A Hollywood-produced art film rarely had its ducks all in a row quite like 1987’s Ironweed. You had the screen?s two reigning actors, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep; a hot director, Hector Babenco, coming off a recent succès d?estime; and a Pulitzer Prize–winning literary property by William Kennedy. Throw in Kennedy as screenwriter, as well as the best set direction that money could buy, and expectations grew high — too high. The resulting work — purposely meandering, resolutely unsentimental, relentlessly downbeat, and missing the mythic Joycean resonances of Kennedy?s breakthrough novel — just refused to find its way deep enough under anyone?s skin. Critics praised the flawless acting (and those sets) but the word “masterpiece” never settled near enough this film. It still hasn?t, but time — and unfortunate present circumstances — has altered its impact. Ironweed is set in Depression-era 1938, and Babenco, unapologetically, does everything he can to evoke it. The palpable sense of urban stagnation and decay — which Babenco brought over from his earlier Pixote — is never diminished by the Hollywood star power. Death surrounds a story drenched in blighted dreams and populated by dead-end existences. Lyrical and poignant moments punctuate the grim goings-on — the brief reunion between Nicholson?s character and his estranged family finds an honest balance between tenderness and bitterness, while Streep?s barroom rendition of “He?s My Man” rightfully looms large in her legend — but the sense of lives desperately out of whack due to economic straits never leaves us. Ironweed carries a prescient tinge of fear: As bad as things are now, may they never get as bad as they were then.
About the Author
Steve Futterman writes the "Jazz and Standards" listings for The New Yorker.