Requiem for the Irish Skeletons in Martin Scorsese’s Cinematic Closet
When I first heard several years ago that Martin Scorsese was working on a project called The Irishman, my initial reaction was a dismayed “oh no.” To be clear, I am an ardent admirer of much of Scorsese’s work. Generally speaking, to use the vernacular of our times, I stan. To celebrate my 21st birthday I ordered delivery and watched The Age of Innocence in my pajamas. It easily ranks in my top 5 favorite birthdays of all time. But for all of the amazing things Scorsese has done, there is one utter train wreck which I can never quite bring myself to forgive, not to mention forget, even though I often want to, and that is Cameron Diaz’s “Irish” accent in Gangs of New York.
It was with this blighted spot from Scorsese’s past in mind that I quickly turned to Google to check if Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran was actually Irish and breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing he was born in New Jersey. Irish-American Scorsese can do and do well. But Irish? The horror! The horror!
Hollywood has plenty of irksome habits and serious problems. But when it comes to stereotypes that are not dangerously problematic but just really goddamn annoying, the butchering of all things Irish is a time-honored tradition and the sort of personal pet peeve that makes me want to Hulk smash things. If you want an overcast green place but don’t want to be bothered with learning about a foreign culture just set your movie in Washington state and call it a day. And while “top o’ the mornin’” and “something something leprechauns” are annoying —seriously, I’ve never encountered an actual Irish person use that greeting or mentions leprechauns unironically —the travesties passed off as “Irish” accents are probably the worst of it.
Genuine Irish accents are wonderful. For American ears, they possess that old-world allure that makes so many of us find British accents attractive, but without that irritating air of “we colonized half the world and are still kind of smug about it.” Admittedly, I grew up around Irish accents (mostly of the Cork variety), so I realize I am biased—but also, I am quite convinced I am right.
The thing that waylays many attempts at Irish accents right out of the gate is the notion that there is an Irish accent, when in fact there are many. In terms of number of distinctive accents per square mile, Ireland just might take the cake because geographically it’s a pretty small island, and yet while I grew up around certain Irish accents there are others I can barely understand. For instance, as alluded to earlier, I have a lot of family in Cork, the largest, southernmost, and best county in Ireland (as the saying goes, a Cork person with an inferiority complex thinks they’re just as good as everybody else). But even when it comes to Corkonians you’ll hear everything from Cillian Murphy’s mild lilt to the thick brogue of the O’Donovan brothers, Olympic silver medalists in rowing and bona fide national treasures.
So, now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s talk Gangs of New York. The thing that really gets you when you first watch the film is that it opens with the genuine brogue of Liam Neeson, an actual Irish™, lulling you into a false sense of security. Then, before you know it, there’s Brendan Gleeson there with his bona fide Dublin accent and Daniel Day-Lewis in all his deliciously evil Bill the Butcher glory. So, by six minutes in everything seems to indicate you’re in for a real treat. Even the stuff that’s objectively not great, like all the extras in the opening brawl who clearly have no idea what they’re supposed to be doing or where to look, is still subjectively entertaining.
And then Leonardo DiCaprio’s voice-over starts in earnest and forgets Amsterdam Vallon is supposed to be Irish every other sentence (then again, the name “Amsterdam Vallon” itself also seems to forget it’s supposed to be Irish). There’s a moment where he solemnly notes, “there were a thousand different accents in New York,” and it’s unintentionally funny because he can’t even decide what his own accent sounds like. Within one breath he goes from American to a word or two that actually sounds pretty on the money to way over the top and then back to American again. It’s a veritable rollercoaster, but not the fun kind, the rickety old wooden kind filled with whiplash-inducing turns. There are places where you almost get used to DiCaprio’s accent and then suddenly his manner of speaking abruptly veers in a different direction and it becomes hugely distracting again. Overall, a solid D+ effort.
Generally speaking, DiCaprio seems to err on the side of retreating to his default American accent which, while on one hand is a kind of cowardly approach, on the other can incidentally can be retrofitted somewhat to the plot, as Vallon was raised in the United States and spent his formative years in an orphanage where he was presumably surrounded by a hodgepodge of other accents. As such, you can almost believe that his mixed accent is intentional. Some might try to argue that it is intentional, but as someone raised around a variety of different accents I can attest to the fact that while yes, such an upbringing can leave you with certain tendencies of speech that are neither here nor there, you will be consistent with yourself — that is, even with a hodgepodge accent, the way you say a particular word will remain consistent over time exactly the way DiCaprio’s does not.
The thing that ultimately makes Cameron Diaz’s accent even more painful to the ear than DiCaprio’s is that you can usually tell what he’s trying to do with his voice even when he misses the mark by a mile, but with Diaz … I just don’t know. It’s the sort of thing that words fail to do justice. She hardly sounds like her usual self, but she certainly doesn’t sound any kind of Irish either, or even the standard generic Americanized “Oirish.” To top it all off, she sounds inexplicably breathy half the time, like she just rushed up the stairs wearing a corset laced too tight.
It also does not help that Jenny Everdeane is not exactly what one would call a well-developed character. She’s of a particular kind of “bad” girl with a tragic past and secret heart of gold that’s basically the manic pixie dream girl of gangster narratives in the sense that she only really exists in the collective male imagination but is very popular there.
Jenny’s one-dimensional characterization is then further exacerbated by an unfortunately flat performance from Diaz, even before discussing the accent. One particularly cringe-inducing incident occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film in a scene where Bill brings Jenny up on stage to help him demonstrate his knife-throwing skills in front of a large audience that includes Vallon. It’s all one huge power move. Bill keeps throwing the knives far too close for comfort; Vallon has to watch the whole fiasco unfold knowing he can’t do anything to stop it. It’s the moment where Jenny really has to go toe to toe with Bill, and therefore Diaz with Day-Lewis, and the thing about Daniel Day-Lewis is that he is just so good any shortcomings of his scene partners really stick out by comparison. So, when you put him next to a character and a performance that are already pretty limp, it’s like a car crash in the sense that you feel bad watching but also can’t look away. Even the editing of the scene seems kind of embarrassed about the whole thing; it spends more time lingering on DiCaprio’s reaction than Diaz’s, presumably because when it does her reactions are weirdly sedate, as if she couldn’t quite figure out how to look properly terrified when facing a wild-eyed, knife-wielding Daniel Day-Lewis. Which is a little hard to figure, but I digress.
All this considered, it’s pretty bold of Scorsese to go all-in on a project entitled The Irishman after the veritable slander he has already committed under the guise of “Irish-ness,” even if the titular “Irish” man was (thankfully) born in New Jersey and raised in Pennsylvania. With its all-star cast, whopping budget, and promising teaser trailer, there’s a strong chance that the upcoming film will be a smashing success. But before we start pairing the terms “Scorsese” and “Irish” together in a laudatory context, let us pause for a moment of silence out of respect for the disasters of the past.
Header Image Source: Disney