“The Irishman” was nominated for ten Academy Awards. It received none, and I’ll explain why. It was heralded by critics as an epic gangster film. It’s not.
“The Irishman” is an epic, but in the Homerian style: long, meandering, with hidden meaning, and told in media res. Like the Iliad, if you look closely, you’ll see that “The Irishman” is actually a romance. It is the story of two men who are in love, though they never declare it. And that may be why it won no Oscars. On the heels of “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” among others, Hollywood doesn’t want a film where the main characters are closeted lovers that never come out.
Nevertheless, “The Irishman” is more gay than it is gangster. Martin Scorsese himself admits that it just so happens “that the background that the characters are placed against is the gangster milieu.”
I would go further. “The Irishman” is as much about the mob as “Brokeback Mountain” is about shepherds.
The main plot of “The Irishman” revolves around the Philadelphia mob, run by Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), who mentors an Irish truck-driver turned hit-man, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). Narrated by Sheeran, the story is based on the confessional biography, I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. Like the book, the movie is a reconstruction of memories by an aged Frank Sheeran, who, now in a nursing home, recalls his life, focusing on the mob, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and very few women.
“Something else is going on,” Pacino said in an interview, “I didn’t quite understand what it was, but I know I was feeling things.”
That “something else,” I argue, is the sexual tension between De Niro’s Frank Sheeran and Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa. The theme of romantic love is evoked in the opening scene as the music plays:
In the still of the night
I held you
Held you tight
’Cause I love
Love you so
Promise I’ll never
Let you go
In the still of the night.
Well into an hour of “The Irishman,” the would-be lovers finally meet. Buffalino, the head of the Philadelphia mob, sets Frank Sheeran up with a new, more high-profile job. Sheeran will be the bodyguard and assistant to Jimmy Hoffa, the notorious president of the Teamsters union. Sheeran is sent to Chicago to help Jimmy Hoffa’s thugs thwart the efforts of a rival union. In their first meeting, a Chicago gangster applauds Frank Sheeran’s gravitas, and Jimmy Hoffa stares appreciatively.
That night, Frank Sheeran stays in the hotel suite of Jimmy Hoffa. Hoffa stands in his pajamas and robe as Sheeran sits on his bed, still in his suit.
When Hoffa retires to his bedroom, he closes the door, but leaves it ajar. Sheeran stares at the open door and narrates the scene: “Jimmy — he didn’t make me stay in his suite because he liked me. He made me stay with him because he didn’t want me registering my name at the hotel. This way there was no proof I was even in Chicago.”
But why does Hoffa invite Sheeran to stay in his suite? And why does Hoffa leave his bedroom door open a crack? Is leaving the door open a Hoffa quirk? Or is it an invitation to come into his bedroom with the safety net of plausible deniability? This is crucial for closeted gay men, especially in the 1960s. In the film, Frank Sheeran chooses not to walk through the partially open door.
As the relation between Hoffa and Sheeran deepens, Sheeran becomes like a consigliere to Hoffa, and the intimacy intensifies. In a key scene, Hoffa grows frustrated about a criminal case against him, and he yells and curses at his team of lawyers and advisors. Sheeran, standing in the back, storms out. Hoffa quickly follows.
“Where you going?” Hoffa asks.
“What do you mean ‘where you going,’ I [expletive] quit, that’s where I’m going,” Sheeran replies.
“What’re you quitting for?”
“No,” Hoffa coos, “That didn’t apply to you.”
“Didn’t apply to me?”
“No…Oh, come on, Frank, you know me better than that, you just know me better than that,” Hoffa pleads, as he removes Frank’s jacket. “Please, come on. It’s gonna be alright; it’s gonna be alright. Why would I say anything like that to you?”
It’s their one and only fight, and one that demonstrates the depth of their intimacy.
In the next bedroom chat, the romantic tension between Jimmy Hoffa and Frank Sheeran builds. This time they’re in one hotel room with two twin beds. Hoffa, in his pajamas, walks in and out of the bathroom as he brushes his teeth.
Then they sit on their respective beds, both in pajamas, their knees almost touching. Hoffa wants Sheeran to run for president of the local union.
