy and her newborn daughter’s stint in the NICU, a yearslong journey treating a debilitating concussion — but the book is most interesting when Polley interrogates her own contradictions and manipulative instincts, many of which were a matter of survival. In what is arguably the collection’s best essay, Polley wrestles with the case of Jian Ghomeshi, the CBC radio host who in late 2014 and early 2015 was charged with multiple counts of sexual assault. Nearly 20 years before, 16-year-old Polley had a date with Ghomeshi, who was around 28 at the time. As she explains in rueful, almost deadpan bemusement, this date had generated two stories: a funny party story, with a few details left out, about a cringey encounter with a weirdo, and the story she kept hidden beneath the first, which was that Ghomeshi had violently assaulted her during sex. “Honestly, it didn’t occur to me to tell it,” Polley writes of the latter version. “For me, it wasn’t part of the story. It was the dark cavern in which my funny story happened.”
This is a pernicious and all-too-common form of self-gaslighting, and for all that’s been written about it in the #MeToo era, I have never seen anyone lay it out with as much precision and self-scrutiny as Polley does here. She describes how in the ensuing years she flattered and flirted with Ghomeshi when they crossed paths in professional settings because it seemed like good business practice. She even offers play-by-plays of interviews she did with Ghomeshi to promote her films, diffusing his meanspirited questioning by laughing uproariously, “as though he has just made the best joke of all time.”
Later Polley will agonize over whether to join Ghomeshi’s other accusers, but her years of concessions, not to mention countless retellings of her funny party story, are certain to undermine the credibility of the other women. In the end, Ghomeshi is acquitted on all counts. The little girl who carried the weight of Hollywood movie budgets and theater actors’ salaries on her shoulders is now a grown woman whose stolen childhood has made her at once a stunningly sophisticated observer of the world and an imperfect witness to the truth. Her willingness to embrace such paradoxes, in this book as well as in her films, is the mark of a real artist.