“I always thought I was in a documentary, but only God would see it and disapprove.”
That’s Selma Blair at the beginning of Introducing, Selma Blair, the documentary about her life with multiple sclerosis. Luckily, we all get to see this poignant, insightful movie.
In many ways, Blair needs no introduction. She’s been a permanent fixture in the pop culture landscape since 1999 when she was cast as the naïve Cecile opposite Sarah Michelle Gellar’s conniving Kathryn in Cruel Intentions. She’s probably still best known for the kiss that won Gellar and Blair an MTV Movie Award. That same year she starred as the titular Zoe in the WB’s comedy Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane. More recently, she starred opposite Charlie Sheen in the FX comedy Anger Management and in the first season of American Crime Story as Kris Jenner. In between, she headlined more TV series, made-for-TV movies and blockbusters like the Hellboy franchise.
But Introducing, Selma Blair isn’t interested in Blair the actress. The movie wants to unravel Blair the person. She confesses that she “never had a hunger for being the best actress I could be” and doesn’t know if she’ll ever return to acting. Although I’m sure there could be volumes written about her time playing Charlie Sheen’s romantic interest, the movie’s laser focus on living with multiple sclerosis, an illness which she refuses to let define her, brings Blair to the forefront. She was diagnosed in August 2018, but as the movie makes clear, she was ill long before then. “Since my son was born I haven’t been okay,” she says. For years, she had symptoms that went unchecked.
Blair shared her diagnosis with the world in a frank October 2018 Instagram post and in a People cover story in August 2019. “I am not uncomfortable with sickness. I’m uncomfortable with permanent sickness,” she explains. MS isn’t the flu. It won’t go away. It affects Blair’s speech, her gait and her mental clarity. She has good days, bad days and awful days. She uses a cane. She often has to crawl up the stairs.
Her son Arthur, now 10, is seen but there are no confessional interviews. The same goes for Arthur’s father, Blair’s ex-boyfriend Jason Bleick. Her famous friends aren’t featured (although we do see a brief glimpse of Gellar at a dinner party). Except for a passing mention of Cruel Intentions and a handful of magazine stories, her career isn’t mentioned at all. There are brief interviews with her long-time manager, her assistant, her sister and the doctors and nurses who treat her—but this truly is Blair’s story and it’s her honest, hilarious, charming personality and unfiltered thoughts that make the film.
We see her sans make-up, bald and in a hospital gown. We see her naked and writhing in post-surgery pain. “This is what happens that I don’t want people to see,” she laments as her speech begins to slur in the movie’s opening moments. But it’s clear that she’s made the decision to hold nothing back, to let viewers see her like this. It never feels like the movie is exploiting her. The footage is raw and honest but not gratuitous, a combination of Blair’s voiceover, her confessional interviews and the camera capturing her in natural moments—whether it’s her trying on her mother’s favorite dress, mistakenly buying a vibrator when she wanted a neck massager or swimming in the pool with her son.
Introducing, Selma Blair is framed by Blair’s experimental treatment with a stem cell transplant and chemotherapy. She travels to Chicago for the highly specialized surgery and the toll it takes on her both emotionally and physically isn’t sugar-coated. The stem cell transplant is not an instant, miraculous cure: It takes months before Blair begins to see any positive change.
This isn’t a triumphant movie with a happy ending where Blair conquers her illness. It’s also not one where she’s a heroic angel quietly suffering and not complaining. As directed by Rachel Fleit, in her documentary feature debut, the movie is an unflinching look at what it is like to live with a degenerative disease that attacks the spinal cord and brain. But it’s also a look at a woman who has a fractured relationship with her mother, was never quite comfortable with her fame and struggles with anxiety and depression. We feel like we know celebrities, especially ones we’ve grown up with. Introducing, Selma Blair removes the façade of celebrity, but Blair is still familiar to us. Her candidness about the disease juxtaposed against our collective memory paints a vibrant picture of how MS can rob a person of so much we take for granted.
And no topic is off-limits. Blair discusses her very public breakdown on an airplane flight in 2016. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever done as a parent,” she says while expressing gratitude that Bleick did not try to take Arthur away from her. We learn about Blair’s mother in bits and pieces. Her voice on the phone, old pictures of her and Blair’s stories. Although we never see her mother, what comes starkly into focus is a woman who was not supportive of her youngest daughter. “Oh, Selma you just look so unimportant,” Blair recalls her mother saying when she appeared on the cover of Seventeen. “I knew then that I wouldn’t be a movie star. I didn’t fit into a commercial idea. I knew it all. Right then.”
What’s clear is that may not have been true at all, but it’s how Blair, shaped by her mother’s influence, saw herself. Now 49, Blair understands her mother and has compassion for her while also recognizing the impact her childhood had on her life. “I want to get rid of everything I inherited,” she says. “I wanted to get rid of every bit of familial rage because it could fuel the sun.”
The movie ends but Blair’s story continues. As she plunges into her pool, we know her battle with this insidious disease is not yet over. We are just lucky enough to see part of the journey.
Director: Rachel Fleit
Release Date: October 15, 2021 (select theaters); October 21, 2021 (Discovery+)
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).