"It's a perfect film."
"There's a whole bunch of guys who are movie stars today that can't hold Eric's Goddamn jock-strap, you know, but for other reason's Eric's doing other stuff. So what makes that? We're talking about politics, we're talking about luck, we're talking about a whole bunch of bullshit that has nothing to do with acting...whatever happened to him where he's on the bench these days is a Goddamn shame cause a lot of these guys running around now making twenty million dollars a movie can't do shit next to him."
-Mickey Rourke a few years back discussing co-star Eric Roberts and I think, in a very profound way, himself.-
"He hunched his shoulders higher, thrust his hands deep into his overcoat pockets, and leaned further into the wind."
-The last lines in Vincent Patrick's novel, The Pope Of Greenwich Village-
Charlie always just misses. He’s charismatic, likeable and smart but just past his thirtieth year things still aren’t working out for him. He’s just lost another job thanks to his inept thieving cousin Paulie whom he can’t cut loose from, his girlfriend is pregnant and his ex-wife is draining the life out of him with alimony and unpaid parking bills. All he wants to do is move upstate and buy his own place, but he belongs to New York City and he just can’t seem to ever get over.
I was fifteen the first time I saw Stuart Rosenberg’s 1984 feature The Pope Of Greenwich Village starring Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts and Daryl Hannah. I have always suspected that it meant the same thing to me in the eighties that films like Midnight Cowboy might have meant to someone in the sixties or Mean Streets in the seventies. There was something about it that spiritually hit me hard and I must admit that twenty years later in my life, Rosenberg’s film has lost none of its power for me. Nearing a quarter of a century mark since its debut in the Summer of 1984, The Pope Of Greenwich Village continues to remain on the real buried treasures of modern American cinema to those who haven’t seen it, and a real special one to people like me who are still in love with it.
The film got its start as a really excellent novel by Family Business author Vincent Patrick. With its sharp characterizations, witty and real sounding dialogue, Patrick’s book still reads like a breath of much needed fresh air. Patrick’s novel earned a solid cult audience when it was first released in 1979 and he was quickly commissioned by MGM to crack out a screenplay, his first, which he did in the early part of the eighties.
With a solid script in hand, the studio set out on finding a director who could match the writer’s tough but sweetly nostalgic lament for two guys in the village who always seem to be on the losing end of life. The studio decided that the film could be something special and they hired on a person who was in 1983 probably the most controversial director in America, Michael Cimino.
The talented Cimino had stunned audiences with his multiple Academy Award winning The Deer Hunter in 1978 but had fallen out of grace big time with the disastrously received (but still masterful) Heaven’s Gate in 1980. The Pope Of Greenwich Village was to mark Cimino’s return to the director’s chair and in 1983 he began directing the smaller scaled film for MGM. Fairly quickly though things began to feel wrong and it became apparent that Michael Cimino’s epic vision wasn’t the best choice for Patrick’s more intimate script and he was fired from the production. Cimino, Rourke and MGM would continue their partnership though on the epic crime thriller Year Of The Dragon, which would go into production right after The Pope Of Greenwich Village wrapped.
After Cimino’s dismissal, MGM decided to bring in a seemingly unlikely veteran director who was known for bringing in productions under budget and on time for them and things for the troubled film magically began to work out for them.
Born in 1927, Emmy award winning director Stuart Rosenberg got his start like a lot of his peers in television productions of the fifties. He thrived in little screen crime dramas like The Untouchables and Naked City and finally got a shot to direct his first big screen production, none other than the Oscar winning Paul Newman film, Cool Hand Luke in 1967. Rosenberg was ignored unjustly by the Academy for his solid and inventive direction of Cool Hand Luke but he was honored with a well-deserved Director’s Guild Award, which marked him as a favorite among his peers. He would follow up Cool Hand Luke with the delightful The April Fools in 1967 and would continue to work steady throughout the seventies on films like The Laughing Policeman (1973) and The Amityville Horror (1979). The Pope Of Greenwich Village would mark itself as the last noteworthy project of Rosenberg’s career. He would spend the majority of the rest of his life teaching film to young students, including Requiem For A Dream auteur Darren Aronofsky, and he passed away in March of 2007.
Most of the cast and crew of The Pope Of Greenwich Village were already firmly in place when Rosenberg came on board. Prolific John Bailey, who had done such memorable work with Paul Schrader on American Gigolo (1980) and Cat People (1982), was on board as cinematographer and popular composer Dave Grusin had already started on his score. Rosenberg did bring on his Amityville Horror editor Robert Brown to work with him though and the production kicked back into gear in the late part of 83.
The cast assembled for Rosenberg in front of the camera was simply inspiring. Everywhere you look in The Pope Of Greenwich Village you will spot a familiar face of a much loved character actor. Everyone from Val Avery to Burt Young to M. Emmet Walsh to Tony Musante to a scene stealing Geraldine Page show up. The film is like a Valentine’s Day card to some of the best character actors in the business. For the starring roles the studio had brought together three of the most talented and striking looking actors of their generation for Rosenberg and they all deliver near career best performances in the film.
