Robert De Niro and Al Pacino Should Share Oscar Gold for Scenes Together in ‘The Irishman’

The Irishman Golden Globes - Courtesy of Netflix
The Irishman Golden Globes - Courtesy of Netflix

Film Review By DONNA BALANCIA

There’s just too much that’s good about director Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” The dialogue, the acting, the direction, set dressing, costumes and lighting all come together to create a great film.

But the best thing about “The Irishman” is the relationship between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.

Based on the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt, the Scorsese-directed Netflix and theatrical release “The Irishman” is a period piece with a narrative by lead character Frank Sheeran, played by De Niro, who “works with” labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, played by Pacino.

Sheeran, a former serviceman, goes deeper and deeper into a life of crime and becomes friend, confidant and head guy for union leader Hoffa. 

There isn’t too much good to say about these characters drawn from real people. Scorsese uses a technique that puts the fate of each character across the screen ahead of time, instead of typically at the film’s end. Considering this was possibly initially supposed to be a miniseries, perhaps the technique was used to save time. As it is, the picture runs at 3 hours. 

The Irishman - Courtesy Netflix
The Irishman – Courtesy Netflix

Characters come and go throughout “The Irishman,” much like cameo appearances for these beloved actors. 

OK, so many have said there isn’t too much historical accuracy to the Hoffa story, but frankly it really doesn’t matter. The Irishman is worth watching again and again, mainly for the relationships and the interaction between the actors. The relationships are so natural, the viewer feels like they’re actually riding along with this group. If you’re looking for another life — even if it’s for only three hours — this is the movie to see because it transports the viewer into another time in America, when gangsters could really use their firepower. In the era of MeToo and political correctness it’s amazing “The Irishman” seems to have gotten away relatively unscathed. 

“The Irishman” also feels familiar because it’s a reunion of sorts for actors from TV show “The Sopranos” and all the Scorsese movies. Kathrine Narducci, known to “Sopranos” fans as Charmaine Bucco, the restaurateur and Tony’s ex-lover, is a Mafia princess. Paul Herman who took a coffee pot to the head as Beansie Gaeta in “The Sopranos” and also played in Scorsese movies has been on the scene as one of the best character actors around. There are a few other Sopranos people who do a great job but readers will get no spoilers here.

Jesse Plemons is another TV gangster guy who joins an impressive cast, having played the deadly opponent-ally with the youthful look in “Breaking Bad,” he shot the kid and helped rob the train. But in “The Irishman,” he’s Hoffa’s son, Chuck. In the promos when Pacino does the Hoffa bit about  “charge with a knife, gun you run,” Plemons is beside him. 

Joe Pesci gets Golden Globe nom for Irishman - Courtesy
Joe Pesci gets Golden Globe nom for Irishman – Courtesy

In many aspects the writing is a lot like “The Sopranos,” as there are tense moments broken up with great dialogue, humor and with quotable lines. Steve Zallian only gets better with each script, each film, having worked with a range of directors and actors. He received the Academy Award for the “Schindler’s List” script, but his other pictures are also well noted and include “The Falcon and the Snowman,” “Mission: Impossible” and he’s worked with Scorsese before, on “Gangs of New York.” So far, with “The Irishman,” Zallian has received best adapted screenplay by the National Board of Review and received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Screenplay.

Joe Pesci has been getting some talk, and he received a Golden Globe Nomination and won a NY Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor so far for Russell Bufalino in “The Irishman.” It’s ironic that Universal isn’t involved in Pesci’s success today, because Pesci got his best roles on Universal’s dime. He was nominated but could have received the supporting actor Oscar for Goodfellas,” for the role of a lifetime as loudmouth Tommy DeVito. He was a little too sleazy as Nicky Santoro in “Casino,” going behind his friend’s back. It was difficult to make his deal on “Casino” as the story goes. In the end Uni got the pic out there despite initially looking like it would go without Pesci. He got his first Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe nomination for “Raging Bull.” 

Pesci’s mature and lean appearance gives him a new dimension in “The Irishman.” He looks like a weathered mob boss, no longer just an underling trying to be “made.” He fits the shoes he’s come into.

Raging Bull Academy Award for De Niro - Courtesy
Raging Bull Academy Award for De Niro – Courtesy

De Niro is the lead as Frank Sheeran, but it’s hard for any actor to pull off playing a 40-year-old and an 80-year-old in the same film. De Niro is a team player though, and it’s clear that in the scenes with Pacino, he is respectful of his colleague and generous. After all, Bobby knows how to work with Scorsese and it was Al’s first time with the maestro. De Niro’s no slouch when it comes to awards, winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “The Godfather Part II” and Best Actor statuette for “Raging Bull.”

