Siskel and Ebert went two thumbs up on Ironweed in 1987, but most other reviewers joined audiences and went thumbs down, way down, on this adaptation of William Kennedy’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner, which is only now making its DVD debut. I decided to take a second look to see if it had improved with age. No dice.
It’s an honorable failure—but, still, a failure. In this it’s not unlike Blindness, which I previously reviewed on the site. Both are taken from contemporary literary classics, and both are directed, as it happens, by South Americans abroad: Ironweed was Argentine Hector Babenco’s followup to Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), for which he was an Academy Award nominee. Lust for Oscar gold was no doubt a factor in both productions, and Ironweed, at least, came close, as its two stars, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, were nominated. I suspect the actors, who became friends on the set of Heartburn the previous year, put their feet up at the Shrine Civic Auditorium and had a good time, confident that they had done their best but knowing they hadn’t a chance at winning given the movie’s tepid reception.
For them, it was a riches-to-rags story, removed from the posh Manhattan of the Mike Nichols comedy-drama to the doleful Depression-era Albany of Ironweed, where they’re alcoholic tramps. Kennedy’s capital-set novels, which include Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Very Old Bones, are terrific reads, but if there was ever a movie in Ironweed, Kennedy, who adapted, didn’t find it. (There was a movie, a good one, in another of his upstate novels, the gangster portrait Legs, which may have gotten him his only other screenwriting credit to date, The Cotton Club.)
The synopsis supplied by the DVD distributor, Lionsgate, pretty much hangs a “Keep Away” sign over the production. “Francis Phelan (Nicholson), a drunken former baseball player is running away from life and the painful, guilty memories that haunt him. Helen Archer (Streep) is Francis’ longtime girlfriend and partner in drink. Together they lament the misery of life and ponder their tragic pasts, hoping to find a way to free themselves from their troubled lives. Told in a series of drunken flashbacks, Ironweed is a dark portrait of Depression-era hopelessness and a searing character-driven drama.” Ponderings of miserable lives, dark portraits, drunken flashbacks…and did I mention it’s 143 minutes long? Tumbleweeds were blowing in theaters stuck with Ironweed.
On film, Ironweed plays a little like The Iceman Cometh, with elements of magic realism, which probably got Babenco the Spider web spinner the job (but these rarely work as well on celluloid as they do on the page). Phelan emerges, Oscar the Grouch-like, from a pile of refuse and starts picking at the sores of his checkered personal history; it’s a frigid Halloween, and the ghosts of his past, in pasty pancake makeup, are haunting him. (These include Nathan Lane, in an early, serious film role, as a scab streetcar conductor killed with a rock hurled by the young Francis during a labor riot.) Accompanying him on his episodic Skid Row rounds is the gin-soaked Archer, a former radio singer, with a gruff accent that Streep sort-of recycled for Doubt. She has the movie’s one bravura scene, singing an old tune, “He’s My Pal,” to an audience of figments in a bar. But it comes early, and the characters split up, Archer to a steadily degrading fate, and Phelan to a bottle or two with his rummy friend (who else but Tom Waits?), a tenuous horse-and-cart delivery job, and a hesitant reunion with the family he left behind 22 years earlier. (It was nice to see Carroll Baker, the one and only Baby Doll, as Phelan’s estranged wife then, and good to see her again.) Not much happens, which wouldn’t matter if what we were watching was accumulating emotional impact. It doesn’t.
Much like Gangs of New York, Ironweed spent millions (mostly on location) to recreate bygone poverty, though a lovely score, by John Morris, helps chase down that irony. It’s an attractive, burnished look at unattractive, burned-out people, played with finesse by the two leads, who do their best to tamp down their marquee radiance. Nicholson’s sodden Irish thunder was however stolen by Mickey Rourke’s more appealing bum in that year’s Barfly, the one to look for if you have a thirst for movie drunks circa 1987.
Ironweed has arrived on DVD in a full-frame transfer that adds insult to the injury of the film’s failure. (Babenco made an even longer, duller film of the cult novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord in 1991 and hasn’t been seen much in Hollywood since.) The print bears the logo of Vestron Video, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the soft, muffled image was derived from a tape from that long-defunct company, whose assets Lionsgate acquired. It hasn’t made much use of Ironweed; you might think an Oscar-nominated production would include a retrospective documentary titled “A Look Back at Ironweed,” or “Recalling Ironweed.” But there are zero extras, not even a trailer. No one wanted to look back on, or recall, Ironweed. It is as it was, shunned, an outcast, unclean.
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