Athletic and magnetic Daryl Hannah was on quite a role in the mid eighties with films like Blade Runner (1982), Summer Lovers (1982) and Splash (1984) already on her resume and she is really splendid as the love interest in The Pope Of Greenwich Village. The part is actually one of the most under-written in Patrick’s script but Hannah manages to inject a lot of heart and emotion into it and makes the most out of her handful of scenes.
As the loveable fuck up Paulie, young Eric Roberts provides another bit of proof that he was one of the great actors to come out of the eighties. One year past his monstrous and legendary turn as the crazed Paul Snider in Bob Fosse’s Star 80 (1983) and just a year or so from garnering an Oscar nomination for Runaway Train (1985), Roberts is at his absolute peak in The Pope Of Greenwich Village. As Paulie he is electric, funny, frustrating and finally downright touching. Along with the two films I just mentioned, The Pope Of Greenwich Village contains the best work that the talented but troubled Roberts ever gave.
The absolute key to the film though was the casting of the struggling Charlie. Even though he is actually billed second in the film, Mickey Rourke is the clear star and lead of the production and in my idea of a perfect world he would have been sainted for his work in it.
Twenty eight year old Mickey Rourke was on absolute fire in 1984. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t had a major hit yet or wasn’t even a household name, nearly every critic and fan was laying down odds that this guy was the rightful heir to Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Searing, intense and beautiful, Rourke had just floored many people with his triple shot of Body Heat (1981), Diner (1982) and Rumble Fish (1983) and it looked like he was getting ready to absolutely explode. Watching him today in The Pope Of Greenwich Village, I still feel the same way I do when I see Brando in On The Waterfront or Pacino in Serpico. It is that performance that comes in every great actors career, when everything falls into place and there is something nearly sacred in their work. I’ll take Mickey’s relatively un-acclaimed work as Charlie in The Pope Of Greenwich Village over almost any Oscar winning work you care to name…he was my guy back in the mid eighties and he is still my guy today.
With a terrific crew and beyond noteworthy cast in place, Rosenberg picked up where Cimino had left off (what exactly Cimino filmed remains a point of contention) and delivered a film that MGM was excited about in the early part of 1984. Shot on location in New York and featuring some truly magnificent production design by Paul Sylbert, The Pope Of Greenwich Village expertly tells the tale of two cousins living in The Village in the early part of the eighties who think they have come across a score that is going to finally get them over in their lives. Problem is the place they rip off happens to be owned by infamous Mob boss Bed Bug Eddie, a guy known as ‘The Pope Of Greenwich Village’ whose hobby is shipping parts of people who rip him off to their family members.
The big complaint I have read over the years about The Pope Of Greenwich Village is that it is essentially Mean Streets Lite. I have never bought into that though as while the two do concern some of the same plot points, thematically they are totally different beasts. While it is true that The Pope Of Greenwich Village doesn’t contain the rough and cynical edge of Mean Streets, it is also true that Scorsese’s film doesn’t contain the wit and heart of Rosenberg’s film. I don’t see any point in comparing the two, but it still happens to this day.
It is that heart that becomes the biggest asset to The Pope Of Greenwich Village. You really care about these two guys and want them to succeed. The film works best in the scenes between Rourke and Roberts, as they feel so unbelievable honest and natural. When I watch these two guys together, I can’t imagine they are reciting learned dialogue or are surrounded by a film crew. There is such an organic quality about this film and the relationship between Charlie and Paulie, I can actually still picture them in the city shuffling around arm and arm joking and planning out another dream that will probably no doubt not come true for them.
Honestly everything about the film works for me, even the side plot of the cop on the take and his mother that once seemed to slow the film down now seems poignant and necessary. With Grusin’s French Horn driven score (Damn it has this soundtrack ever been released anywhere?) and Rosenberg’s lovely rendering of a New York that is disappearing, The Pope Of Greenwich Village is one of the most alive and heartfelt American films of the eighties. I still can’t hear Sinatra’s majestic Summer Wind or see a photograph of The World Trade Center without thinking of this film and getting more than a little choked up because of it.
The film was released with quite a bit of hype in that summer of 84 and under-performed everywhere. Not even making its budget back, it disappeared from American movie houses before the summer was even over. It did okay in Europe and finally became a small hit on Home Video in the eighties and nineties. Everyone was ignored for his or her work in the film save Geraldine Page who snagged an Oscar nomination for her brief but memorable appearance.
For most film fans, I guess The Pope Of Greenwich Village remains just a little film form the eighties that is mostly forgotten. For some of us though who came of age with it, The Pope Of Greenwich Village remains one of the definitive and classic films of our lives. I have seen a lot of films that are greater than Stuart Rosenberg’s The Pope Of Greenwich Village, but there are few that have meant more to me. Whenever I feel like life is beating me down, I close my eyes and think about the moment when Mickey Rouke announces to Bed Bug Eddie, “I’m the Pope Of Greenwich Village now” and then, just like Mickey, I smile and I realize everything will be all right.