Actor Selma Blair first appears in the new documentary about her struggles with multiple sclerosis (MS) dressed as Norma Desmond, the reclusive, washed-up silent-film star played by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. In a sparkly turban, a floor-length leopard-print dress and her cane by her side, Blair displays a jokey self-awareness about her public image, especially since announcing her diagnosis in October 2018. “I have probably had this incurable disease for 15 years at least,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “And I am relieved to at least know. And share.”
She is, in fact, exceptionally open in Rachel Fleit’s Introducing, Selma Blair. Per its (grammatically incorrect) title, the film is a reintroduction of sorts to the Cruel Intentions and Legally Blonde co-star (Blair was always keenly aware of her place in Hollywood as a supporting actress, she says). Debuting at this year’s SXSW and streaming later this year on Discovery+, Introducing is a remarkably moving portrait of a 40-something woman forced to reevaluate her relationships and her sense of self in the face of a chronic illness that leaves her sometimes unable to speak or control her movements. When she was first diagnosed, Blair recalls, she shook uncontrollably. She still has trouble taking the trash out and often crawls up the stairs to her bedroom with a hand on each step to aid her balance. Outside her home, with so much more stimuli around, her symptoms tend to get more severe and unpredictable.
Fleit boasts two tremendous assets for her debut feature: Blair’s witty charm and purposeful lack of self-consciousness. (She does retain a relatable vanity about her appearance, though it’s unclear to what extent it’s genuine versus a put-on for the camera.) During her lighter moments, the actor is a puckish delight to be around, like the kind of friend who doesn’t have to try very hard to make you laugh. In her darker, more philosophical moments, Blair is no less fascinating, as when she discusses her dying, never-seen mother. “My mom tethered a darkness to me,” the actor says, her desire for a different kind of mother-daughter relationship hauntingly present.
MS afflicts its sufferers by turning their immune system against their brain and spinal cord. (Its symptoms vary from person to person, and its causes are unknown.) Introducing chronicles Blair’s stem-cell transplant — a weeks-long procedure that involves, in her case, harvesting one’s stem cells, temporarily annihilating the patient’s immune response through chemotherapy, then reinserting the cells in the hopes that a healthier immune system will be built back up. The treatment is not without risk of death and reportedly painful in the extreme. Blair has an out-of-body experience midway through.
The seemingly self-recorded footage of the actor crying on her hospital bed is hard to watch, and it’s somehow even more heartbreaking when she considers how her young son, Arthur, might fare after her death. It’s impossible not to get the sense that Blair may have agreed to the documentary so her only child might one day get to see to a version of his mother before her MS progresses even further, especially since a case as grievous as hers might leave her with brain damage.
After her transplant, a doctor tells Blair that “work can be therapeutic” in the recovery process. A glance at her filmography suggests a steady trickle of jobs, but she also says of the industry, “I don’t know who would believe in me.” Perhaps the most surprising admission is that, despite her ambitions, she never cared about being the best actress she could be, relying on the relative ease of supporting roles (as she saw them) to build a decades-long career. Which isn’t to say she isn’t proud of her work — how else to explain the Cruel Intentions T-shirt she dons in the hospital?
Blair is so transparent and eloquent in describing her illness and the ways it’s transformed how she sees herself — especially the shame she feels for symptoms she can’t help — that it’s occasionally frustrating that Fleit won’t scope out just a bit further. Given the often isolating effects of disability, it would’ve been helpful to get a sense of how Blair’s social circles have changed since her retreat from the public eye.
And considering the vastly unequal medical care that patients in America receive based on their wealth (or lack thereof), it might’ve been informative to get a sense of the accessibility (or not) of a treatment like the one that makes up approximately half of the film. Its effects aren’t as dramatic or as instantaneous as Blair had hoped, but the heart of the doc lies in the glimpses of her day-to-day existence anyway, be it cracking Grey Gardens jokes or giving less and less of a fuck about whether the neck massager she bought for her cramping muscles is really a vibrator. Now, she’s simply got more pressing things to think about.
Production company: Liddell Entertainment
Director: Rachel Fleit
Producers: Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon, Troy Nankin
Executive producer: Cass Bird
Director of photography: Shane Sigler
Editors: Sloane Klevin
Composer: Raphaelle Thibaut
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)