Peter Bart: ‘The Irishman’s Mega Media Bow Designed To Establish Its Clout As Awards-Worthy, And Binge-Worthy

The Irishman New York Film Festival
Joe Pesci, left, Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel on Friday in New York Andrew H. Walker/Shutterstock

The imminent multimedia opening of The Irishman is expected to defy all precedents, embracing a veritable blitzkrieg of awards screenings, streamer promotions, celebrity celebrations, podcasts and even a monthlong run at a Broadway theater.

At three-and-a-half hours, The Irishman will be both ubiquitous and, on some levels, confusing (more on that later).

Netflix’s fervid campaign is designed to persuade Hollywood that Martin Scorsese’s gangster saga is the embodiment of an Oscar movie. Its director has gone out of his way in public remarks to distinguish “cinema” – his movie – from Marvel-type superhero releases.

Indeed, some senior filmgoers may see The Irishman as a fascinating throwback to another budget-busting, three hour-plus, mega-publicized epic of four decades ago — but with some stark contrasts.

Reds, starring Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, vividly reflected attitudes of that generation: It told a personal odyssey, intensely political, yet romantic, its structure novelistic and sporadically confusing. So were its flights of ideology, pitting a crusading leftist icon against a feminist zealot.

Its shoot, in fact, was itself steeped in newsworthy conflict: Would the Beatty-Keaton relationship endure, either in the movie or in actuality? Would an irascible Nicholson bolt?

Questions even loomed over its financial backing. Paramount’s decision to underwrite its initial costs reflected the whim of its eccentric corporate chairman Charles Bluhdorn, who knew the film was over-ambitious and under-budgeted.

The cost of Reds ultimately rivaled that of The Irishman (north of $150 million in today’s dollars), but while Netflix’s backing was firmly in place, Reds had to be regularly rescued by celebrity investors drawing on emergency bank loans and exotic currency manipulations.

Warren Beatty Reds Oscars
Warren Beatty with his Oscar for “Reds” in 1982 AP/Shutterstock

In the end, Reds survived to receive ebullient reviews (“best romantic adventure since Lawrence of Arabia,” said the New York Times) and also glean nine Oscar nominations and three wins (including a Directing kudo for Beatty).

By contrast, The Irishman, riveting and impeccably directed, emerges not as a romantic adventure but as a grandiose Goodfellas, spanning generations and reuniting Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Its mood is elegiac – “sinful and sorrowful” — the words of a priest that are later intoned by De Niro. De-aging technology enables portrayal of the characters over decades, the story woven together by recurring voice-overs.

The Irishman, in all its ambitions, reflects Netflix’s aggressive strategy in dealing with a growing band of rivals — familiar ones like Disney and WarnerMedia and newcomers like Apple, which just signed an expensive new deal with Alfonso Cuarón (Netflix backed his Roma). By contrast, another rival, Amazon, is pulling back on its pricey slate, scrapping a wide Imax release of The Aeronauts.

Given the competitive landscape, this year’s awards competition takes on a special urgency.  While The Irishman carries all the credentials of awards respectability, its running time may represent both an advantage and disadvantage, which takes us back to Scorsese’s definition of “cinema.”

Several critics have suggested that The Irishman could be regarded not only as “cinema,” with its monthlong run at the plexes, but also as a limited TV series designed for binge watching. If that view gains credence, could Oscar support be somewhat undermined?

A committee of the Academy a year ago undertook the job of defining “What is a movie?” It has yet to come forth with an answer.

Reds represented the ultimate Oscar movie, and Scorsese’s grandiose Goodfellas may make the question even more abstruse.

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