It’s America’s birth month! So, in true Required Viewing fashion, we thematically tackled one of the only Leonardo DiCaprio movies never seen by Annemarie: Gangs of New York. It’s a period piece as only Scorcese could imagine one. It has a marvelously appointed cast. It’s quite long. And it’s narrative of “native” Americans versus immigrants trying to make their way in the land of dreams is painfully relevant once again.
AM, kick us off with all of the classics — what did you think of Gangs of New York, why did it make the list, and how glad are you that we don’t live in wooden tenement era New York?
A: My fandom and longtime love of Leo is well documented, so I don’t know how I missed this one. It’s probably because his hair in this isn’t great, and I can be a fickle hair mistress, especially where he’s concerned.
I had also heard lots over the years about how great Daniel Day-Lewis was in his role, and how awful Cameron Diaz was in her role. We’ll get to the acting later, but as for my overview? I enjoyed this quite a bit, and I bet it made the list because Brooke endeavors to make me watch the entire Leo Oeuvre, bad hair or not.
I was just reading a piece about how Americans have a split idea of “identity” and what makes someone “American” or not. Historically, we vacillate wildly between freely swinging open doors and restrictive policies that are worse than closed doors (read: racist laws that target Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and many more). So in the time of the film, just as in 2018, we’re in the “worse than closed doors” phase. Someday soon, we’ll relax, realize yet again that people don’t have to speak perfect English in order to have a life here, and we’ll all get along for awhile.
Brooke, before we get into specifics, tell me why you like this and does its presence on the list have anything to do with Leo’s hair?
B: I mean, we all know I love a period piece. And I also love a Marty Scorsese crime drama. Gangs of New York is both in one go, so I sort of have no choice but to have some kind of a fondness for this movie. For me, it’s a once in a very great while picture, but when I do watch it, I always get pretty swept up in it. I actually never gave a thought to Leo’s hair until you brought it up about five minutes into our viewing party, so I can’t say it had any kind of an impact on my selection, but I’m definitely not as bothered by it as you are. Actually, what is your beef? It’s just a bit long and appropriately unkempt for the era?
Anyway, this movie actually made this list for three reasons: 1. production value. 2. Leo. 3. a saga about the hot, bloody days of Civil War-era New York felt right for a July 4th event.
Now that you know what inspired the selection, let’s hear your take on DDL’s iconic performance, Leo’s overshadowed turn and Cameron Diaz’ unfairly dismissed efforts (I have thoughts, obvi).
A: First of all, I know this will be an unpopular opinion, but I can’t say I liked Scorsese’s direction here. There was a lot of fancy flash that felt unnecessary to me, and took me out of what is otherwise a very realistically adapted film. They built a giant backlot in Italy! The costumes and dialogue and music all feel real, gritty, and faithfully recreated. But I wasn’t a fan of the filming tricks, specifically the slow-motion fight antics. You know I can’t really watch fight scenes anyway, so this made it more difficult through my fingers to view.
Anyway, to the question at hand, although I’m sure you have thoughts on my direction comments. First, the obsessive that is Daniel Day-Lewis. Previously, I had seen him in Last of the Mohicans and (as previously discussed), Phantom Thread. The former I don’t really recall having a strong impression of him (or that film, to be honest, it just didn’t stay with me at all), and the latter he was intended to be a polarizing figure that of course, we didn’t love. I do love reading stories about method actors and how intensely they take their craft; it’s something to admire for the most part. Would that be obnoxious to work with, especially given that we read stories about how DDL refused to break character AFTER shooting had completed? Of course. But the results speak for themselves. The thing I like about the method way of things is that the person really learns how to do the things their character does, and learns to speak and even think like their character. That makes for an intensity that you don’t get otherwise. So yes, I think DDL’s praise here is well deserved.
Leo never turns in a crappy performance, and this is no exception. He’s strong here, and he and Diaz have some great chemistry. It did bother me a bit that both of their accents seemed to come and go with impunity, but I think that’s also a nod to the fact that they’re both shiesty characters who spend most of their time deceiving and robbing those around them. I don’t think Leo’s doing anything particularly special here, but I do think the criticism leveled on Diaz is unfair. I was incredibly invested in her story, more so than what Leo was doing pretending to be a disciple of DDL’s. Of course, that was going to blow up, but I was never sure where Diaz’s character was going and found it to be much more enjoyable.
