Martin Scorsese has introduced his new movie, “The Irishman,” three times Friday, held a news conference, sat through the entire, three-and-a-half hour film at its gala world premiere at the Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, and now finds himself wedged into a corner table at Central Park’s Tavern on the Green, dabbing his brow with a white linen napkin while surrounded by a horde of well-wishers.
Spike Lee greets Scorsese with a bear hug, telling him that “The Irishman” is a masterpiece. Asked what he liked about the movie, Lee bellowed, “It’s SCORSESE! Enough said.”
Directors Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell, Kenneth Lonergan, Tamara Jenkins and Josh and Benny Safdie saw the movie, as did basketball star Kevin Durant, perhaps just to ingratiate himself with Brooklyn Nets fans and his new home. Also there: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mike Myers and the Weeknd.
Leonardo DiCaprio, wearing a baseball cap so low on his forehead that it almost covers the entire upper half of his face, squeezes into the mass of humanity to pay his respects to his frequent collaborator, and then the actor’s gone like a ninja into the night, girlfriend Camila Morrone trailing behind.
“This is very exciting,” Scorsese tells me. He’s seated next to his wife, Helen, with writer Fran Lebowitz flanking him on his right. “You know, 46 years ago, we premiered ‘Mean Streets’ in Alice Tully Hall. And let me tell you, there wasn’t a party like this. I just went out with some friends to a restaurant and we stayed up all night.”
Scorsese, 76, exhales. “Of course, we were all a lot younger then. Being home in bed sounds pretty good right about now.”
Scorsese’s wistfulness perfectly matches the elegiac tone of “The Irishman,” a decade-spanning crime epic that feels like both a summation and a farewell to a genre that he helped define with films like “Mean Streets,” “Goodfellas,” “Casino” and “The Departed.”
Based on the contested 2004 biographical memoir “I Heard You Paint Houses,” the film tells the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a hardened World War II veteran drawn into the world of mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Sheeran becomes a trusted hit man and troubleshooter, eventually extending his services to Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
Nearly three and a half hours long, “The Irishman” is a full meal, violent and morbidly funny, ruminative and alive, sober, sweeping and, in its final half hour, a delicate, deeply moving portrait of regret. It opens with a trademark Scorsese tracking shot -- only it’s through a nursing home. Death hovers; time and mercy, in the words of the great spiritual, are out of reach.
Scorsese and De Niro have wanted to tell this story for years. The screenplay, written by Steven Zaillian, goes back a decade. The problem was always money. “We couldn’t get the backing,” Scorsese says. “There was no way, for years.”
Netflix stepped up in 2017, agreeing to finance the movie’s $125-million budget, which rose to $159 million, owing to the costly visual effects required to “de-age” its actors in a story that hopscotches through time. (There were also, Scorsese says, 117 locations, and 309 scenes, spread out over 108 shooting days.)
The partnership between Scorsese, a champion of cinema, and Netflix, a disruptive presence in the way consumers get their entertainment, is a gamble.
As was the case last year with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” a movie that earned Netflix its first best picture Oscar nomination, the streamer’s backing of Scorsese can be seen as a way of continuing to bolster its reputation as a place of artistic freedom for Hollywood creatives.
But because Netflix won’t grant theater chains the standard three-month theatrical window, “The Irishman” will not have a wide release when it opens in theaters Nov. 1. North America’s three biggest theater chains — AMC, Regal and Cinemark — refuse to book the movie, leaving smaller, independent theaters to pick up the slack. (Roma” wound up playing at about 250 U.S. theaters.) The movie begins streaming on Netflix on Nov. 27.
With early great reviews, “The Irishman” is poised to return Netflix to the best picture Oscar race and earn Scorsese his ninth nomination for directing. (He won for “The Departed” in 2007.)
It represents the kind of ambitious, audacious filmmaking that wins recognition across the board — screenplay, cinematography, editing, production design, costume design, hair and makeup, sound and, yes, visual effects. (Note: It takes a little time to grow accustomed to De Niro’s de-aged face. But his smiles, his frowns, his ups, his downs become second nature soon enough.)
The fact that Sheeran is a soldier, typically passive, doing others’ bidding, could make De Niro a bit of a tough sell to voters. Certainly, Pacino, brilliant as the belligerent Hoffa (“THIS IS MY UNION!”), and Pesci’s restrained, watchful work will go far.
But anyone who sees “The Irishman” in a single sitting — and, even with the movie’s “substantial duration” (Scorsese’s words), that’s how it should be viewed — will realize that the film ultimately belongs to De Niro. It’s an abject ending Scorsese has spent an entire career building toward.
“We wanted to deal with the nature of what we are as human beings, the love, the betrayal, forgiveness, all of this,” Scorsese said at the news conference, explaining why he didn’t delve into what he called the “conspiracy theories” in Sheeran’s life. “Sheeran’s story can be contested. I didn’t want to muddy up the emotions and power of what [Sheeran] was going through.”
At the party, Scorsese laments the late hour, saying he had a lot of friends at the premiere who might not have been able to make it over to Tavern on the Green for a drink and a plate of lasagna and eggplant Parmesan. Two of his daughters are here, somewhere. Thelma Schoonmaker, the Oscar-winning editor who has worked with him for more than 50 years, finally makes it through the crowd to clasp hands.
A few feet away, Pesci, sporting a black hat and white handlebar mustache, forms a conga line with a couple of companions to bulldoze toward the exit. De Niro is long gone; Pacino, wearing sunglasses and a charcoal scarf, bids farewell. “It’s been FABULOUS!”
Scorsese remains, warmly receiving anyone who makes it through the throng.
“You don’t know how many more of these you’ll have,” he says. “So you enjoy the moment. And then you go to work on the next one.” He pauses, smiling. “I’m not going anywhere ... well, we’re all going somewhere. But I hope to delay that. You know what I mean.”
Anyone who watches “The Irishman” will understand.