Full page view
HISTORY

As noted in an 8 Dec 1987 DV article, executive producer and financier Joseph H. Kanter and co-producer Gene Kirkwood optioned film rights to William Kennedy’s 1983 novel, Ironweed, before it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. Although a 27 Mar 1984 DV brief reported that Stuart Rosenberg would direct, no further mention of Rosenberg’s name was found in AMPAS library production clippings.
       The 20 Mar 1985 DV announced that David Lynch was attached to direct, with Sam Shepard set to star as “Francis Phelan.” However, Lynch dropped out of the project when his shooting schedule on Blue Velvet (1986, see entry) came into conflict with Ironweed.
       Brazilian director Hector Babenco became interested in the project after reading Kennedy’s novel and meeting the writer through a mutual friend, as noted in a 13 Dec 1987 NYT article. Babenco was hired to replace Lynch, and later spent five weeks collaborating on the script with Kennedy at his home in Albany, NY. Babenco then brought the script to Jack Nicholson, who agreed to play the leading role. With Nicholson attached, Babenco got the interest of producer Keith Barish, whose company, Taft Entertainment Pictures/Keith Barish Productions, agreed to finance the production, originally budgeted at $17.5 million, according to a 13 May 1986 DV item. Various contemporary sources cited higher budgets of $23-$26 million. An article in the 31 Aug 1987 issue of People item stated that the film ultimately cost $27 million, of which Jack Nicholson was paid $5 million, and Meryl Streep an estimated $2.5 million.
       The film marked Hector ... More Less

