Gangs of New York (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Martin Scorsese fell in love with this story in 1970
and decided to make a movie about it. In 1977, right after he
made "Taxi Driver," he took out a two-page ad in Variety to announce
his next production: "Gangs of New York." Thirty one years after he
first read the story, he finally convinced someone to make it. It was
to be released in December of 2001. It took another year before he
could get it distributed. Miramax hated the bloated film so much in
2001 that they threatened to
shelve it forever unless Scorsese fixed it.
It finally made it into theaters in December of 2002, still 168 minutes long.
It did better than Miramax feared, but not as well as they hoped. It never made the top three during any week, but grossed just less than $80 million. That's not bad, but will still leave the studio with about $100 million worth of red ink to cover from foreign rights, broadcast rights, retail sales, and rentals. The foreign box office was more than $100 million dollars, so things are not looking too bad.
I was impressed by Gangs of New York, and I really loved parts of it. I think it is possible for you to enjoy this film quite a bit, but you need to clear your head right now and realize this: it is not a historical film. Oh, yeah, it's about the development of New York from 1846 to 1863, and it features some real incidents, real people, and real issues. But those times didn't go down the way it is shown in the film. Fuggitaboudit.
1) The story was amended to fit the points Scorsese wanted to make. In the actual Draft Riots, for example, it was an exclusively Irish mob that rampaged through the black neighborhoods, killing, looting, and torturing. The blacks of the era were actually doing better than the Irish economically, and that was greatly resented. In Scorsese's storyline, the nativists were the virulent bigots and the Irish respected the Samurai code of honor or something, so he couldn't tell the truth about what happened. Similarly, the naval bombardment was fabricated out of thin air.
2) The behavior of the working class mobs was altered to make the story grand and operatic. In fact, this is an opera without the songs. Battle sequences begin with long, flowery speeches as if they were in a Dungeons and Dragons recreation. "I challenge thee by the ancient laws from the long ago time." That kind of crap.
3) The historical characters never looked like the people pictured in this film. The costumes shown here are not evocative of the period, but were created from the imagination of Scorsese and his design people. Although everyone in the film is poor, and fights constantly with clubs and knives, they almost all have perfect teeth. (In those days, even peaceable middle class people lost their teeth early). The prostitutes all have perfect skin, and are young and juicy.
4) The characters don't behave like people, but like movie characters. DiCaprio is seeking revenge against the guy (Bill the Butcher) who killed his father, so the first thing he does is to save his life, so he can kill him later. Needless to say this decision results in great tribulation for New York, the world, and especially DiCaprio. But, of course, when Big Bill has a chance to kill Leo, he chooses to let him live as well. This results in great tribulation for him. Characters almost never do anything logical or in their own best interests. Luckily there was no real mystery, so DiCaprio didn't have to tie Bill up and tell him the plot, or leave him tied up in a room to die later.
5) The character of Bill the Butcher is not acted or written naturally. He bears no resemblance to anyone who has ever walked on the face of the earth. His dialogue consists of ornate vocabulary and pseudo-Shakespearian phrases uttered in Brooklynese, reminding one of Leo Gorcey in those old Bowery Boys movies. The knife-throwing accuracy he demonstrates here is not actually attainable. He is a colorful character, a Dickensian villain, a Snidely Whiplash created for our entertainment.
Acting goes through trends. The current fashion is for actors to abandon that Stanislavsky/Strasberg theory of natural humanity and create highly stylized, memorable characters, ala Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction. You regular readers know that Samuel L is probably my favorite actor, and that bible-quotin' gun-totin' performance was some truly bad acting - but nonetheless one of the greatest characterizations in screen history.
If I controlled the annual acting awards, I would create several different categories, separating this kind of made-for-award characterization from naturalistic acting. I'd call this type of performance the Samuel L Award for Memorable Characterization, and give it as a separate award from those which are given for actual acting. Each year it would be presented to somebody for going as far as possible to amuse and entertain us. I would certainly give Daniel Day-Lewis the Samuel L Drama Award for 2002. (DeNiro would win the Samuel L Comedy Award for singing the entire score of West Side Story off-key, and mimicking Natalie Wood's version of "I Feel Pretty".)
So is Gangs of New York a bad movie? No, not at all. Where is it written that a historical epic has to be accurate to be good? There is a literary tradition that supports this type of flamboyant mythologized treatment, and that tradition is as old as literature itself. Do you find the Iliad and The Odyssey to be realistic? Well, I hear some people think those are pretty good. Homer's work is a mythical retelling of events, exaggerated and embellished to draw out the human truths which are greater than mere facts. In the literary pedigree of the English language, Dickens's work is similar. Do you think Dickens believed those characters really existed, and that those silly plot devices were plausible? He wasn't daft. Well, at least not completely daft. He did all that on purpose. By creating larger-than-life situations he was able to present big sweeping themes in a way that average people could relate to. Scorsese is employing the same tactics. In fact, this film is about as Dickensian as any purely American story can be.
If you approach Gangs of New York as a sensible
historical drama with realistic characterizations, and think of it as
an "important" film, you will be disappointed. But you'll have a lot
of fun if you just remind yourself that the story takes only some
minor details from history in order to create a context for Scorsese's
intelligent pyrotechnics and Daniel Day Lewis's performance as villain
of the year. Scorsese did not want to make the film resemble "The
Winds of War". He was going instead for "The Seven Samurai". Codes of
honor. Flowery speeches. Theatrical announcements. Costumes.
Is it a great entertainment picture? No, but it's a good one. It has Daniel Day-Lewis's inspired piece of Memorable Characterization. His presentation of Bill the Butcher, with his growling rhetorical flourishes, his precision knife-throwing, his ruthless killing, his silly Dr Seuss hats, and his preposterous moustache, is one that will be long remembered in cinema lore. Classic stuff. Bill also has the one and only laugh-out-loud moment in the film. You will know what I mean when you hear the way he delivers the line "whoopsy daisy". If you're not planning to see the film, you can get the feel of the joke by imagining Darth Vader blowing up somebody's home planet, killing billions, then realizing he destroyed the wrong planet and growling "whoopsy daisy" theatrically, in his most pompous basso profundo.
On top of Lewis's strange, flamboyant, complex performance, the film has Scorsese's incomparable talent for presenting a story visually. This film looks fantastic.
On the negative side, it has two elements that keep it from greatness as a pure popcorn flick.
Here are two Scorsese facts that will probably surprise you:
(1) Scorsese has never had a hit movie - he had previously maxed out at about 60 million dollars. He raised the bar somewhat with Gangs of New York, to $77 million, although the film may or may not make a profit, hinging on post-theatrical revenues.
(2) Scorcese has never won an Oscar.
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