“Yeah, OK, I’ll do it, yeah.” Sheeran answers.
“You mean it?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m honored.”
“I love you, I just love you, you know,” Hoffa says. “Come here, I love you. I can’t tell. Oh. Ah gee. Oh, this is so good. You know. I feel like I can breathe again.”
Hoffa says he was worried that Sheeran would say no, and is glad he said yes. He leans back in his bed. Reclined in his blue pajamas, the yellow sheet pulled up to his crotch.
“Frank,” Hoffa says, as he pulls the sheet to his chest. “You never reveal how you feel, you know? It’s hard to tell.”
You never reveal how you feel. Could Hoffa’s exaggerated appreciation and relief be code for another question Hoffa wishes to bring into the open? Running for a local union position seems quotidian for a person like Hoffa. Instead, it appears to be a displaced expression of their unspoken desire.
Hoffa, relieved and “able to breather again,” falls asleep. Sheeran has a somewhat pained expression on his face. There’s no more door between them — Sheeran could reach out and touch Hoffa. He doesn’t, and turns off the lights.
As the movie progresses. Sheeran continues to make hits for the mob. Hoffa becomes the focus of criminal investigations led by Robert Kennedy, and Hoffa eventually goes to jail.
When Hoffa gets out of jail, he reconnects with Sheeran, and they are as close as ever. But Hoffa’s ties to the mob begin to fray. Mob bosses Russell Buffalino and Fat Tony Salerno see Hoffa as being out of line as he tries to regain control over the union while disparaging the mafia, and they look to Sheeran to “calm him down.” It is like Odysseus suggesting Patroclus calm down Achilles.
Sheeran becomes the mediator. But Hoffa is stubborn, and doesn’t take seriously the veiled threats of the mob. Despite the conflict, Sheeran and Hoffa maintain their intimacy. Soon after relaying a tense message from the mob, Sheeran shifts topics, asking Hoffa if he would be the one to present an award to Sheeran at a union appreciation dinner.
Hoffa agrees, and the two clasp arms. The brief moment of intimacy is quickly broken. As they let go of each other, Hoffa turns to the TV, where the Nixon impeachment is on. John Dean is testifying, and his blonde wife is in the background.
“Ooo, that Mo Dean,” Hoffa says.
“Yeah,” Sheeran adds.
“She’s a good lookin’ broad.”
“Yeah, she’s nice.”
The dialogue seems out of place. It may be a forced reference to the political climate. What is more realistic, however, is that the sexual appraisal of a woman is a diversion and release from the homoerotic tension that has been bubbling up. Sheeran and Hoffa need to assure themselves and each other of their heterosexual bona fides. (Every closeted gay guy knows this routine.)
When Hoffa presents the award to Sheeran at the appreciation dinner, the two hug and Sheeran kisses Hoffa on the cheek. It’s natural to see De Niro kiss Pacino — we’ve seen both do plenty of kissing in mob movies and it’s expected for Italian Americans to greet with a kiss. But would the Irish American Frank Sheeran do that?
It is possible that Jimmy Hoffa and Frank Sheeran were just friends. Nothing stands out to suggest that the real Jimmy Hoffa and Frank Sheeran were gay, albeit Hoffa was described as clean and never womanized. There’s even less to suggest Sheeran was gay, but the mafia is notoriously homophobic. And Sheeran kept mum about a lot of things. Might Sheeran’s confessional in I Heard You Paint Houses be coming out about more than just his murders?
The homoerotic subtext may reflect decisions made by the actors themselves, either intentionally or subconsciously. During the making of the film, De Niro was working on a documentary and contributing material for a book about his artist father who came out as gay when De Niro was a young child. His father’s repression and pain must have been on De Niro’s mind during the making of “The Irishman.” And Pacino is always eager to play gay roles, including characters who reject a gay identity, such as Roy Cohn in “Angels in America,” who famously says that he’s not gay but just has sex with men. “Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men,” Pacino’s Roy Cohn explains to his doctor after being diagnosed with AIDS. “Homosexuals are men who know nobody and nobody knows, who have zero clout.” Roy Cohn and other powerful men in the 20th century, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, worked hard to keep their homosexual desires secret, meanwhile weaponizing accusations of homosexuality against others.