As noted in an 8 Dec 1987 DV article, executive producer and financier Joseph H. Kanter and co-producer Gene Kirkwood optioned film rights to William Kennedy’s 1983 novel, Ironweed, before it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. Although a 27 Mar 1984 DV brief reported that Stuart Rosenberg would direct, no further mention of Rosenberg’s name was found in AMPAS library production clippings.
       The 20 Mar 1985 DV announced that David Lynch was attached to direct, with Sam Shepard set to star as “Francis Phelan.” However, Lynch dropped out of the project when his shooting schedule on Blue Velvet (1986, see entry) came into conflict with Ironweed.
       Brazilian director Hector Babenco became interested in the project after reading Kennedy’s novel and meeting the writer through a mutual friend, as noted in a 13 Dec 1987 NYT article. Babenco was hired to replace Lynch, and later spent five weeks collaborating on the script with Kennedy at his home in Albany, NY. Babenco then brought the script to Jack Nicholson, who agreed to play the leading role. With Nicholson attached, Babenco got the interest of producer Keith Barish, whose company, Taft Entertainment Pictures/Keith Barish Productions, agreed to finance the production, originally budgeted at $17.5 million, according to a 13 May 1986 DV item. Various contemporary sources cited higher budgets of $23-$26 million. An article in the 31 Aug 1987 issue of People item stated that the film ultimately cost $27 million, of which Jack Nicholson was paid $5 million, and Meryl Streep an estimated $2.5 million.
       The film marked Hector Babenco’s first U.S. production, and a re-teaming of Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, who completed filming Heartburn (1986, see entry) in Oct 1985. A 25 Jul 1986 HR item stated that Streep was Nicholson’s first choice for his co-star. As noted in a 2 Jun 1986 People item, Streep had planned a yearlong break from acting after the May 1986 birth of her daughter, Grace Gummer, but she cut the hiatus short to accommodate shooting.
       Patti Hansen was previously cast in the film, but left the project after becoming pregnant, according to the 9 Jan 1986 LADN. Actors Harry Dean Stanton and Bob Balaban were also reportedly cast, according to items in the 6 Jan 1987 HR and 2 Mar 1987 DV ; however, neither appear in the final film. An 18 Dec 1986 LAHExam brief stated that Jack Nicholson wanted the rock band U2 to compose music for Ironweed, but U2 did not become involved.
       According to a 23 Feb 1987 DV item, principal photography began that day in Albany, where the story is set. Production notes in AMPAS library files and a 12 Mar 1987 NYT article cited the following locations: the site of the former Boulevard Cafeteria, which stood in for “The Gilded Cage” bar; a three-block section of Lark Street, where the trolley strike of 1901 was filmed; a library in Troy, NY; a “haunted” house in the Slingerlands hamlet of Bethlehem, NY; a residence in Cohoes, NY; and a warehouse in the town of Colonie, NY. For the trolley strike scene, a turn-of-the-century trolley was borrowed from a local museum, and streets were covered in 1,100 tons of dirt and gravel.
       Due to the period setting, crew members removed some street signs and traffic lights, which unintentionally caused a three-car accident involving an Albany police sergeant and two civilians, as stated in a 6 May 1987 LAT item.
       The 5 Mar 1988 LAHExam noted that a scene involving a pack of dogs meant to attack actress Priscilla Smith was halted when the dogs began attacking Jack Nicholson, instead. Nicholson became fed up and refused to continue filming, but was coaxed back to the set after an hour. The scene ultimately required fifteen takes.
       Rumors of troubles on set, particularly between Hector Babenco and Jack Nicholson, circulated during filming. Items in the 28 Mar 1987 and 20 Apr 1987 issues of New York stated that Nicholson fought with Babenco over how many takes to shoot of each scene. Meanwhile, executive producer Rob Cohen kicked producer David Weisman off the set as a result of “volatile personalities.” Despite his ousting, Weisman insisted he would remain a producer, although he receives no onscreen credit. In the 25 Apr 1987 Long Beach Press-Telegram, producer Keith Barish denied reports of conflict, and was quoted as saying, “There hasn’t been one fight in the company.” The only problems Barish acknowledged were rain delays, which set the shooting schedule back six days. Nevertheless, in a 14 Jul 1987 HR article, Babenco referred to the shoot as “an exercise in madness and loneliness.” According to a 6 Mar 1988 LAT item, executive producer Denis Blouin upset Albany officials by calling the city “the armpit of America.” Mayor Thomas Whalen, III, and Alderman Nebraska Brace, who appears in the role of “Andy,” spoke out against Blouin’s comment.
