(Editor’s note: This article includes spoilers for both ‘The Irishman’ and ‘Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.’)
The day before Thanksgiving, I opened Netflix and eagerly queued up the latest, just-released film by one of our great contemporary American directors. It was an epic set primarily in the 1960s and ’70s, about old-world, middle-aged white men with questionable pasts who somehow become mixed-up with some of the most infamous historical events of the era. I had read enough about the movie in advance to know that it was — this is a word that seemingly appeared in every thinkpiece I had read in advance — an “elegiac” reflection on mortality, ultimately arriving at a clear-eyed acceptance of life’s most fundamental and uncomfortable truths: Nothing lasts, and death awaits us all.
The film to which I refer, of course, is The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s 209-minute farewell (maybe? Probably?) to the gangster genre he has helped to define and popularize for nearly 50 years. But after I watched it, loved it as much as any Scorsese movie released this century, and then watched it again — with each viewing broken into digestible segments on my big-screen TV, my laptop, and (sorry, Marty) my phone — I realized I could’ve very well been thinking about another cinematic event that thoroughly captivated me in 2019, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
After all, what is Once Upon A Time In Hollywood if not an epic — here’s that word again — elegy set in the ’60s made by one of our great contemporary American directors about old-world, middle-aged white men with questionable pasts who somehow become mixed-up with one of the most infamous historical tragedies of the era? (Though with a running time of “only” 161 minutes, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood practically feels like a svelte episode of I Think You Should Leave in comparison.) In the Tarantino picture, the lives of a fictional actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his fictional stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), intersect with real-life ’60s Hollywood icons like Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) on the eve of the Manson murders the summer of 1969.
As for The Irishman, the movie centers on Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a truck driver from Philadelphia who comes to work for a Pennsylvania mob family led by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a mensch-like figure whose understated personal demeanor belies his professional ruthlessness. Through his relationship with Russell, Frank also comes to work for, and befriend, the famous labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). In time, Frank will become tangentially involved in the Kennedy assassination, the killing of real-life gangster “Crazy Joe” Gallo, and, finally, the disappearance and presumed murder of Hoffa.
At heart, both films are buddy pictures. Though these relationships are complicated by a boss-employee dynamic — while Rick and Cliff are inseparable bros for much of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, their eventual estrangement looms given that Rick can no longer afford to keep Cliff on his payroll as a personal chauffeur and gopher. Similarly in The Irishman, Frank’s apparent familial closeness with Russell is clouded by whether Russell, during one of the film’s most memorable moments, offers his Total cereal to Frank at breakfast out of genuine friendship, or because he’s merely buttering him up as a prelude to making Frank put a bullet in Hoffa’s dome.
I am not the first person to link these films, nor will I surely not be the last. We are on the cusp of an awards season in which both movies are expected to compete — on a near-weekly basis leading up to the Oscars in February — for top honors from critics and industry professionals. Soon enough, we’ll be sick to death of hearing about The Irishman and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood being compared in this context.
There’s already a burgeoning narrative in the entertainment press linking these films as a certain kind of awards bait. They will no doubt be defined — reductively but not without ample justification — as dude movies, which means they are also (depending on your point of view) either sentimental favorites or last remnants of an outmoded culture. The fact that both films are in part about obsolescence only helps to fortify the narrative. Tarantino and Scorsese seem to be ceding the stage to a new generation, and commenting on it in their films as they’re doing it.
As anyone who has ever looked at a film news website has heard dozens of times, Tarantino plans to retire after his 10th picture. (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is billed as his ninth.) Scorsese, thankfully, has never teased retirement, and at age 77 he still has more than a decade on what could be one of his biggest competitors for Best Director awards this season, the 89-year-old Clint Eastwood. Nevertheless, Scorsese unquestionably is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.
For Vanity Fair, these developments were enough to declare Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and The Irishman as harbingers of “the twilight of the alpha male.”
“Both movies take as their subject the waning of an alpha-male primacy that has dominated film culture, one that was always an illusion,” writes film historian Mark Harris. “Spend a day watching The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as a double feature … and what you will see and hear is a long goodbye.”
As reluctant as I am to disagree with a writer and critic as astute as Harris, there are two problems with this argument. One, The Irishman and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood are prestige-movie outliers in a business that relies so heavily upon “alpha-male primacy” that the director of Raging Bull and Goodfellas was recently viewed by millions on social media as a whiny, irrelevant aesthete for questioning the dominance of movies staring tough, take-charge men in superhero costumes. It’s hard to see a “twilight” for this phenomenon anytime soon.
Two, I think it’s wrong to read the latest films by Tarantino and Scorsese as stories about alpha-males. On the contrary, what defines Rick and Cliff in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and Frank in The Irishman is their weakness, as well as their sense of isolation from the outside world. In both films, these adrift men seek solace and forgiveness from much younger women. In Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Rick breaks down after noticing the parallels between his own life and the broken-down cowboy-protagonist of the dime-store western that he’s reading, prompting his 8-year-old co-star Trudi (Julia Butters) to gently pat his knee. Near the end of The Irishman, an enfeebled Frank tries to reconcile with his prodigal daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin) at the bank where she works, to no avail.
In the end, the men in these movies only have each other. At the end of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, after Cliff has fought so valiantly to protect him and his new wife from murderous hippies, Rick promises to visit his buddy in the hospital the following morning. “You’re a good friend,” he says. “I try,” says Cliff, amiably grinning through a deep knife-wound to his hip.
The end of The Irishman isn’t nearly as enchanting. Russell orders Frank to kill Jimmy, because he suspects that Frank will otherwise try to save Jimmy if someone else carries out the order. There’s also a vague love-triangle aspect to this logic — ultimately, there’s room for only two people in this relationship, and Russell decides that it must be him and Frank. Later, when both men are in prison and so geriatric they can barely choke down their bread and grape juice, Russell states his love plainly, with a note of defiance. “I picked us over him. F*ck ‘em. F*ck ‘em. F*ck ‘em.”
In this way, it’s not a surprise that so many men have connected with these films. How many of them wish they had a Cliff or a Frank in their own lives?
A few months ago, another buzzy movie that was explicitly about white-guy angst, Joker, was feared by some in the media as a possible instigator of violence. But many of these men are actually turning that violence against themselves. As a gut-wrenching Rolling Stone exposé reported earlier this year, white men accounted for 70 percent of suicides in 2017, with those aged between 45 and 64 representing the fastest-growing at-risk group since 1999. So many of these men, writes Stephen Rodrick, are stuck in self-imposed isolation, suffering with anxiety and depression in silence because of the ingrained “macho fantasy of a man who needs no one but himself,” a poison pill that slowly kills them over time.
While they take place in a whole other century, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood and The Irishman nail something essential and under-discussed about the necessity for male companionship in 2019. In our films and TV shows, a close friendship between men is depicted either as a malignant facilitator of the worst kind of neanderthal, bro-style behavior, or described with inherently belittling terms like “bromance” that stigmatize these relationships with school-yard taunts. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of men are literally dying every year because they can’t turn to another man and say, “You’re a good friend.”
If only we all had someone who would smile back at us and say, “I try.”