How the Irish took Hollywood
In Depression-era America, Irish actors came to dominate the silver screen. Just how did a group once so despised in the US come to be so loved – and influential – in Hollywood
ETHNICITY, charming in small doses, too often becomes a cultural straitjacket. If we are French, we are expected to like cheese, wine and Moliere, even if we prefer curry, scotch and Turgenev. If we are Jewish, we are expected to revere Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen and the Coen brothers; otherwise, we are accused of letting the side down.
If we are Irish-American, as I am, it is incumbent upon us to admire all our Irish forebears who made such an impact on motion pictures during the Depression: Jimmy Cagney, Maureen O’Hara, Spencer Tracy, Pat O’Brien, Maureen O’Sullivan, Gene Kelly, Tyrone Power and Bing Crosby. I’ll take Cagney, Power and both Maureens. With pleasure. The rest of them you can keep. Especially Bing Crosby.
These musings are prompted by the publication of a thought-provoking book entitled Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic American Cinema, by Christopher Shannon, who teaches history at a college in Virginia. Its central premise is that these Depression-era movies helped persuade Americans to stop despising Irish immigrants.
According to Shannon, this shift came about not because of the elfin charm or winning smiles of the Irish, but because the films provided Americans with an alternative vision of society, where a sense of belonging to an urban village triumphed over the harsh, Darwinian, every-man-for-himself ethos that had dominated the US since its inception. In all likelihood, the moviegoing public did not realise this at the time. They probably thought they were going to see movies starring people with winning smiles and elfin charm.
There can be no denying that the overnight Irish-American takeover of the film industry softened American attitudes towards immigrants, ultimately putting an end to the ferocious anti-Irish, anti-Catholic animus that was a staple of American life well into the 1950s. “Americans who rejected Irish Catholics in politics,” observes Shannon, “embraced them in culture.” In general, this took the form of the gangster movie.
Shannon got me thinking about my own attitude toward Irish-American actors. There are a lot of Irish-American actors I like (Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, Alec Baldwin, Casey Affleck, Bill Murray) and a lot I don’t (Ryan O’Neal, Rosie O’Donnell, Ed Burns, Ben Affleck, all the other Baldwins). And there are even more I never even think of in ethnic terms (John C Reilly, Mia Farrow, Tina Fey, Dakota Fanning, Chris O’Donnell, Courtney Cox, Brendan Fraser).
I was not lured to Little Miss Sunshineor Zombielandby little Abigail Breslin’s presence; and the fact he is of Irish descent does not make Macaulay Culkin’s work any more appealing to me. Nor did it ever occur to me that Richard Gere or Johnny Depp might have Irish roots. Even growing up in the 1950s, ethnicity played no great role in my attitude toward movie stars. That may be because, at a certain point, even the most insular ethnic group will no longer support its luminaries simply because they share the same background.
Obviously, my mother and father, whose own parents arrived at Ellis Island in the 1910s, felt a sense of kinship with the first generation of Irish actors and enormous pride in their achievements. My mother, who adored Cagney and Crosby, found Gene Kelly a bit hard to take. My father always found Spencer Tracy a trifle smarmy; and, even though he loved Crosby’s crooning, he never thought much of him as an actor or a human being.
By the time I started watching movies, in the late 1950s, the No-Irish-Need-Apply job signs were long gone. Whatever prejudice I endured as a child was a result of being poor, not Irish. But I was certainly aware of being Irish-American, and was equally aware that certain actors were playing on our team. Of all the Irish-American movie stars, Cagney was my favourite. Much of his vast appeal was that he was cocky, glib, fast on his feet and a snazzy dresser – totally unlike all those hayseeds out in Iowa who lined up to watch his films. I took a great liking to Cagney because he was brash and irreverent and contemptuous of authority and funny, not unlike Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke and Bill Murray. Conversely, I disliked Crosby and Kelly because they emitted an air of sanctity, and a nuclear, Paul McCartney-like earnestness.
At the end of his book, Shannon makes a strange comment regarding the latter-day revival of the Irish-American gangster film ( Miller’s Crossing, State of Grace, Road to Perdition, Gangs of New York). He believes this renaissance “suggests a dissatisfaction with the norms of middle-class life that one can only see as hopeful”.
This is absurd. Hollywood is a dream factory that has always thrived on the lure of the exotic. Films about gangsters are popular because most of us work in offices and lead boring lives, and gangsters do not. But most of us understand that films are a form of daydreaming – and that, deep down inside, the norms of dull middle-class life are just fine with us. None of us really wants to be Tony “Scarface” Montana: the people who want to be Tony Montana already are Tony Montana.
Indeed, what is most interesting about the more recent films about Irish-American gangsters is their near-total lack of ethnic authenticity. The Coen brothers and Martin Scorsese are neither Irish, nor Irish-American. The same is true of Paul Newman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Tom Hanks and Gary Oldman; in State of Grace, Oldman makes one of the most believable Irish-American thugs ever. These movies succeed or fail because they are good movies or bad movies, not because of their ethnic component. Gangsters have always seemed exotic to the middle-class public, but that doesn’t mean audiences approve of them. At the end of the movie, the audience expects to see the gangsters die.
There is one other thing about ethnicity that is worth pointing out. Lindsay Lohan, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Steve Buscemi and Robert Downey Jr are all regularly included in lists of Irish-American actors. In fact, they are only Irish on one side of their families. They are perfect examples of America as a melting pot, where each person can pick from any one of several ethnic identities – unless, like me, all your forebears are Irish. But in the end, none of it matters very much: you could not possibly look more Irish-American than Charlie Sheen, but his grandmother (on his father’s side) is Mexican. And Jimmy Cagney – the most pusillanimously, quintessentially Irish-American actor of them all – was one-quarter Norwegian.
All this leads to a story I once heard about the making of Michael Collins. Legend has it that the only time in the 20th century all the Irish – North, South, Catholic, Protestant – came to a consensus on anything was when word got out that Kevin Costner, who is part-Irish, might play Collins. Everyone agreed: few actors would be less convincing.