A review by Shlomoh Sherman
Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Director: Hector Babenco
Writers: William Kennedy (novel), William Kennedy (screenplay)
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Carroll Baker, Tom Waits
Music by John Morris
Cinematography Lauro Escorel
Editing by Anne Goursaud
Distributed by TriStar Pictures
Release Date: February 1988 (USA)
Genre: Drama - historical period piece
Also Known As: Tallo de hierro
Company Credits - Production Co: Home Box Office (HBO), Keith Barish Productions, TAFT Entertainment Pictures
Plot: A schizophrenic drifter spends Halloween in his home town after returning there for the first time in decades.
Filming Location: Albany, New York, USA
Tagline: You can't recapture the past
Runtime: 143 min

Ironweed, the film, is based on the 1983 novel of the same name by William Kennedy. It received the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Kennedy wrote the screenplay for the 1987 film version directed by Hector Babenco and starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. Major portions of the film were shot on location in Albany. The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (for Nicholson) and Best Actress in a Leading Role (for Streep).

It is set in 1938, a year after I was born, in the New York State capitol, Albany, in the midst of the Great Depression. The main character in the story is Francis Phelan, a "bum" who nowadays would be known as a homeless alcoholic.

Phelan has been away from Albany for many years and returns on the eve of Halloween to his native town and finds his lover and drinking companion, Helen Archer. She was once a talented singer on the radio; he was a major league pitcher.

Halloween night, Helen sings at a bar where both are getting drunk. In Francis' hallucinated vision, her singing is magnificent and after tremendous applause, he tells her that she was born to be a star. The reality is that her singing is awful and hardly anyone has listened.

Francis is haunted by the people he has killed, both accidently and on purpose. Some of these dead continually appear to him in hallucinations. He is also haunted by the memory of his 13 day old son whom he accidentally dropped in a drunken stupor and killed. At that point in his life he had left his family had become a bum.

On Halloween day, Francis goes to see his wife and children. His wife is happy to see him despite his past sins, and tells him that he can stay. Francis knows that the time for him to be a happy family man has passed. His wife and children wind up forgiving him for the death of the child and for his abandonment of them. But Francis cannot forgive himself, and he cannot return to be the man he was before his descent into alcoholism and his lifestyle of vagrancy and dereliction.

Helen finds a hotel room and pays for two days, setting up all of her worldy possessions there as though it were her permanent home. While Francis is away,due to her unhealthy lifestyle, her health begins to fail. Francis' closest friend is also killed that day by a group of local vigilantes with baseball bats who raid the bums' hangout to drive them out of town.

The film sweetly depicts the love and loyalty which the bums show each other even in their darkest moments.

Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep have perhaps their finest film moments here. Tom Waits, known to me as a song writer and performer, delivers a believable performance as Francis' best friend, Rudy Newton. It was wonderful to see Carroll Baker again after so many years after she retired as a film actress.

At IMDB. dbdumonteil, in his review, THEY'RE MY PALS [21 June 2002] wrote "Never the timing for a movie had been so disastrous. Released in those "glorious " eighties when the success stories and the triumphalist heroes were the golden rule,"Ironweed" stood no chance at all.Two tramps did not fit well in the movie landscape of those "feel good" times. And two tramps played by two megastars ,it was unforgivable!"

I totally disagree. When is it ever bad timing to see an emotionally engaging movie, filmed in a beautifully haunting way, and with such a tremendous cast? Ironweed is not generally shown on TV these days. I was lucky to have captured it on my TIVO. This is the second time that I have seen it and I was as rapt the second time as the first. I am a tried and true fan of Meryl Streep who never disappoints an audience. Her role as a drunken hasbeen was challenging and she rose to the occaision as usual.

Cast overview, first billed only:

Jack Nicholson ... Francis Phelan
Meryl Streep ... Helen Archer
Carroll Baker ... Annie Phelan
Michael O'Keefe ... Billy Phelan
Diane Venora ... Margaret 'Peg' Phelan
Fred Gwynne ... Oscar Reo
Margaret Whitton ... Katrina Dougherty
Tom Waits    ... Rudy
Jake Dengel   ... Pee Wee
Nathan Lane ... Harold Allen
James Gammon ... Reverend Chester
Will Zahrn   ... Rowdy Dick
Laura Esterman ... Nora Lawlor
Joe Grifasi ... Jackson
Hy Anzell      ... Rosskam
Black-Eyed Susan  ... Clara
Ted Levine        ... Pocono Pete
William H Cassidy ... Homeless Man
Robert H. Fickies ... Gravedigger

Trivia -
Gene Hackman, Jason Robards, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, and Sam Shepard all expressed a desire for the part of Francis Phelan, but William Kennedy had Jack Nicholson already in mind for the role.

Goofs -
Anachronisms: The movie takes place in 1938. The diner used in the movie, Miss Albany Diner, is a Silk City model manufactured in 1941.

Soundtracks -
"He's Me Pal" performed by Meryl Streep

Critical reception - [at IMDB]
The film was received with enthusiasm because of the presence of stars Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "Nicholson and Streep play drunks in Ironweed, and actors are said to like to play drunks, because it gives them an excuse for overacting. But there is not much visible 'acting' in this movie; the actors are too good for that." Ebert gave the film three stars out of four.[2]

Ms. Streep received raves from most critics; Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote that "Meryl Streep, as ever, is uncanny. Miss Streep uses the role of Helen as an opportunity to deliver a stunning impersonation of a darty-eyed, fast-talking woman of the streets, an angry, obdurate woman with great memories and no future. There isn't much more to the film's Helen than this, and indeed the character may go no deeper, but she's a marvel all the same. Behind the runny, red-rimmed eyes, the nervous chatter and the haunted expression, Miss Streep is even more utterly changed than her costar, and she even sings well. The sequence in which Helen entertains the real and imagined patrons of a bar room with a rendition of 'He's Me Pal' is a standout."

Critics Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat appreciated the film's spiritual message, writing, "Mixing realistic and surrealistic scenes, Argentinean director Hector Babenco puts the accent on what he calls the spiritual dimensions of William Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel...If you ride with the emotional undertow of Ironweed, there's no way you'll ever look at street people in quite the same way."

The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 90% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on twelve reviews.

    * Los Angeles Film Critics Association: LAFCA Award, Best Actor, Jack Nicholson; 1987.
    * New York Film Critics Circle Awards: NYFCC Award, Best Actor, Jack Nicholson, 1987.

    * Academy Award: Best Actor in a Leading Role, Jack Nicholson; Best Actress in a Leading Role, Meryl Streep; 1988.
    * Golden Globe Award: Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama, Jack Nicholson; 1988.
    * Moscow International Film Festival: Golden St. George, Hector Babenco; 1989.

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