The Irishman: The Method Actor in a Political Film

The political gangster biopic should have focused less on what people are on the inside and more on their impact on society.
Last Updated 13 December 2019, 13:26 IST

Martin Scorsese is one of Hollywood’s most respected directors and has several leading actors associated with his films – like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Leonardo DiCaprio. He is also known for gangster films, films like Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), Gangs of New York (2002), The Departed (2006) and now The Irishman. Unlike films of the gangster film genre like The Godfather (1973) – which are fiction – Scorsese makes films largely (though not always) about actual gangsters and The Irishman is based on a book in which union leader Jimmy Hoffa is the focus.

Hoffa controlled the truckers unions (he was President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters) in the 1950s and 1960s and was politically very important but he was also mixed up with organized crime and spent time in jail. He disappeared in 1975 to be declared dead seven years later and The Irishman is based on a book that follows Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who was Hoffa’s(Al Pacino) bodyguard and later claimed to have killed him, although that is disputed.

The film has been reviewed extensively but what interests me is the way Scorsese goes about it, casting big stars in the roles of gangsters. The subject matter is inherently political as would a story about actual underworld dons in Mumbai be, fighting it out with each other for control and using the weapons at their disposal including political influence.

Both Al Pacino and Robert de Niro are stars known for ‘method acting’, a school that encourages actors to identify with the protagonists, use their own experiences and emotions to ‘live out’ the roles. ‘Method acting’ was ostensibly inspired by Stanislavski’s methods (in the Moscow Art Theatre) but is more in tune with Hollywood, which tries to create ‘individualities’ that audiences identify with. All films use both ‘character types’ and ‘individualities’ and to illustrate, in Spider-Man (2002). Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is the individuality while his aunt May and uncle Ben are character types, with whom audiences do not identify because they are people only playing out their social roles and not rising above it.

Casting a method actor in the role of an actual gangster, criminal or petty politician is a doubtful undertaking on the part of the film-maker since what should interest the public is how he or she took advantage of a situation and not what his or her ‘inner responses’ were. If one were to make a film biography of the fruit-vendor-turned-counterfeiter Abdul Karim Telgi, for instance, one would not cast a big star accustomed to playing epic heroes in whom audiences project themselves.

At this point, it would be useful to make a distinction between fiction in cinema and the historical or biographical film. To elaborate, any kind of character is justifiably the subject of fiction but only certain people merit biographies and the kind of person he or she dictates how such the person should be portrayed. One of the best political biographies ever on film was that of Enrico Mattei (Francesco Rosi, The Mattei Case, 1972), an Italian public servant who ran the state-owned oil company and prevented its sale to US interests, but died mysteriously. Rosi never gives us private moments with his protagonists since ‘what he was’ is of less consequence than his importance to the nascent oil industry and the Italian economy after the war.

Jimmy Hoffa is similarly of interest for the political role he played and his position and not for the emotions he felt. Jack Nicholson, who is not a method actor but is outward in his performances, played Jimmy Hoffa earlier (Hoffa, 1992) and one guesses that he was a better choice than Al Pacino.

Scorsese’s film can be accused of an appalling piece of miscasting by putting Robert De Niro in the role of a petty nobody Frank Sheeran because De Niro is simply incapable of playing a ‘nobody’. In the film, De Niro is a truck driver stealing the merchandise he is transporting and selling it to some Mafia families, and he rises because he attracts the attention of a Philadelphia gangster named Russel Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Pesci is not versatile and has been cast in very minor roles (the villain in Home Alone) but he is always excellent opposite De Niro, never having failed to upstage the star in films like Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino. Where De Niro tries to ‘live’ the role – an evident miscalculation in his role in The Irishman – Joe Pesci plays it from the outside, enacting behaviour rather than immersing himself in psychology. Pacino is slightly better as Hoffa since he tries not to ‘live’ the role but sticks to outward mannerisms. Still, old habits die hard and Pacino cannot help giving us a peek into what Hoffa was like ‘inside’.

The emphasis on getting inside the skin of a character may seem a noteworthy one but it clearly makes some subjects inaccessible to Hollywood, which should become clearer with The Irishman, since Scorsese is a legend. There are some roles that benefit when the actor can get inside the character’s skin but certain kinds of subjects demand that what should be explored are not individuals but social relationships and the workings of power and influence, and that is where Hollywood usually comes up short.

(The writer is a well-known film critic)

(Published 13 December 2019, 13:24 IST)

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