One hell of a Hoffa

PUBLISHED: 15:18 21 November 2019

Jack Nicholson plays James R. Hoffa in the film

Jack Nicholson plays James R. Hoffa in the film "Hoffa" June 15, 1991 in the USA. (Photo by Liaison)

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Martin Scorsese's new film The Irishman features the controversial life and mysterious disappearance of US union boss Jimmy Hoffa. RICHARD LUCK looks back to an earlier cinematic account which will be hard to beat.

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He had a strange 1992, did Jack Nicholson. Another collaboration with his Five Easy Pieces compadres Bob Rafelson and Carole Eastman produced the all-but-unwatchable Man Trouble. The key supporting role of Colonel Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men, meanwhile, brought him an Oscar nomination and a great big bucket of cash.

Between the utter failure of the former and the unqualified success of the latter, Nicholson produced one of his greatest performances in one of his most underrated movies.

That picture was Danny DeVito's Hoffa and the role was that of the labour union leader Jimmy Hoffa, famed for his Mob ties and his unsolved 1975 disappearance - presumably linked to those ties and subject to all sorts of lurid theories.

It is a role and a story that has returned to the big screen this month, with Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, and Al Pacino as James Riddle Hoffa (a fiction writer couldn't have crafted a more fitting middle name).

It is not hard to see why the man and the accompanying mystery have long enchanted filmmakers. Hoffa was first brought to life on screen by Robert Blake in the Mike Newell TV movie Blood Feud. That version centred on Robert Kennedy's long-running efforts to bring Hoffa to book. Scorsese's new version, meanwhile, is principally concerned with Frank Sheeran - the Irishman of the title - a Mafia hit-man and union acquaintance of Hoffa's who would later claim to have played a key role in spiriting away his former friend.

Though DeVito's film addresses both of these matters, his Hoffa sets out to deliver the man in full. We begin on July 30, 1975, and as the ageing Jimmy waits in the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox cafe, in a Detroit suburb, killing time by reminiscing about the old days with right-hand man Bobby Ciaro (DeVito playing a composite character inspired by any number of Teamster lieutenants).

From their initial meeting in 1935 to their first piece of action - the disastrous fire-bombing of a union-unfriendly laundry - their friendship grows almost as quickly as Hoffa climbs the ladder from recruiter to president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the vast North American trade union.

It's an ascent made easier by Hoffa's Mafia connections. Indeed, with guys like Carol D'Allesandro (Armand Assante) in his corner, it's little wonder the labour legend wields such clout. And all the Mob asks in return is that they have access to the Teamsters' pension fund.

It's word of this arrangement that piques the interest of future attorney general Robert Kennedy (Kevin Anderson) who summons Hoffa to appear before Congress.

And that's barely the first half of it. For the remainder of its running time, Hoffa is a story of betrayal, jail and the bitterest of infighting. By the time we're back at the roadhouse with the sixtysomething Jimmy and Bobby, it's clear that their time is up. Rather like Swede Anderson in Hemingway's The Killers, our heroes might like to think they're waiting on a friend but they really only have death to look forward to.

Of course, when the end comes, it's the product of guesswork. If it is frustrating for the audience, it clearly isn't much of a problem for DeVito. Quite the opposite, the director seems to be of the opinion that the hours people have dedicated to Hoffa's disappearance are but wasted energy.

What really matters is how the man lived and on that count, DeVito's film is a biopic that deserves congratulations for its refusal to dodge hard questions and its unwillingness to paint too pleasing a picture of its protagonist.

In pulling off the latter feat, DeVito is greatly aided by an extraordinarily committed performance from his longtime friend Nicholson. Come the early 1990s, many critics felt that the One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest star had given up on serious acting. While he was perfectly happy to phone in performances informed by his 'Jack' persona - basically just Nicholson turned up to 11 - it seemed an awfully long time since the complex, nuanced turns upon which he'd name had been made.

Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, The Last Detail, Chinatown, Cuckoo's Nest - it was hard to square the fearless star of those films with the horny, grinning loon of, say, The Witches Of Eastwick.

Hoffa, however, provided Jack with a true acting challenge. Since his character was a man familiar to the majority of Americans, Nicholson had to capture something of Jimmy Hoffa, the public figure, while staying the right side of impersonation.

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With a set of dentures and a false nose ensuring he looked the part, the Oscar-winner preceded to give what he'd come to consider one of his greatest performances.

In Nicholson's hands, Jimmy Hoffa is so much more than a thug and bully. Blunt and cajoling on the one hand, his Hoffa is also affable, even warm. In the brief moments we see him with his wife and children, it's clear that the private Hoffa was a very different man to the one who sat down with the Mob and exchanged barbs with RFK.

