‘l have always been fascinated by people who live outside the system. think each individual has a pride in not accepting the rulings ofthe system and living their life in a way that is more pleasurable or intelligent or more effective for them. In taking the chance of challenging something so strong as the system you are taking risks that place you closer to God and closer to death but these characters are more poetic, more charming and more full of life than people I don't know so well. like the characters who are inside the system. perfectly established within certain rules.‘
The man describing his celluloid preferences is Brazilian director Hector Babenco and his modest body ofwork certainly bears eloquent testimony to the assertions he makes above. The controversially graphic Pixote (1981) dealt with street delinquents turning to prostitution and murder. The Oscar-winning Kiss oft/2e Spiderwoman (1985) posed the question ofwhat makes a man through the sharply contrasted characters of two political prisoners; one a macho revolutionary. the other a flamboyant gay. Now. he has turned his attention to the tattily dignified derelicts ofWilliam Kennedy‘s lronweed.
Babenco read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on a beach in the north of Brazil whilst idling away the time between projects. Six months later. ‘the book was still very much alive inside ofme. The emotions it gave me when I read it were asking me to translate them into the film medium.‘
Iron weed is set during the pre-war Depression era and tells the moving story ofone man’s belated homecoming. Francis Phelan is a one-time baseball star whose life quickly unravelled after the domestic tragedy of his baby son's death. Unable to cope with the remorse and recriminations that followed he has taken to the road as a rock bottom. itinerant drunkard. Twenty-two years later. reaching some kind of nadir. he heads for home to seek redemption from his
family and to lay to rest the ghosts of his past.
Babenco was attracted to Iron weed not only because Phelan is a quintessential outsider but because the character is an embodiment of
BEATING THE SYSTEM
Down-and-outs are not the stuffof your average Hollywood movie —Allan Hunter talks to Hector Babenco about why he, Nicholson and Streep were determined to make lrorzweed and (opp) profiles the inimitable Nicholson.
the kind of failure and bankruptcy that American audiences prefer not to encounter at the movies. ‘Fora moment I had the idea ofmaking Phelan an ex-hippie who left home in the late ‘60s and is coming back in the ‘80s but then I thought it would be better to be loyal to the original version because it is such an interesting piece of Americana. It is a way of showing Americans aspects oftheir society that they‘re trying to avoid and erase all the time. They are trying to sell the idea that they are a perfect country where life is pink and the browns and blacks are only featured in the colours of clothes. I think it was important to come back to something that was portrayed from Norman Rockewell and The Saturday Evening Post like a happy American way oflife. and suddenly show at this specific
Meryl Streep in Ironweed moment. as well as today. that things are not so happy and romanticised as everybody tries to make us believe.‘ Such subversive notions are unlikely to endear your project to the innately cautious fellows who control the Hollywood purse strings. especially when you request a mere $20 million to bring this uncomfortable perspective on the American dream to neighbourhood screens. However. the film has been made and one suspects that the
‘ potent star support ofJack
Nicholson and Meryl Streep may conceivably have exercised a modicum of influence on the money men. According to Babenco; ‘lt’s quite necessary at the time you‘re writing the screenplay to try and imagine who could be the face of the character and the phantom ofJack was floating on air almost all the time.‘
It was Nicholson who suggested Streep for the role of Helen Archer. an emaciated and mildly dotty bag-lady who has become Phelan’s
latterday companion in dereliction. ‘l was inclined to cast someone less prominent for the part but she wanted to do it and she wanted the character to be more mysterious and less self-explanatory so we cut a lot of her lines. It's important to understand that sometimes important actors instead of fighting for more presence inside a movie sometimes fight for less and that‘s what happened with Meryl.‘
Nicholson and Streep were first seen together in Heartburn and are scheduled to be reuinted once more in Corporate Love. Despite a great deal of mutual respect and admiration. Babenco was fascinated to see their very disparate techniques ofapproaching the job at hand. ‘Meryl has a very deep and intense level ofconcentration during work and from the first day on the set she already was the character: you could not communicate with her rationally. Jack is more intuitive. He loads himself up with all the essential information he needs to play the part and then the moment of acting is like a moment ofpleasure for him. He can do two or three takes maximum and that is his best. Meryl can go seven. eight. nine or ten and each will be great and each will be totally different from the other. Jack is totally mesmerised by Meryl‘s versatility ofdelivery and Meryl is totally fascinated by the capacity of Jack to be so precise and intuitive at the first take.‘
Despite fine reviews and a brace of Oscar nominations. lronweed earned a paltry $7 million in America. It appears that an emotionally wrought drama full of ambiguity and feeling cannot compete with cute babies or a knife-wielding Glenn (lose. Babenco hopes that audience on this side of the water may be more receptive. ‘Americans are too happiness-orientated and the movie has certain tough qualities that are hard to be accepted by a general audience there. I really do believe that Europe has a more mature audience who could understand the movie on a better level.‘ lronweed is scheduled to open at the ()deotts in Glasgow and Edinburgh on June I 7. See Film Listings for Details.
The Films ofjaek Nicholson by Douglas Brode is published by Columbus. [9. 95.
6The List to— 23 June 1988