Héctor Babenco (director)
09 December 2021 (released)
22 December 2019
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by William Kennedy (who also wrote the screenplay), this acclaimed character study from 1987 sees Jack Nicholson in one of his finest roles, ably supported by Meryl Streep and Tom Waits.
The story takes place during the big 1930’s depression – to be precise it unfolds on Halloween 1938 in Albany, N. Y. This just happens to be author Kennedy's own birthplace and the fictitious Phelans appear in a number of his novels. Looking at the plot you could be excused for thinking the film might just be a little too gloomy but with Nicholson in the lead that is simply not going to happen.
From the opening shot we get a pretty good idea of where we are going and it isn't far as we are not going to get out of Albany. But the film is about people (‘alcoholic bums’ to be precise) and it might be a bit of an eye opener to some of the uncaring rich dudes out there. Francis Phelan (Jack Nicholson) is seen at the beginning emerging from a pile of rags beneath a high brick wall and walking into a near deserted street where he meets a number of other down and outs warming themselves by a fire on some wasteland. Attempting to attach the broken sole of his shoe with the help of some string he sees a pair of half decent shoes in front of him. They belong to Rudy (Tom Waits), another vagabond and Francis’ not overtly bright young friend also clad in an ill-fitting suit. Rudy, of whom Francis is protective, announces that his Doc has told him he's got terminal cancer: “The only time I ever got anything.” He seems quite stoical about it. Of course, none of these poor buggers are going to be around for long for if it’s not a terminal disease that finishes them off than it’s cold, hunger and that devil alcohol. Also towards the beginning of the film we see Francis at a graveyard where they've all been shoveling dirt for a pittance. Suddenly Francis breaks down in front of the grave of an infant. It is the grave of his 18-week old son who he accidentally dropped when drunk many years before in 1910. It was this incident from which he could never come to terms with and that put him in his present miserable position.
Among Francis’ buddies is his on/off lover and drinking companion Helen Archer (Meryl Streep) who also suffers from some terminal disease but it’s not made clear what exactly. Helen Archer, a tragic case indeed. Before it went horribly wrong she'd had what looked like a promising career as a singer. There is a heartbreaking scene when Francis, Helen and Rudy hit a gin palace owned by Oscar Reo (Fred Gwynne in a tiny but telling cameo and even rendering a version of 'When you were sweet sixteen'). Afterwards he encourages Helen and she sings ‘He’s my Pal’ while real and imagined patrons listen to her song… in her fevered imagination rapturous applause, sadly this is not the reality.
We then get to see how these unfortunate souls struggle on to eke out some kind of paltry existence. Thank goodness for the soup kitchen! Sing a few tedious religious songs for some soup and a hot drink (nowhere near enough but it helps) - hence 'Singing for your supper'. Occasionally the good Reverend Chester (James Gammon) is able throw a few measly jobs to the more able bodied, this includes Francis. Among his unfortunate fellows Francis almost shines with strength of character and an inner wisdom. He shouldn't be here but for sure he is going nowhere else though he is haunted throughout by the ghosts of his past: people who he actually killed - but not out of malice; just unfortunate circumstances.
Later on he finds the courage to knock on the door of his estranged wife Annie (Carroll Baker) who he hadn’t seen since the tragic accident involving their infant son many years ago. Handing her a turkey as an offer of peace, Annie seems surprisingly calm – pleased almost, in contrast to her grown-up son Billy (Michael O’ Keefe) and daughter Margaret (Diane Venora). Despite a brief ‘family reunion’ Francis is soon on the streets again, mingling with his own buddies. The climax is quite shocking and a little unsuspected. Are some people really this horrible? Unfortunately as we all know yes. Is there a glimmer of hope for Francis as the film ends?
Director Héctor Babenco handles Kennedy's script with the sympathy it deserves. Nicholson is never off the screen (well, hardly) for well over two hours and he delivers an achingly plaintive performance that is not an easy one to forget.