Bowery Boy

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.

13 Responses to “Bowery Boy”

  1. You’re quite right. It should have been Scorsese Satyricon. And in its best moments (mostly in the first quarter) it’s something along those lines. The problem is the relationship between Lewis and DiCaprio isn’t really all that interesting. Now of course you can look as a film as a warm-up for Marty’s later Leo movies and DDL’s over-the-top-you-never-knew-was-there performance in There Will Be Blood .

  2. Of course, Scorsese would never have been allowed to make a plotless film like Satyricon. But such are the mysteries of storytelling, even in these days of Sid Field and Robert McKee, that he WAS able to make a film in which the hero sets out to avange his father, meets the killer, and then does nothing about it for the whole of act II. Now, you can have that in Hamlet, because it’s down to a character flaw, but they’ve failed to provide DiCaprio with Hamlet’s flaws, OR his reasons for forbearing.
    I think the one thing that would have worked, in terms of motivating his joining the gang and then hanging around, would be if DiCaprio didn’t KNOW who killed his father, but then the laws of the whodunnit would mean that Bill the Butcher wouldn’t be the killer, because it’s hard to imagine that being a surprise.

    Agree that the early stuff has many pleasures (but it’s been cut to the bone — needs a director’s cut) and hints at the film that might have been.

  3. Ford: Cut!
    Scorsese: Gonnae no dae that!

    This is why I love your blog.

    You’ve touched on a topic that delights me when I see big budget Hollywood films; the unexpected, out of context Scottish bit-part. Scorsese did it again in Departed with the pitch-perfect East End ned that is David O’Hara. There was a touch of the Victor and Barry’s and Air Scotia about Alan Cumming in Eyes Wide Shut (“dearie dearie me”) too. I laughed when I saw Ewan Bremner doing a Vic Reeves/Eric Morecambe/Jack Douglas hybrid in the Sci-Fi Channels really rather good The Lost Room. Can you think of any others?

  4. Yes! Rikki Fullton in Gorky Park as a KGB officer. I picture some American casting director seeing his photo in Spotlight: “That man has the most sinister face I’ve ever seen!”

    Stephen MacColl, who I had the pleasure of working with once, as the bully in Rushmore. “He just plays it Scottish,” observed his colleagues here, as if he was somehow CHEATING.

    I’m not sure if Bill Paterson in Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen counts, but when he lists his reviews, “‘A good night out’ — The Glasgow Herald,” always makes me laugh.

    In Manhunter, different takes of Brian Cox’s perf (MUCH scarier than Hopkins’) were used to give the scenes an off-kilter quality, resulting in a strange effect when he suddenyl shouts, in broad Scots, “Smell yersel’!”

    I guess Annie Ross is too convincingly American-sounding to count (I love that she’s in Superman III largely because Lester’s a jazz fan) and her one Scottish role is as Britt Ekland’s voice in The Wicker Man.

    Her brother, comic Jimmy Logan’s turn in Genghis Khan would certainly count, except that I made it up.

  5. Annie has a memorable turn in The ‘Our Gang’ Follies of 1937 singing “Loch Loman.”

  6. Good Lord! She started young, didn’t she?
    Her film career is a marvellous thing, taking in Short Cuts, Basket Case II & III, and Presenting Lily Mars.

  7. Don’t forget The Player!

    I suddenly remembered that at the time it came out Marty declared that there would be no “director’s cut” or “DVD extras” for The Gangs of New York. Having slaved away at the damned thing for so long he felt “This is it” and decided (wisely I think) to move on.

  8. No, it’s Short Cuts she’s in. And it’s “Loch Lomond”. Sorry, my inner Scot pedant got the better of me.

    Scorsese did do a commentary for GONY, which is mostly about the historical background and how it’s not as far-fetched as it might seem.

  9. David K Says:

    It’s certainly not far fetched if the book is true. Which it probably isn’t.
    Having read the book I watched the film back and it made for a very disconcerting experience. Like you say the whole thing plays out in the background.
    ‘Ah yes, there’s the woman from Chapter 6 who collects her victim’s ears in a jar’.
    I’ve never experienced a film like it and you get the sense Scorsese feels the same way. It’s as though he’s forced to nail his plot out front for appearances sake before moving round to a side alley and ushering everyone in to see his dirty little secrets, i.e. the reasons he made the thing.

  10. Annie’s in the big opening tracking shot of The Player too. She’s one of the studio execs walking across the lot.

  11. Wow, you got one the IMDb missed!

  12. David K — yes. Now if only there was a function you could press on the DVD to make most of the foreground fade out. Well, I like Bill the Butcher, but he needs a better plot.

  13. […] to see Raoul Walsh’s THE BOWERY for ages, but it’s not easy to come by. I knew it was a big influence on THE GANGS OF NEW YORK, and from the sound of things, an influence on the good bits. I also knew […]

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