Jack Nicholson is known for his over-the-top off-screen personality, and even in front of the camera, he’s one of those actors we love when he’s playing some version of his highly-watchable self. Meryl Streep has made a lot of headlines lately in her feud with Donald Trump, and her record-breaking 20th Academy Award nomination. Thirty years ago, in 1987, this pair starred in the movie adaptation of William Kennedy’s novel, Ironweed. This film about a Depression-era homeless couple struggling with alcoholism didn’t speak to the go-go-greed of the excessive 1980s, but critics took note, and when Oscar season came around, the pair was nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively.
These central performances still wow, but not because Streep comes off like a movie star or because Nicholson comes off like, well, Jack Nicholson. Streep all but disappears into the part of Helen Archer, and Nicholson – in what must be one of his best screen turns – trades in all of his bravado and arch-ness to take on the countenance of a broken, humbled man who is crushed by his past, blind to his future, and just barely able to cling to the present.
Nicholson plays Francis Phelan – a washed-up baseball player who abandoned his family after a tragic accident. It’s never clear, but the impression is that Francis’s drinking was too blame for the horrible mishap, and his deep, brooding shame is the axle that Ironweed twists around. When the film opens, Nicholson is unrecognizable, sleeping huddled-up against a building. Even when we see his face his expression is so flat and neutral that viewers would be forgiven their second takes. At the beginning of Ironweed, Francis is back in his hometown of Albany, N.Y., after more than two decades away. He also seems to be at his own personal rock bottom.
Francis meets his sometimes-lover and drinking companion, Helen, at a mission soup kitchen. Streep is all furtive glances and quick talking – Helen and Francis immediately launch into a fight as soon as they unite. She’s defensive and has a chip on her shoulder toward anyone offering help. But she also has an accent and a vocabulary that hint at a higher station in some previous life before the alcohol dragged her down. Like her co-star, Streep seeps into Helen, completely blending-in with the littered streets, the beer soaked bars, the flop house rooms – there is no sign that this is one of the world’s most celebrated movie actresses playing drunk and ugly for a chance at a major award. By 1987, Streep had already won two of her three Best Actress Oscars.
Ironweed is an actor’s film not only for its stellar central performances, but also for its great supporting cast: Tom Waits, Fred Gwynne, Nathan Lane and Frank Whaley all help to realize Francis and Helen’s community of drunks and bartenders, strike-busting scabs and baseballers. Waits holds his own as Francis’s pal Rudy, and Lane takes a memorable turn as the ghost of a cable car operator who appears in one of Francis’s drunken hallucinations. This scene, and a barroom fantasy sequence, recall similar flights from director Hector Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Ironweed’s actorly arsenal is contrasted by its very thin plot and there’s no doubt that the film’s relative obscurity can be pinned to its lack of dramatic fireworks – even a scene that finds Francis confronting his family for the first time since his disappearance is played for cold silences and awkward missed-connections. The lack of conventional pacing and storytelling here might leave many viewers confused or even bored, but Babenco’s take on Kennedy’s novel opens up the world of these characters in a way that makes us feel like we have a seat at the table, and that one of those foaming glasses was poured for us.
In Ironweed, we get one of the best fictional portraits of street life – from the monotonous grind of securing a meal and a bed to the bonds that bind homeless folk in their communities shaped by damage and determination, frustration and friendship, helplessness and hope. Most importantly, Ironweed reminds us that behind the face of every anonymous “homeless person” we might see a real human being with a life story to tell.
When Francis and Rudy encounter a drunk woman on the street, Francis is curious.
Francis Phelan: She a bum, or just a plain drunk?Rudy: She's been a bum all her life.
Francis Phelan: [chuckles] No, nobody... 'been a bum all her life'. She had to be somethin' else before she was a bum.
Ironweed is available on DVD at the Nashville Public Library.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.