Warning: This story contains spoilers for The Irishman, in UK cinemas 8th November, and available to stream on Netflix 27th November.
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman runs for 210 minutes (roughly three and a half hours), but you can easily add up all the times women speak on ten fingers.
It’s not all that shocking — the director has faced criticism about his lack of female leads since the beginning of his career. Ellen Burstyn’s Oscar-nominated performance in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; Lorraine Bracco’s outstanding turn in Goodfellas; Sharon Stone’s magnetic role in Casino; and Michelle Pfeiffer’s seductive temptress in The Age of Innocence — these stand as the exceptions rather than the rule for an auteur whose career has spanned over 50 years and 64 films. (And that’s not even counting all the one’s he’s produced.)
Even so, the absence of women’s voices in The Irishman is particularly glaring, especially as the movie stars Oscar-winner Anna Paquin, whose casting made headlines back in October 2017.
The explanation lies partly in the way the story is framed. Based on I Heard You Paint Houses, a 2004 book by Charles Brandt, the movie tracks the eventful life of union truck driver turned mob hitman Frank Sheeran who, much like Forrest Gump, finds himself mixed up in major 20th century events. Through an internal monologue that turns into outright narration, Sheeran recounts his friendship with mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), his time working with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) at the height of his power as president of the Teamster union, and his pivotal role in the latter’s mythical disappearance. In other words, we see things as Frank remembers them, rather as how they actually are.
The action takes place on several timelines, beginning in the nursing home where Frank is living out his final days. As he starts to reminisce, we flash back to the 1970s, during a pivotal road trip with Frank, Russell, and their wives as they head to a wedding in Detroit. When they stop on the side of the highway for a smoke break (Russell won’t allow smoking in the car, which leads to his wife complaining about it and requesting they stop, the first time we actually hear a woman speak), they spot the gas station where they first met decades ago. That leads us into yet another memory, which traces Frank’s rise from a meat truck driver who sets up minor schemes to pad his paychecks, to his eventual involvement with Russell and his crew. Scorsese weaves us in and out of these three guiding narrative threads, giving The Irishman the kind of epic span that’s earned him some of the best reviews of his career.
Where does Paquin come in? We don’t actually see her until well past the two hour mark, as the grown-up version of Frank’s daughter Peggy, and even then she gets very little screen time. Lucy Gallina, who plays the younger version of Peggy, is much more prominent. What the two absolutely have in common, however, is a noticeable lack of dialogue. Peggy spends most of the film glaring at her father in total silence. In fact, so reluctant is she to engage with the men in her orbit that it becomes a recurring topic of conversation on their end. Both Gallina and Paquin do a lot with the little they’re given to work with — the latter in particular, says volumes with her withering stares, even though she speaks fewer than 20 words.
This is undoubtedly a reflection of Scorsese’s own weaknesses as a filmmaker. He doesn’t particularly understand women, nor has he sought to. In fact, he’s been extremely reluctant to engage with the issue during the press tour for The Irishman. During a press conference held during the Rome Film Festival last week, the director shut down an Italian journalist who asked about his male-dominated oeuvre.
“That’s not even a valid point,” he said. “That’s a question that I’ve had for so many years. Am I supposed to? If the story doesn’t call for it…It’s a waste of everybody’s time.”
Irishman producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff jumped in with some examples of the filmmaker’s most prominent women characters (the same as those listed above), in an effort to redirect the conversation. But that a woman has to come to Scorsese’s defence with a handy list of token moments in his career is telling in and of itself. There’s a reason those roll off the tongue — there aren’t that many to choose from.
As for the filmmaker’s claim that adding women when the story doesn’t call for it is gratuitous and unnecessary — okay, sure. He’s also never gone out of his way to centre his stories around women. And, in fairness, he doesn’t have to. Scorsese is great at what he does and is free to focus on things that he finds compelling. But he also can’t really be surprised that people have been pointing out this issue for the last four decades.
"If the story doesn’t call for it…It’s a waste of everybody’s time.”
Scorsese isn’t the only one currently facing this kind of criticism. This comes just months after Quentin Tarantino was forced to reckon with Margot Robbie’s near-silent role as Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. (Both films will likely be nominated for Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars in 2020, which means we can all look forward to having this conversation for many months to come.) And while it’s irritating to repeatedly see lauded male directors — nay, auteurs — sideline women while arguing the opposite, this is a good opportunity to explore an interesting question: Does a character’s significance really boil down to how many lines they speak?
In the case of The Irishman, Peggy’s silence is a reflection of what she means to Frank. She’s his conscience, a reflection of his worst misdeeds. Because the story is told from his perspective, some elements of reality are distorted. He remembers the glares, the brooding looks, and the fear in her eyes, and so that’s what we see on-screen. His increasing involvement with Bufalino and Hoffa directly correlates with him increasingly distancing himself from the women in his life. First, he leaves his wife Mary (Aleksa Palladino) for a waitress he meets at the Italian restaurant Bufalino frequents. He and Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba), whom he nicknames “Rini,” speak exactly one time before we learn that they've gotten married. (She doesn’t speak much more after that.) Finally, of his four daughters, the only one we really spend any time with is Peggy — and that’s not saying much. They exist on the margins, slinking in and out of the film on the rare occasions Frank’s at home, forced to confront what they think of him. That Rebecca Faulkenberry, who plays Jimmy’s wife Barbara Hoffa, gets the most lines of the female cast, is no coincidence. She, unlike Rini and Peggy, is directly involved in Frank’s world.
Still, that’s not to say Peggy is unimportant. Her impact is felt more strongly in her absence than the few scenes she’s in. From the narration, we learn that he vividly remembers the last day she spoke to him, the same day Hoffa’s disappearance made the news. (For the record, her last words to him are “Why?” repeated twice.) Towards the end of the movie, an old and barely mobile Frank tries to reconnect with her, to no avail. It’s a troubling scene, and one that really drives home one of The Irishman’s dominant themes: Time is the greatest leveller.
The final moments of the film show Frank in his nursing home, lonely and vulnerable. The secrets that might once have gotten him killed no longer mean anything. Barely anyone remembers who Jimmy Hoffa was, let alone cares who killed him. Now, at the end, is when he needs his family. He’s alone — but he didn’t have to be.