I watched Ironweed, the 1987 film adaptation of the novel by William Kennedy. Despite having a starry cast headed by Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep and including Tom Waits, the film didn’t do well at the time. This is a great shame as it has Nicholson’s last great performance before he did Batman and coasted on ever afterwards. He is much more convincing as a demon-haunted man driven wild in this film than he was in The Shining.
We start (and also end) with a freight train travelling through the night.
Clouds lift into the morning light and we see rubbish lying by a wall.
Something stirs and turns out to be travelling bum Francis Phelan, now back in his hometown of Albany, N.Y, in time for Hallowe’en.
He joins up with the other bums and soon he’s back with Rudy, who’s delighted to relate that the doctor has told him he has cancer and has 6 months left to live, so he’s going to spend it “wining and dining”.
There is work available – some guys are needed to dig graves at the cemetery. Francis and Rudy head along, but Francis uses the opportunity to slip away and beg forgiveness at the grave of his child. Young Francis died 22 years ago when older Francis dropped him. He’d had some beers but he insists he wasn’t drunk.
Back in town, Francis and Rudy get on a bus. Francis has a flashback to a strike he was involved in about 30 years earlier. Amongst the picket line, he threw the rock that hit and killed the driver of the tram attempting to break through the strikers.
Fun fact: Young Francis is played by Frank Whaley, who also appeared with Jack Nicholson in Hoffa, which also has a storyline about strikes and trades unions in America.
On the bus as an older man, Francis has a vision of the man he killed. This is first of several visualisations, as he’s killed a few people in his life. He reacts by angrily shouting back at the spectral figure, and we cut to see everyone else confused by the man yelling at an empty space.
At a church offering hope for the homeless, the boys sing a hymn dutifully but no one responds to the preacher inviting them to step forward and believe in Jesus. They’re all just here for the warm soup afterwards.
Francis finally meets up again with Helen Archer, who has been living with him occasionally across all the years since he left his family.
Helen used to have a flourishing musical career, singing on the radio and touring as a pianist (we later see she still has some ability, when she is able to play the instrument in a music shop). But there were family problems and a cheated inheritance that sent her downwards, just as Francis fell away from his career as a successful baseball player after the grief of the death of his child, literally slipping through his hands.
At a bar, Helen gets up to sing “He’s Me Pal” for Francis. This goes across as a virtuoso performance that astounds the rapturous audience… and then the fantasy breaks, and we see the reality of a croaky, weak rendition provoking nothing but bored disdain.
Fun fact: this scene was later referenced in a jolly Hollywood backslapping shindig, which shouldn’t detract from the bleak majesty of the original, which the Academy should have given Streep an Oscar for.
Phelan makes his way back to his family and has a chance to make his peace with them, after hearing the anger of the children left behind.
At least he gets a chance to tell his grandson that Ty Cobb was the greatest ball player, better than Babe Ruth. But he goes on his way, and is soon on his way out on another freight train.
The Eureka edition includes an essay by Simon Ward about the difficulties of playing alcoholics accurately and convincingly. The extras include the Trailer, which suggests why it may have been a flop since it makes it seem like a rather sentimental TV movie that probably winds around to a feel-good ending, which it doesn’t really, though there is some hope. There seems to be a problem in films of this period portraying the 30s effectively: the Billy Bathgate adaptation also looked rather made-for-TV. More recent works like the new Nightmare Alley go to the other extreme of making the period so bleakly alien and strange, as if it really is ruled by Lovecraftian horrors just below the surface. The 30s were used as a backdrop for mythology in O Brother Where Art Thou, which echoes Ironweed in 2 ways: a scene of escaping criminals jumping in to a train carriage, and a rendition of “Big Rock Candy Mountain”.
There is one error of detail: as you see at the top, there is a moment when a poster for the Marx Brothers At The Circus is visible. But that wasn’t released in the US until October 1939, and we are told Ironweed is set in 1938. That particular film had Groucho, Chico and Harpo as a trio, as Zeppo had left the team earlier, and Gummo the brother he replaced in the act was only in theatre and never their films. I’ve always thought of “Gummo & Zeppo” as a pair who fell by the wayside, even though at least one of them was alleged to be the most talented; but actually they chose to leave, and they did very well outside the show and never fell out with their brothers. At The Circus did employ Buster Keaton as a consultant, as his career was on the slide; he later worked with Samuel Beckett. The great missed opportunity was for a film by Beckett with Gummo and Zeppo as themselves, wandering together after they left their brothers in a desolate city filled with tattered posters. Their names are practically Beckett characters already.