Not that Hoffa the union grandee is easily pigeonholed. With Nicholson running the gamut from bitterness and jealousy to despair and exhaustion, his Jimmy Hoffa is often bullish but also occasionally cowed.

With the congressional hearings and conference scenes giving Nicholson ample opportunity to turn up the volume, it's to DeVito's credit that his leading man doesn't capsize his picture.

The supporting cast he assembled features so many heavy hitters, there's never any chance of Hoffa becoming unbalanced. DeVito himself is very good in the unshowy role of Ciaro.

Likewise the much-missed JT Walsh is excellent as Frank Fitzsimmons, the ally placed in charge of the Teamsters when Jimmy is jailed for jury tampering. There are also a number of notable performances from relatively fresh faces such as John C Reilly (as Fitzsimmons' callow nephew Pete Connelly) and Frank Whaley, fresh from his turn as guitarist Robby Krieger in Oliver Stone's The Doors.

Top marks must also go to Kevin Anderson who, a decade before being cast as JFK in Susan Seidelman's Power And Beauty, is here handed the daunting task of portraying Bobby Kennedy. Anderson deserves immense credit for daring to suggest that Kennedy could be perceived as the bad guy of the piece - a whiny, entitled college boy happy to call out the crimes of others while drawing a veil over his own clan's misdeeds.

While the committee confrontation is lifted directly from transcripts, the rest of the Hoffa screenplay is the brainchild of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet.

A proud Chicagoan ("A city," he's often acknowledged, "where people work for a living"), Mamet's interest in men and labour has informed much of his best work. And Hoffa is as good a movie script as Mamet has ever written for someone other than himself. There's certainly none of the mawkish sentiment of the Eliot Ness-as-family-man sequences that cheapen The Untouchables. Only the truckers' guard of honour strikes the wrong note - the site of countless vehicles lining Jimmy's route to jail
feels as if it comes from another, lesser film.

As photographed by Stephen H Burum and scored by DeVito's composer-of-choice David Newman, Hoffa is equal parts stylish and spiky. The big 'n' brassy soundtrack harks back to a time when cinema was free to revel in its own artifice. Factor in the director's elaborate camera moves, his ready use of such editing devices as dissolves and his barely disguised employment of soundstages, and this is a film that could have been made decades earlier.

Whatever its merits, though, Hoffa's unsympathetic protagonist and unsexy subject matter meant it was always going to be a tough sell. The reviews for the most part were very positive, the main criticisms stemming from DeVito's use of composites and the screenplay's drastic over-simplification of union politics. Sadly, the same people who queued round the block to see Jack Nicholson bellow at Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men had no interest in seeing him shout at John C Reilly.
Made for around $35 million - Nicholson having foregone his fee in return for a percentage of the profits - Hoffa clawed back less than $25 million at the US box-office.

Not surprisingly, it was even harder to interest people in the film overseas. When he came to the UK to promote Hoffa, DeVito was inundated with questions from a press keen to see the US's most infamous union leader through the same lens as Marxist firebrand Arthur Scargill. With the miners' strike still fresh in Britain's collective memory, Hoffa wasn't so much released in the UK as buried.

A bust at the box-office, all but ignored during awards season, it wasn't long before Hoffa the movie was granted the same missing-in-action status as the man himself. Fortunately, the film's relative failure didn't injure those responsible for it.

Nicholson went on a creative tear that produced some of his best performances of his autumn years - The Crossing Guard, Blood and Wine - together with a third Academy Award for As Good as It Gets. As for DeVito, he directed the marvellous Matilda, he starred in films as diverse as Man on the Moon, Get Shorty and David Mamet's Heist and, through his production company Jersey Films, he helped foster the talent of a banana-chinned young buck called Quentin Tarantino.

Hoffa, though, was too good a film to vanish completely. Watching it today, you can but marvel that it made it beyond the boardroom. A picture about a union leader written by a fan of the working man and directed by a keen supporter of left-wing causes (among other things, DeVito is a big Jeremy Corbyn fan), Hoffa has so many things going against it.

More remarkably still, the film isn't a hagiography brought into being by a besotted fan. Far from it; DeVito's movie is very open about the crimes and misdemeanours the Detroit tough guy committed - it simply balances them against Hoffa's call to the American worker, a message that proved so winning that Teamsters memberships rose to over a million.

More than anything, the film retrieved Jimmy Hoffa from the realms of conspiracy and conjecture, a fact that would prove distinctly moving for the union legend's son, Jimmy Jr. Visiting the set at DeVito's invitation, the younger Hoffa bumped into Jack Nicholson in full costume and make-up and promptly burst into tears. Seventeen years had passed since Jimmy Jr last saw his dad. For the briefest of moments, the magic of cinema reintroduced a son to his long absent father.

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