Irish Eye on Hollywood

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
June / July 2005

There seems to be an odd trend spreading throughout Hollywood: Irish actors playing American presidents.

First there was Northern Ireland native and respected thespian Kenneth Branagh playing Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the May HBO movie Warm Springs. Branagh portrayed FDR’s life before he became president, and the film’s particular focus was with how Roosevelt dealt with his paralysis, the result of polio, which he contracted in 1921 as his political career was on the rise. Roosevelt, of course, did all he could to conceal or play down his handicap.

In one interview, Branagh said it didn’t matter that he was an Irishman playing a famous American.

“What made the movie more doable,” Branagh said, “was the idea that this was a sort of secret part of FDR’s life and that in fact I wasn’t playing the great American icon, I was playing the man who then developed into the great American icon.”

Now, on the heels of Branagh’s turn as FDR, comes word that Liam Neeson is in talks to play Abraham Lincoln, in a film directed by Steven Spielberg. The movie is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography The Uniter: The Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Neeson may have to grow a beard for the part, but the 6-foot 4-inch actor has already got Lincoln’s height down.

Neeson has also reportedly signed onto a much more Irish project which would team him with up-and-coming Cork actor Cillian Murphy and Irish director Neil Jordan. Jordan’s latest project is a film based on Patrick McCabe’s novel Breakfast on Pluto, which tells the story of a boy who escapes from a foster home in a small Irish town who grows up to become a cross-dressing performer in London.

Until Breakfast at Pluto comes out (shooting doesn’t begin until September of this year), you can catch Neeson and Murphy both playing dress-up this summer in Batman Returns. Neeson also starred in the recent blockbuster Kingdom of Heaven.

Later in the summer, see Cillian Murphy in yet another summer popcorn movie Red Eye. The thriller, directed by horror master Wes Craven, is set entirely on a plane and has Murphy and Rachel McAdams playing dueling assassins.

Meanwhile, Aidan Quinn must be getting sick and tired of waiting for a movie distributor to pick up his Irish movie A Song for Raggy Boy. The film, which critics hailed as a shocking look into the dark side of the Catholic Church in Ireland, follows a traumatized veteran of the Spanish civil war (played by Quinn) who ends up working at an Irish reform school, where he sees abuse horrors not unlike those he saw during the war.

The film was hailed by many critics as it made the rounds on the film festival circuit. Yet A Song for Raggy Boy has yet to find a distributor for theaters in the U.S.

So, Quinn is moving on. He is shooting a drama TV pilot, which also has a religious flavor. The show is called The Book of Daniel and Quinn plays an Episcopalian minister who has a slight prescription drug problem. As in, he can’t seem to stop taking them. He also conducts daily conversations with a very contemporary Jesus.

Quinn will be joined in The Book of Daniel pilot by fellow Irish-American and Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn, who is slated to play the bishop of the diocese.

Quinn also has two new movies on tap. In Return to Sender he stars alongside Kelly Preston, Connie Nielsen and Tim Daly in a movie about a lawyer who fights to exonerate a woman on death row.

Then there’s Shadow of Fear, in which Quinn appears with James Spader and Robin Tunney. In the film, which is described as a plot-twisting thriller, an accidental killing draws a man into a web of deceit and blackmail.

Aidan Quinn isn’t the only Irish-American movie actor looking to TV these days.

Terry O’Quinn has had a long career in Hollywood, appearing in films such as The Stepfather and The Rocketeer, not to mention the notorious bomb Heaven’s Gate.

But in recent years he has appeared in successful TV dramas such as JAG, The West Wing and Alias.

Now, O’Quinn has found a regular role on the ABC hit series Lost. The Newberry, Michigan native plays a character named John Locke (yes, just like the Enlightenment philosopher) who is one of several survivors of a plane crash who made it to an island, Many episodes revolve around Locke and the other characters simply attempting to survive. But the interaction of different personalities also allows for tension, as well as acts of kindness.

Locke is known as the smartest guy on the island, though in a recent interview with The New York Times, O’Quinn said that is not entirely a good thing.

“He may well know more about other people than he knows about himself.”

Either way, audiences can’t seem to get enough of O’Quinn and Lost, which is one of network TV’s great success stories this year.

Back on the movie front, acclaimed screenwriter Paul Weitz is slated to write and direct Another Bulls**t Night in Suck City for Columbia Pictures. The film is based on the book by Irish-American writer Nick Flynn. The darkly comic memoir explored Flynn’s unconventional relationship with his Dad, whom he met for just the third time at the age of 27 while working as a caseworker in a homeless shelter in Boston.

Weitz most recently directed In Good Company. His other credits include About a Boy and American Pie.

There’s been some interesting news when it comes to Irish film legends from both the past and the present recently.

First, some reports suggest that the death of Pierce Brosnan’s career as James Bond has been greatly exaggerated. One influential web site has suggested that both the actor and the film studio are trying to bluff each other just to get a better deal when they ultimately come to an agreement to make another Bond movie.

“All the stuff we heard about Brosnan being out is just a ploy from both camps,” Darkhorizons.com reports. The next Bond movie, Casino Royale, starts shooting later this year.

Meanwhile, film buffs in New York City were treated to a resurrection of sorts back in April when they got a glimpse of a notorious Richard Harris movie for the first time in a long time.

Harris was among the stars, along with Charlton Heston, of Major Dundee, a 1965 film by legendary director Sam Peckinpagh.

The only problem is that much of Peckinpagh’s legendary status was based on his classic western The Wild Bunch, which did not hit theaters until 1969.

So, when the studio got a look at Major Dundee — in which Heston and Harris play competing U.S. Civil War generals — they slashed almost an hour of scenes out of Peckinpagh’s epic.

Suddenly, what was a stirring, if bloated, piece of cinematic poetry was more or less unintelligible. The movie was a bomb.

Even as the restored version of Major Dundee hit selected theaters, critics admit it is not nearly as brilliant as The Wild Bunch. But, they add, you can see that movie’s foundation in Major Dundee. And most agree that Harris was in top form.

Finally, Irish Catholic actors have been at the forefront recently in generating debate about reforms in the Catholic church.

First, Brian Dennehy was among the stars of Our Fathers, a Showtime cable movie based on the unfolding scandal which rocked the Boston church, and led to the downfall of Bernard Cardinal Law, played in the film by Christopher Plummer.

Dennehy played Rev. Dominic George Spagnolia, a priest who was openly critical of Cardinal Law.

The script for Our Fathers was written by Thomas Michael Donnelly, while David Kennedy served as producer. Both have described themselves as coming from devout Irish Catholic backgrounds.

Meanwhile, quite a ruckus was raised when John Derry’s film Conspiracy of Silence hit theaters earlier this year. In the film, an Irish journalist investigates two controversial incidents, the suicide of one parish priest and the expulsion of a young priest in training following accusations that he was open to sexual advances from a male colleague.

Whether or not such films contribute to any reforms, in the U.S. or Ireland remains to be seen. ♦

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