       A 22 Apr 1987 LAHExam brief noted rumors that Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, who had been married to Don Gummer since 1978, had an affair during filming, but Nicholson’s press agent denied it. As noted in the 20 May 1987 Var, Nicholson turned fifty during the shoot. His on-off girl friend, Anjelica Huston, came to Albany to celebrate, as did Art Garfunkel, Michael Douglas, and Nicholson’s agent, Sandy Bresler.
       Principal photography was scheduled to conclude in May 1987. Post-production was completed in Los Angeles, CA.
       The film premiered in Albany on 17 Dec 1987, as stated in the 25 Nov 1987 Var. Proceeds from the event were donated to local charities. A Los Angeles premiere, hosted by AFI, followed on 18 Dec 1987. The event raised $50,000 for AFI, as noted in the 21 Dec 1987 LAT. Hector Babenco reportedly skipped opening festivities to return to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Babenco was quoted in the 13 Dec 1987 NYT as stating, “I don’t belong to this society,” and lamented the way movies were “criticized, consumed, produced and financed” in the U.S.
       To qualify for Academy Award consideration, the film opened in Los Angeles and New York City, at the Tower East Theatres, on 18 Dec 1987.
       Critical reception was mixed. The 14 Dec 1987 HR review called Ironweed “relentlessly gloomy” but lauded Nicholson’s and Streep’s performances, while the DV review of the same date called it “a film without an audience and no reason for being other than its own self-importance.” The 18 Dec 1987 NYT review also praised the acting, but questioned why audiences would choose such a “downbeat and actionless” film over other big-budget Christmas fare.
       For his work in Ironweed and The Witches of Eastwick (1987, see entry), Jack Nicholson tied with Steve Martin for Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Best Actor of 1987. Nicholson and Streep received Academy Award nominations for Actor and Actress in a Leading Role.
       End credits which include the following statements: “The production company wishes to thank: Lt. Col. B.A. Gill & St. Joseph’s Church; County and City of Albany; Russell Sage College, New York State; Troopers Mounted Police; Delaware and Hudson Railway Company; The New York State Governor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television Development; The people and cities of the state of New York”; and, “‘At the Circus’ poster with permission of the Estates of Chico and Harpo Marx and Groucho Marx Productions, Inc.” As noted in a 19 Jul 1987 NYT article, At the Circus was not released until 1939, but Babenco found the poster aesthetically pleasing and therefore instructed the art department to add a “Coming Soon” sticker to the poster, as the story is set in 1938. End credits conclude with: “In Memoriam: Jon O’Connell, a fellow craftsman.” O’Connell was credited on the film as a master set painter.
       Songwriter Hoagy Carmichael's name is misspelled "Hogie Carmichael." More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
27 Mar 1984.
---
Daily Variety
20 Mar 1985.
---
Daily Variety
13 May 1986
p. 6.
Daily Variety
23 Feb 1987.
---
Daily Variety
2 Mar 1987.
---
Daily Variety
8 Dec 1987
p. 2, 25.
Daily Variety
14 Dec 1987.
---
Hollywood Reporter
25 Jul 1986.
---
Hollywood Reporter
6 Jan 1987.
---
Hollywood Reporter
14 Jul 1987.
---
Hollywood Reporter
14 Dec 1987
p. 6, 18.
LAHExam
18 Dec 1986.
---
LAHExam
22 Apr 1987
Section A, p. 2.
LAHExam
5 Mar 1988.
---
Long Beach Press-Telegram
25 Apr 1987.
---
Los Angeles Daily News
9 Jan 1986.
---
Los Angeles Times
6 May 1987
Calendar, p. 2.
Los Angeles Times
18 Dec 1987
Calendar, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
21 Dec 1987
p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
6 Mar 1988
p. 2.
New York
28 Mar 1987.
---
New York
20 Apr 1987.
---
New York Times
12 Mar 1987
Section B, p. 1.
New York Times
13 Dec 1987
Section A, p. 31.
New York Times
19 Jul 1987
Section A, p. 18.
New York Times
18 Dec 1987
p. 24.
People
2 Jun 1986.
---
People
31 Aug 1987.
