Buried amongst 18 Oscar noms, IRONWEED is a forgotten film featuring Meryl Streep’s greatest performance

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Rating: ★★★1/2

How is it that an Oscar-nominated film based on a Pulitzer prize-winning novel, starring two of the greatest actors of all time has been completely forgotten, and until last year’s region A Blu-ray release from Olive Films, all but lost to obscurity?

No matter how big the star power, a two and a half hour Depression-era film about alcoholic vagrants was never going to play well during the sickening surge of big money wealth in 1987.

Francis (Jack Nicholson) & Helen (Meryl Streep) are husband and wife former homeowners-turned-tramps, feeding their empty bellies on soup kitchen slop, brown-bagged booze and memories of better times. The soft-focus cinematography of reminiscence has the effect of tranquillising director Héctor Babenco’s otherwise gritty street realism, which is prone to slip into the surrealism of down-and-out delirium. Francis and Helen are dreamers, but in the year of Michael Douglas as Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, members of the Academy only wanted to be sold on zeitgeist American dreams of successful slicksters banking the Bejamins. There was an echo of that at this year’s Oscars too, with the money-mad Wolf of Wall Street nominated in major categories, whilst the critically adored but decidedly downbeat Inside Llewyn Davis was locked out of the competition in a manner homeless and unwanted Llewyn comes to expect in the course of his own story.

In comparison with the Coen Bros. latest, Ironweed is next level dismal. Evocative and atmospheric production design vividly recreates Depression-era upstate New York (my old stomping ground of Albany no less) in this dirty, drab and suitably doleful picture. As Francis, Jack Nicholson plays a bum who deserves better, bringing a tragic nobility to a man living a life on the streets as penance for his past. Regretful actions that kicked him to the curb, and the alcoholism that followed, have had the unfortunate consequence of bringing his faithful wife Helen down into the gutter with him. And while she refuses to be cowed by her desperate circumstances, like her husband before her, Helen is driven to drink in order to cope.

Spending their nights freezing outside soup kitchens amongst a fraternity of winos and wanderers whilst fending off dogs from the fallen bodies of other neighbourhood hobos, more than the company they keep, it’s the couple’s attentiveness to the well being of others and the pride they maintain even whilst wearing rags that betrays their spiritual haggardness. Down, but not quite out, the thread of sanity they’re hanging on to is the image of the people they were before they found themselves living on the streets. When Francis finds a clean shirt, a companion wonders what use a bum could have of it. His reply, “The clothes make the man” is that of someone whose fallen a long way down, but still remembers (and isn’t willing to forget) who he was before the fall.

With no fallacious reverence for their peasant protagonists, the filmmakers’ refusal to sentimentalise rests the astounding emotional achievement of Ironweed entirely on the shoulders of two great stars. The interior sensitivities of these haunted people haunting the shadows of oil drum fires and rusted rail yards, are illuminated by performances of great empathy without an ounce of superficiality. Francis and Helen are themselves shadows, and the unwashed squalor of their pitiful prospects is portrayed so harshly that the two-hour plus running time isn’t quite up to the task of sustaining such bleakness. Living a hand-to-mouth-existence in a destitute economy, those at the bottom live in a futile present, only able to imagine a grim and more miserable future, which forces them to frequently retreat into the past.

Meryl Streep is riveting as a woeful wife resigned to premature physical decomposition and hellish, nightmare-long, psychological torment. Streep was rightly nominated for an Academy Award in her most affecting performance, but the tether of the skeletal, hollowed out character she’s playing is so frayed, it doesn’t allow for the type of Oscar grandstanding that wins awards.

The great Pauline Kael famously seemed to have it in for Streep, believing that all the thought and effort she put into a role was routinely externalised, betraying ‘actorly’ artifice. Unable to find her original review, I wonder what she made of the most retracted performance of Streep’s career. Kael’s early praise of the actress in The Deer Hunter, is an apt description of Streep’s staggering accomplishment in playing Helen, and what she’s able to do with much less screen time and dialogue compared to Nicholson’s Francis: “Her role is to be the supportive woman, who suffers and endures, and it’s a testament to Streep’s heroic resources as a mime that she makes herself felt.” Even with the dialogue she’s given, it feels very much like a silent performance, that we’re watching a woman struggling to be heard. In the heart-breaking scene where Helen sings ‘He’s Me Pal’ for her supper, when the song and the rapturous response from the audience is revealed to be Helen’s fantasy, this once promising singer who had prospects of touring the globe, appears to have completely lost her voice.

Accordingly, Streep’s reading of many of her lines sounds less like human speech and more like the despairing cries of a terminally wounded animal who needs to be put down. Her bent over shuffle and constantly averted gaze makes one think of a cruelly mistreated dog from an RSPCA ad. Streep has been on screen for only a few minutes when she sings ‘He’s Me Pal’ but she inhabits Helen’s romantic disillusionment so completely, the performance provokes tears even though we barely know her.

Many are right to highlight this as the film’s most memorable moment, but the scene in which Helen bumps into an affluent old acquaintance in the public library, pretending to read so she can keep warm by the hearth of a fire is equally wrenching. Helen’s sudden burst of feral rage in describing how she was robbed of her inheritance, shows the spiritual pain poverty has wrought on somebody who put all her expectations into dreams that were so suddenly dashed. Her confession is made all the more painful, falling as it does on the ears of a woman who couldn’t begin to comprehend such suffering.

Ironweed has been unjustly buried amongst Meryl Streep’s record eighteen Oscar nominations (in the early hours of this morning she was a nominated best actress for August: Osage County). A forgotten film featuring her greatest performance, who better than her inestimable co-star Jack Nicholson to put this remarkable portrayal into perspective: “Helen is one of Meryl’s greatest transformations. She’s done something extreme but impeccable – and as good as it gets. This one is for history.”

The historical snapshot on screen is of a place and time as ruined and exhausted as the characters who populate it, and Ironweed is an exhausting film to watch. There will be no resurrection or happy end, but it remains a remarkable tale of endurance, as well as a vital testament to a forgotten people fiercely holding on to their humanity in the ash heap of ignobility.

First published by Vérité Film Magazine on March 3, 2014

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