I was in Glasgow — city of the stars! — last Thursday to meet with T.V.’s Ford Kiernan (comedy shows Chewin’ The Fat and Still Game), talking about possible writing and directing work (highly speculative at this stage) and just generally getting to know him. We discussed our fondness for Keaton, Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy, and Ford told me you can see Buster breaking character at the end of LIMELIGHT, which I must go and check RIGHT NOW.
(Just looked. Have no idea what he means. Is this some DVD extra I don’t have? Apparently when Claire Bloom dances through the frame at the end of the big pull-back, you can see Keaton saying, “Right, she’s gone,” but you can’t, not in my version.)
Anyhow, I had to get the story of Ford’s appearance in Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK, which I’d been hearing accounts of for ages. I wanted to get it from the man himself, and share it with you.
There was a lot of casting in Scotland — my friend, Shirley Clarke retrospective curator Niall Fulton was up for a part, and Gary Lewis of course ended up in a plum role. Ford was auditioning for the part of P.T. Barnum, who had a big meaty speech. He hired a scooter and zoomed around the Glasgow University campus, rehearsing his lines until he had it down COLD.
“Now, there’s a part I play on Chewin’ The Fat, ‘Ronald Villiers, the world’s worst actor’. I went into audition and turned into that character. Couldn’t remember ANYTHING.”
Here’s Ford as Ronald (40 secs in):
Despondent, Ford went away and regrouped. Getting a friend to aim a camcorder at him, he created his own audition tape in a “Noo Yawk” accent. “Say, Marty, what’s the story? Who’s ass have ya gotta kiss to get a part in dis movie?” Scorsese liked the tape and Ford was now cast as the Black Joke fire brigade chief.
“It was just a cough and a spit, but I got four days in Rome out of it. For my scene, we had two mobs armed with cabbages, a burning building kept alight by a hundred tonnes of propane, and Jim Broadbent and me exchanging lines. Now, I’d just come off seventeen weeks on MY show, where I’m kind of at the centre of it…”
The scene starts, the cabbages are hurled, and Ford dries. “The camera wasn’t even on me, it was over-the-shoulder on Broadbent, but I lost it and just went ‘Cut.'”
Everything stops. Scorsese puts his hand on the A.D.’s shoulder and the A.D. leads him through the throng to Ford, “marching like Roman soldiers,” and Scorsese says, very softly, “First half was good. Second half was shit. And don’t say ‘cut’ again.”
The scene got done, and afterwards Ford was able to chat with Scorsese and learned that he was basically playing Wallace Beery in Raoul Walsh’s THE BOWERY. Which is pretty cool.
Ford is part of that aspect of the film that WORKS — the vision of Old New York as a hellish den of vice and criminality. The background, essentially. The plot going on in the foreground doesn’t hang together because the protagonist has a goal but doesn’t pursue it, and DiCaprio and Diaz are the least interesting characters in the movie, which is a bit of a problem. I suspect it all goes back to the book its based on and Scorsese’s reasons for making the film. I guess the vengeance thing is there to provide a spine which can hold together all the fascinating fragments of Scorsese’s hallucinatory history, but really what he’d have preferred is a non-plot like SATYRICON’s. Sadly, you can’t mix the two.