---
Variety
20 Aug 1985.
---
Variety
7 Jan 1987.
---
Variety
4 Mar 1987.
---
Variety
20 May 1987.
---
Variety
25 Nov 1987.
---
Variety
16 Dec 1987
p. 10.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Taft Entertainment Pictures/Keith Barish Productions Presents
A Film by Hector Babenco
In association with Home Box Office
A Tri-Star Release
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
Unit prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
2d 2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Co-prod
Co-prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
Steadicam op
Steadicam op
Steadicam op
2d unit cam op
2d unit cam op
VTR op
Best boy
Key grip
Grip best boy
Dolly grip
Dolly grip
Still photog
Still photog
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
Asst to the prod des
Asst art dir
Asst art dir
Asst art dir
Asst art dir
FILM EDITORS
1st asst film ed
Asst film ed
Apprentice film ed
Post-prod supv
Post-prod supv
Post-prod coord
Negative cutter
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
2d set dec
Head set dresser
2d set dresser
Set dresser
Set dresser
Set dresser
Set dresser
Set dresser
Master set painter
Master set painter
Prop master
Asst prop master
Historic des consultant
Const coord
Shop foreman
Installation foreman
Installation foreman
Installation foreman
Greensperson
COSTUMES
Cost des
Ms. Streep's costumer
Men's costumer
Ward supv
Ward supv
Ward asst
Ward asst
Ward asst
MUSIC
Mus ed
Orch
Mus scoring mixer
Mus research
Mus research
SOUND
Dial ed
Dial ed
Sd eff ed
Sd eff ed
Sd eff ed
Sd eff rec
ADR ed
Foley ed
Asst sd ed
Asst sd ed
Apprentice sd ed
Foley artist
Foley artist
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Boom op
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff coord
Spec eff asst
Motion control photog by
Culver City, CA
Main title seq des by
MAKEUP
Ms. Streep's hair and make-up by
Mr. Nicholson's make-up by
Make-up supv
Make-up artist
Jack Nicholson's hair stylist
Key hair stylist
Hairdresser
PRODUCTION MISC
Scr supv
Transportation coord
Transportation capt
Transportation capt
Loc mgr
Asst loc mgr
Loc casting
Loc casting
Prod accountant
Asst prod accountant
Accounting asst
Asst prod coord
Spec prod consultant
Asst to Mr. Barish
Asst to Mr. Barish
Asst to Mr. Babenco
Asst to Mr. Babenco
Asst to Mr. Blouin
Asst to Mr. Nicholson
Asst to Ms. Streep
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod office asst
Prod office asst
Prod office asst
Craft service
Loc projectionist
Loc projectionist
Representative, Cine Guarantors
Los Angeles liaison, Cine Guarantors
Catering by
Special thanks to
Special thanks to
STAND INS
Stunt coord
COLOR PERSONNEL
Negative timer
Col by
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel Ironweed by William Kennedy (New York, 1983).
AUTHOR
SONGS
"When You Were Sweet Sixteen," words and music by James Thornton, published by Shapiro Bernstein and Company
"Beethoven's Ninth Symphony," courtesy of Associated Production Music
"Pappa Treetop Tall," written by Hogie Carmichael and Stanley Adams, published by Warner Bros, Inc.
+
SONGS
"When You Were Sweet Sixteen," words and music by James Thornton, published by Shapiro Bernstein and Company
"Beethoven's Ninth Symphony," courtesy of Associated Production Music
"Pappa Treetop Tall," written by Hogie Carmichael and Stanley Adams, published by Warner Bros, Inc.
"Margie," written by Con Conrad, J. Russel Robinson, Benny Davis, published by W.B. Music Corp., Con Conrad Music, J. Russel Robinson, Inc., Belwin-Mills and Fisher Music
"He's Me Pal," written by Vincent Bryan and Gus Edwards, arranged by Louis St. Louis, published by Warner Bros. Inc.
"Blessed Be The Name Of The Lord," arranged by Toby Fitch and Gary Leib
"Poor Little Lamb," music by Tom Waits, lyrics by William Kennedy, published by Jalma Music and Taft/Barish Music (ASCAP), Jalma Music administered by Ackee Music, Inc. (ASCAP).
+
DETAILS
Release Date:
18 December 1987
Premiere Information:
World premiere in Albany, NY: 17 December 1987
Los Angeles and New York openings: 18 December 1987
Production Date:
23 February--May 1987
Copyright Claimant:
Taft Entertainment Pictures, Keith Barish Productions
Copyright Date:
19 January 1988
Copyright Number:
PA359168
Physical Properties:
Sound
Dolby Stereo ® in Selected Theatres
Color
Lenses
Lenses and Panaflex® camera by Panavision®
Duration(in mins):
145
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
28929
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