It’s clear that the two actors Pacino and De Niro, who previously had a scene together in the diner in Michael Mann’s 1995 thriller “Heat” until 2008’s “Righteous Kill,” have genuine respect for one another. Truth be told, it’s hard to break free of the image of De Niro on that TV interview dropping F-bombs like crazy, which was notable and very real. He probably could have used a little more of that in “The Irishman.”

Scent of a Woman earns Pacino the Oscar - for California Rocker
Scent of a Woman earns Pacino the Oscar – Courtesy for California Rocker

Al Pacino, who won his Best Actor Oscar for the role of the blind Colonel Slade in “Scent of a Woman” (1993) brought home the gold statuette for Universal. At the time, Universal chairman Tom Pollock told this reviewer that the studio “bought the script for the character.” It was a role that Pacino was meant to play, fashioned to a great degree after the late producer Marty Bregman with whom Pacino collaborated on films including “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Serpico,” (with director Sidney Lumet), to “Scarface” (with director Brian de Palma). “The Irishman” was the first time Scorsese and Pacino worked together and the results, obviously, turned out extremely well.

But as solid as Pacino was as Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman, it’s the scenes with him and De Niro together that should get either or both of them the Oscar. If they had an Academy Award for shared scenes. These two would win for the decade.

Not to be overlooked: In a superbly played lesser supporting role, Ray Romano slyly steals the movie. He brings tremendous heart to a character nobody likes: The lawyer. Romano is such a naturally great actor, this time in a non-comedy role, it’s no wonder why he’s doing more serious work. He did a great job in the Netflix film “Paddleton,” released ealier in 2019.

All of this conjecture on awards is predicated on the whether there is any impact in the voters’ eyes that a 3-hour Netflix release is as important as a two-hour product from a “major” studio. So far, with New York Film Critics Circle, Golden Globes and Board of Review the length of the film and the distribution outlet don’t seem to make a difference. After all, the online movie platforms like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon and Apple are coming into their own.

The Creative Aspects of Netflix’ ‘The Irishman’

All technology and business aside, the acting overall in “The Irishman” is a joy to behold. The direction is fantastic with attention paid to beautiful frame composition in every scene.

The lines in the movie are unbelievable. Some of the best: 

— “Don’t give me the bullshit about your dying mother, get in the car!”

— “Now let me eat my ice cream over here”

— “I thought I was talkin to General Patton”

— “What’s that about? Am I missing something?”

— “It didn’t apply to you, come on Frank, you know me better than that.”

Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa in the courtroom - Courtesy Netflix
Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa in the courtroom – Courtesy Netflix

There’s the back and forth and the blend of the character-driven dialogue set against the tension of unthinkable crimes and suspense that makes “The Irishman” a winner flick.

The last 30 minutes probably could have been tightened up. Could the film have been a miniseries? It might have held our attention for seven or eight episodes … or many more. Perhaps then the viewers could have gotten additional clues on what really happened to Hoffa.

There were some scenes that could have been expanded. At one point, De Niro reminices saying President John Kennedy was “going after all the guys who put him in the White House? What’s that about?” But it jumps from the nice Christmas scene with an unresponsive young Peggy, to Pacino crashing his fist on the desk and yelling at the guys in his office about his pending problems.

There, too, is a classic scene between De Niro and Pacino, when Frank Sheeran walks out of the Hoffa meeting and Pacino follows and reassures.

After the Cuban-sounding music reminiscent of Hashtag the Panda music from “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” and then some De Niro dialogue about how bad opponent Provenzano was, and after the Sally Bugs car incident, the entire movie boils down to one scene: A truly memorable interaction between De Niro and Al Pacino, both wearing pajamas and sitting on hotel room twin beds having a heart to heart. De Niro is in drab grey and Pacino in true blue. It’s about as real as these two get.

The two men on the twin beds in Hoffa’s room are talking in their own language and so are these two beloved actors. It’s hard to know if they’re not making up their own dialogue as they go along.  There is such a connection and such emotion as De Niro makes that face of irony and does the nodding head thing, when “he knows that you know that I know that he knows.” 

Pacino picks up on it and hugs De Niro and it’s warm, and somehow Pacino sounds a lot like Scorsese’s mom in “Goodfellas.” Maybe it’s the talent De Niro has that brings out the motherly instinct in his fellow actors, enabling a heartfelt performance. 

Don’t count Bobby out just yet, F-bombs or not. And, sure, Al hit some highs as Hoffa. But when “The Irishman” gets the big nominations, it’s these two actors — and longtime friends — who will come away as the real winners.

The Irishman – Trailer

Donna Balancia is the editor of CaliforniaRocker.com. She has worked as Senior Film Reporter at The Hollywood Reporter, Sports Writer and Photo Editor at United Press International in NYC and was Senior Business Reporter at USA Today/Gannett.  She is the Newsdesk Editor at PasadenaNow.com.