Looking for a rare Robert De Niro – Martin Scorsese movie? This just might be the one that has passed you by. Still there’s a catch to that statement. In this shameful story of the HUAC hearings surrounding Hollywood in the early 1950’s Bob and Marty are both in front of the camera sharing a couple of scenes. Scorsese is strictly an actor for hire on this Irwin Winkler directed period piece production.
For the uninitiated, Hollywood was a targeted area during the communist witch hunts of the times. Mostly the men and women who worked off camera were the victims of the attacks and forced to grovel at the feet of the political machine spearheaded by the likes of Joseph McCarthy. In essence they were forced to name names in order to keep working in tinsel town. That’s a whole essay in itself so feel free to read up on the topic in any number of books that have focused on that era of Hollywood and the blacklisting or those known as The Hollywood Ten.
As to this portrait of the times, it’s a well made movie with De Niro front and center as a fictional top flight director working for Darryl F. Zanuck (Ben Piazza) at Fox who has been “named” as a one time communist. He’ll have to weigh the factors of betraying his own conscience and give up friends and associates to the powerful political figures who hold his future in their hands or stay true to his beliefs and accept the consequences by staying mute.
De Niro’s life is thrown into turmoil when Chris Cooper is brought before the House Un-American Activities and succumbs to the pressure and bullying of Gailard Sartain. He gives up De Niro. In turn De Niro who is unaware of the current climate after a European shoot is told by Zanuck to get things in order and see company lawyer Sam Wanamaker. It’s at a clandestine meeting that he’s told he’ll need to kneel down and beg forgiveness and of course give names of supposed communists if he is to continue working for Zanuck. Things quickly go south when FBI agent Tom Sizemore shows up playing arrogant and telling De Niro he’ll buckle under or break. Disgusted, De Niro walks out and his career will quickly begin to spiral downwards.
De Niro’s going to be turned away at most studios and hounded by FBI agents leading to his commenting, “I feel like Joseph Cotton in The Third Man.”
Also starring alongside De Niro is Annette Bening as his estranged wife who he has sacrificed for the good of his career at the studio. While they’re not living together they are amicably separated and still care deeply for one another. And didn’t I mention Martin Scorsese? He’s in here as a fellow director who flees the country rather than face the tribunal set to tear him apart. George Wendt is also appearing as De Niro’s best pal but the strain of the impending subpoena’s have torn their relationship apart. Distrust and deceit have become all too common in Hollywood.
The film will culminate in a heated stand off between De Niro and Sartain that leaves one cheering for the little guy.
An ugly, fearful time not only in Hollywood but for the country in general it’s still a fascinating look back and for film buffs and fans of TCM a movie worth looking out for. It’s mixing a fictional character (De Niro) with a handful of real life characters and plenty of name dropping for the fans. Even dinner at The Brown Derby.
Among those referenced are Bogie, Cooper, Gable, Crawford, a screen test of Marilyn’s, Sterling Hayden, Howard da Silva, Lionel Stander and Henry Fonda who would be great for a script Zanuck has in mind for De Niro to direct if only he’ll co-operate with the committee. There’s even a scene where De Niro scores a directing job at Monogram that is clearly a reference to 1952’s High Noon which was one of the films scripted by Carl Foreman who was to battle HUAC at that time.
Not having seen this film since it was released to theaters back in ’91 it was rather like seeing it for the first time and I enjoyed it more than I recalled from the first time around. That might have something to do with being more knowledgeable on the subject after years of studying film history. What I hadn’t realized this time around was that the film was originally scripted by Abraham Polonsky. A man who was himself blacklisted during the time of this story after writing classics like 1947’s Body and Soul and directing 48’s Force of Evil. Both notable John Garfield films who was himself being hounded by HUAC to an early grave.
There are plenty of trivia bits to the past included in the film and references both obvious and veiled in Winkler’s film. For more on those have a look at the trivia section seen here at the IMDB.
Easy to find on DVD for years this is a De Niro title worthy of a second look and keep your eyes peeled for Zanuck’s secretary. Recognize her? I’ll give you at hint. She’s a big supporter of classic films and TCM and would appear opposite De Niro in the near future feeling the wrath of his onscreen violence in Cape Fear.