On Halloween, 1938, middle-aged hobo Francis Phelan wanders into his hometown of Albany, New York. He goes to the Mission of Holy Redemption, a soup kitchen run by Reverend Chester, in search of his girl friend, Helen Archer. Instead of Helen, Francis finds his younger friend Rudy, who has just been diagnosed with cancer and told he has only six months to live. Rudy is an alcoholic like Francis, and plans to drink himself to death. Francis invites him to the cemetery, to dig graves for cash. There, Francis wanders the grounds and finds a gravestone belonging to his infant son, Gerald Michael Phelan, who died when Francis accidentally dropped him. Francis breaks down in tears and apologizes, insisting he had only had four beers when he dropped the baby. That evening, as he and Rudy ride a bus into town, Francis points out the home he left twenty-two years ago, where his estranged wife and children still live, and the baseball diamond where he played as a kid. He gazes out the window and recalls a trolley strike in the early 1900s, when teenaged Francis threw a rock at a “scab” trolley conductor and accidentally killed him. He envisions the ghost of the trolley conductor taunting him on the bus and shouts at the apparition, while disturbed passengers look on. The men return to the mission, and attend church services in exchange for soup. Reverend Chester congratulates Francis on his apparent sobriety and offers him a job working for a ragpicker named Rosskam. Francis’s girl friend, Helen, stumbles in drunk. She accuses Francis of abandoning her and spending all their money. However, she perks up when Francis tells ... +