The mob would have been especially hostile about homosexuality, but the mob’s male bonding (with its homoerotic overlay) and light bantering (that often hides violent intent) is also an excellent metaphor for the gay experience. Both rely on subtext and coded language to describe their desires. The mob talks about “our friend” referring to a gun or someone that needs to be killed in the same way a gay person may talk about their “roommate.” Both Mafioso and homosexuals make implications rather than direct requests. “It is what it is,” Buffalino says when the mob has decided that Hoffa needs to end his power struggle in his union which is conflicting with mob priorities.
The mob decides that Hoffa needs to be killed, and assigns Sheeran to do it. Although surprised, reluctant, and somber, Sheeran agrees to do it.
Frank Sheeran is driven to pick up Jimmy Hoffa. They sit in the back seat next to each other and hug, a prolonged hug. Then they reach the house where Hoffa thinks that he is going to have a reconciliatory meeting with a pugnacious mob captain. Upon realizing the house is empty, Hoffa turns around to leave. Sheeran touches him gently on the shoulder as Hoffa walks toward the door, then Sheeran makes two quick shots, killing Hoffa.
At first, this murder seems to refute the theory that they were in love with each other. But in a way, it is only possible for Sheeran to kill Hoffa if they were lovers. Murder is not the type of betrayal that often occurs between friends, but it is common between romantic partners. “Can the desire to hurt a loved one emerge out of love itself?” ask Aharon Ben-Zeʼev and Ruhama Goussinsky in their book, In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims. They note that over 30 percent of women murder victims in the U.S. are from current or former husbands or boyfriends. They suggest that, in a twist of psychology, “these murders are committed out of love.”
Murder is even more possible in the case of would-be lovers. There are other examples of this, for example in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “American Beauty” where homosexual desire leads to murder. For Frank Sheeran, the killing of Jimmy Hoffa, the man he loves, removes the risk of acting on his erotic desire, which must have been an intense source of angst.
In fact, something like this occurred in one of Pacino’s earlier roles in “Cruising,” a controversial film about a cop who goes undercover as a gay man to find a serial killer. Pacino’s cop visits night clubs, dances with men. Meanwhile, he befriends a gay neighbor in his apartment building. By entering the gay club scene, Pacino’s character begins to question himself, and develops desires for his gay neighbor. In a twist, after catching the murderer, Pacino’s character murders the gay neighbor thereby destroying the possibility of acting on his homosexual desires.
The final scene in “The Irishman” seems to provide confirmation of the gay narrative. The movie shifts to the present. Sheeran is consigned to a wheelchair in a nursing home. All his friends and associates are dead. He meets regularly with a priest, who tries to draw him out on his sins. Sheeran claims to feel no regret.
But there is a twist. Like the mystery of ‘rosebud’ in the venerated “Citizen Kane,” Scorsese uses the last shot to provide an answer to what Sheeran’s life was all about.
As the priest is leaving Sheeran’s room in the nursing home, Sheeran asks the priest for a favor: “Don’t shut the door all the way. I don’t like that. Just leave it open a little bit.”
By evoking the door open “a little bit,” Sheeran confirms he still holds Jimmy Hoffa close to his heart. It is reminiscent of the end of “Brokeback Mountain” when Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) visits the childhood home of his recently deceased, long-time secret lover, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaul). Hidden in the back of Jack Twist’s closet are two shirts, still dirty and caked with blood from their first summer together decades ago. Twist had kept Del Mar’s shirt all those years, and it signifies their love and all the possibilities that never were. So too is the door ajar for De Niro’s Frank Sheeran: a memory of an intimate moment from the past and of love that couldn’t be fully expressed.
In Scorsese’s last shot in the “Irishman,” we see Sheeran sitting in his wheelchair through the partially open door. Then the screen cuts to black. “In the still of the night I held you, held you tight. ’Cause I love, love you so. Promise I’ll never let you go. In the still of the night […]” The music plays as the credits roll. “I’ll hope and I’ll pray to keep your precious love.”
Unlike the cowboys from “Brokeback Mountain,” Sheeran and Hoffa may have never consummated their love.
But that’s often the reality of romance. “It is what it is.”