As for Leo’s hair. I cannot. Literally, every role he has where the historical period requires greasy long locks, I just wrinkle my nose. The worst offender was his hair in Man in the Iron Mask. UCK. Gangs’ hair isn’t quite as offensive, but I think it comes down to the fact that he’s got a specific head shape that requires shorter hair. I get that short hair wouldn’t work in many of the roles he takes, but that’s my stance. #TeamShortHairLeo4Ever
Brooke, same q’s back at ya. Plus: if you were to take on one of the thief “job descriptions” Leo runs through when introducing Diaz as a turtledove, which would you be?
B: I actually quite agree with your directorial notes. Goodfellas is one of my all-time favorite pictures and I think the speed and sharp cuts Scorsese uses in that 1991 film feel at once fresher and more timeless than anything in this 2002 entry. Gangs feels dated where Goodfellas is as vital now as it was all of those years ago. I’ve never considered it before, but perhaps ditching the slow-mo and the excessive camera trickery is what made The Wolf of Wall Street feel like such a return to form. But, I’m getting off track.
You wanted to know my thoughts on the three main performances here. I have no beef with the accolades DDL has received for this performance. It’s great, and one of the only characters he’s ever created that I’m inclined to revisit. But I have to be honest, like you, I would rather watch an entire movie all about Jenny than about either Amsterdam Vallon or William Cutting. Likewise, Leo is doing great things as Leo does, but his character is so propelled by revenge that he almost feels like he doesn’t have any agency. He just exists to react to The Butcher.
Jenny, on the other hand, is a woman who captivates both of them but exists quite of her own accord. That she’s self-possessed without coming off as a femme fatale, is, I think, down to Cameron Diaz. I actually love what she does here. She projects a toughness that must come from her life as a female pickpocket (bludget) and girl alone in this world but also shows the panache that makes her capable of blending in as the help in rich neighborhoods and robbing them blind (turtledove). I think this duality is established early on quite deliberately and she does rather an amazing job of working both sides of it into her respective relationships with Vallon and Cutting. The accent on her (and Leo) doesn’t bother me because it seems like a choice more than a failure. As immigrants tossed into a city that is an actual melting pot at this point, it makes sense to me that the brogue would be diluted and shifted to incorporate the world all around.
As for your most important question, I should think I would be a turtledove. I like the idea of being a double threat like Jenny, but let’s be real, I’m not quite bold enough to slam into people and swipe stuff. Putting on a dress and swooping into a giant house seems to be more my speed of crime. And yes, I am a little seduced by the idea that it takes sand to be a turtledove.
Okay AM, which would you be? And talk to me a bit about the levels of vice and crime happening in this movie. We’ve got heroin, prostitution, voter fraud, murder in plain daylight, riots in the streets. Does the idea of existing in that New York for even a second give you as much anxiety as it gives me?
A: I mean, can I opt into the opulent life on 5th Avenue instead? I don’t know if I’m good enough of a liar to be a turtledove, there’s no way my lack of coordination would allow me to be a pickpocket, and I cannot fathom sex working. Perhaps I could do a more long con, a la Don Draper in Mad Men? I know that’s far and away from this universe, and that does require more long-term lying, but you could be free to be vague if you were a helpful employee. Show up and be a maid even though no one hired me? I think I can handle that.
Five Points is proclaimed to be one of the worst places on the planet, and it feels like it. There’s a trapped animal energy given to it in the film, that everyone is clambering to improve their lot by any means necessary, and it’s not the most shocking thing to see a dead politician or friend out in the square when you wake up in the morning. It does give me a great deal of fear, more than anxiety, to think about having to live in such circumstances. Frankly, if Leo hadn’t been driven by revenge and rage, he’d have probably ended up in the service of DDL anyway, given his relative lack of opportunities in the neighborhood. Either that, or he’d have found his way quickly to the Union army to battle the South plus all the nasty bugs they passed around.
Yikes. No wonder they rioted.
B: And on that cheerful note, let’s close the books on Gangs of New York.
When next you see us, we’ll be leaving that big city life behind for the cornfields of Iowa and Kevin Costner.
Main image credit: Miramax
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