On Halloween, 1938, middle-aged hobo Francis Phelan wanders into his hometown of Albany, New York. He goes to the Mission of Holy Redemption, a soup kitchen run by Reverend Chester, in search of his girl friend, Helen Archer. Instead of Helen, Francis finds his younger friend Rudy, who has just been diagnosed with cancer and told he has only six months to live. Rudy is an alcoholic like Francis, and plans to drink himself to death. Francis invites him to the cemetery, to dig graves for cash. There, Francis wanders the grounds and finds a gravestone belonging to his infant son, Gerald Michael Phelan, who died when Francis accidentally dropped him. Francis breaks down in tears and apologizes, insisting he had only had four beers when he dropped the baby. That evening, as he and Rudy ride a bus into town, Francis points out the home he left twenty-two years ago, where his estranged wife and children still live, and the baseball diamond where he played as a kid. He gazes out the window and recalls a trolley strike in the early 1900s, when teenaged Francis threw a rock at a “scab” trolley conductor and accidentally killed him. He envisions the ghost of the trolley conductor taunting him on the bus and shouts at the apparition, while disturbed passengers look on. The men return to the mission, and attend church services in exchange for soup. Reverend Chester congratulates Francis on his apparent sobriety and offers him a job working for a ragpicker named Rosskam. Francis’s girl friend, Helen, stumbles in drunk. She accuses Francis of abandoning her and spending all their money. However, she perks up when Francis tells her he has $6 in his pocket from grave-digging. The mission closes, and they are forced out by “Pee-Wee,” who joins them on their way to a bar. They come across a woman passed out on the street. Rudy recognizes her as Sandra, a former prostitute. Francis wants to bring her inside the mission, but Pee-Wee claims Chester will not allow the drunkard to come in. Francis demands a blanket and a bowl of soup, which he tries to feed to the woman, but she rejects it. They leave Sandra propped against the mission and go to the bar, where bartender Oscar Reo performs a song. Although he is now a teetotaler, Reo fondly recalls the days he used to drink with Francis and his friends, and argues that hobo drunks are just the same as the “swells” who frequent his bar. When Helen reveals that, like Reo, she was once a professional singer, the bartender encourages her to perform. Helen reluctantly takes the stage and sings, “He’s Me Pal.” Although her singing is rusty, she imagines herself transforming into the performer she once was and winning over the audience. At the end of the song, her fantasy fades and she is met with weak applause. Francis’s group leaves the bar and sees a pack of dogs swarming Sandra. Francis throws a rock to scare off the dogs. At the same time, a group of trick-or-treaters steal Helen’s purse. As Helen shouts about the $15 she just lost, Pee-Wee examines Sandra and announces she is dead. Eager to get out of the cold, Francis and Helen look for a place to sleep. Francis reveals that he visited Gerald’s grave. Helen remarks that he has been thinking a lot about his family, and suggests he should visit them. Francis sees the ghost of the trolley conductor, joined by two others, following him down the street. They take refuge at the squalid apartment of their drunk friends, Jack and Clara. Jack pulls Helen into the kitchen to fondle her, while Francis helps himself to Jack’s liquor. The get-together quickly devolves into drunken arguing. Jack goes the bathroom to wash up and argues with the three ghosts, one of whom is a man he killed in self-defense while train-hopping. Jack forces Francis and Helen back out on the street. Francis leads Helen to a car owned by a man named Vinny. He leaves her there to sleep with Vinny, promising to meet up with her tomorrow. In the morning, Helen wakes up beside Vinny and grimaces as he undoes his pants, expecting her to masturbate him. After obliging him, she goes to church to pray. Helen finds cash on the floor and rejoices. She goes to a diner and orders coffee and toast, but is unable to stomach the toast. Afterward, she takes shelter in a library, where Nora, an old acquaintance, recognizes her. Nora laments losing track of Helen, who was once a singer on a radio show. Helen claims she toured the world as a concert pianist, and lived for some time in Paris, France, and Vienna, Austria. When Nora mentions a recent run-in with Helen’s brother, Helen loses her temper and shouts about her mother and brother stealing her inheritance. The ranting hobo is forced out by a librarian. She goes to a bar and drinks wine, then lurches outside and vomits on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, Francis spends the day working for Rosskam, the ragpicker. They stop at a house on the street where he grew up, and he recalls an attractive neighbor who seduced him as a teenager. Francis decides to visit his estranged family for the first time in twenty-two years. His wife, Annie Phelan, is warm and forgiving when he shows up on her doorstep. She gladly accepts the turkey Francis brought and invites him to stay for dinner. Francis meets his daughter Peg’s son, Danny, who asks about his days playing professional baseball for the Washington Senators. Francis accompanies the boy to the attic, to show him his old glove and a baseball signed by Ty Cobb. Annie presses one of his old suits, and Francis takes a bath. They are joined by their son, Billy, and daughter Peg, for dinner. Peg rants at her father for abandoning them, but eventually calms down. Annie invites Francis to return home, but he rejects the offer, claiming it would not work. She accuses him of being mean to himself, and he admits he is mean to “everything and everybody.” In the yard, Francis sees an even larger group of ghosts, including his childhood baseball team, and shouts at them, as the bewildered Annie looks on. Before he leaves, Francis reads aloud from a letter Peg wrote him when she was nine years old, which brings Peg to tears. Francis returns to the streets in search of Helen. He finds Rudy, and the two go to a hobo encampment to get drunk. Men armed with baseball bats raid the encampment, beating the hobos and setting fire to their shanties. Francis sees Rudy being attacked and rescues him. At the hospital, Rudy dies in the waiting room. The inebriated Francis arrives at a boarding house where Helen has taken a room. He finds her face down on the floor, and her skin cold to the touch. Realizing she is dead, Francis promises to get her a gravestone, engraved with, “Helen Marie Archer, a great soul.” Francis ends up in a train car, swigging whisky from a bottle. He imagines Annie is there with him, pouring him a cup of tea. Francis throws out his whisky and dreams of Danny’s bedroom, where Annie offered to set up a cot for him. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

TOP SEARCHES

CASABLANCA

During World War II, Casablanca, Morocco is a waiting point for throngs of desperate refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. Exit visas, which are necessary to leave the country, are at ... >>

CITIZEN KANE

Seventy-year-old newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane dies in his palatial Florida home, Xanadu, after uttering the single word “Rosebud.” While watching a newsreel summarizing the years during which Kane ... >>

REAR WINDOW

Laid up with a broken leg during the height of summer, renowned New York magazine photographer L. B. “Jeff” Jeffries enters his last week of home confinement, bored and ... >>

RAGING BULL

In 1941, at a boxing match in Cleveland, Ohio, pandemonium breaks out when Jake La Motta, an up-and-coming young boxer, loses a decision to Jimmy Reeves, suffering his first ... >>

CITY LIGHTS

At an outdoor dedication ceremony, a tramp is discovered sleeping in the arms of a statue as it is being unveiled before a crowd. He is chased into ... >>

The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.