Part of coming from an Irish family means knowing how to appreciate a sad story. Our songs are either about drinking or someone dying. We get a President, and he gets shot. 500 years of oppression, a famine caused by greed, and you’ve sure got something to drink about. Things are looking a lot better in the Emerald Isle these days, so maybe that’s why this year’s Oscar winner for best song was from Ireland, the sweet romantic drama Once.
It’s not a musical per se, since no one breaks into song for no reason, but it’s the story of a busker on the streets of Dublin who meets a woman who walks past him every day as he plays the guitar and sings for tourist’s coins. One night she’s walking home and hears him belting out one of his own songs instead of the standards he plays for the tourist trade, and asks him about it. They talk and he finds out that she plays the piano, and he works at a vacuum repair shop, and she needs her Hoover fixed, and things lead from there.
He’s got a song he’s working on, “Falling Slowly,” that they practice on in the music store since she can’t afford a piano. It’s not your typical romantic film. He’s coming off a bad relationship, and she’s raising her daughter with her mom at home, and while they don’t exactly struggle for pennies the story never escapes the reality of having to work for a living. There’s a bit of movie luck later in the film when they record the song at a studio and need a few grand to pay for it, but it’s all very low-key and the simple story is quite well written, with enough humor to lighten things up between tunes.
It was shot in 17 days for a pittance with two musicians without acting experience as leads. Glen Hasard from The Framers is the Guy, and Markéta Irglová is the Girl. Hasard was in The Commitments, another popular movie about an Irish band trying to break into R&B. So he has acted before, but only plays guitar players. The actors have a naturalism that makes the story utterly believable, without having an improvised or fake-reality feel. The camera is unsteady, but has none of that jerky zoom for a close-up and then pull back a notch crap. It lingers on its subjects and endears them to us. I’m not even a big fan of this kind of music, but when they’re practicing, you can’t look away.
The song deservedly won the Oscar, and it is the only thing known to man that can silence Firecracker’s living room. Both times “Falling Slowly” has played, on Oscar night and when we watched the DVD, we all shut our mouths and listened. And we are not quiet people. Thankfully it hasn’t been overplayed, but I can imagine it getting diluted and becoming one of those songs you can’t stand hearing anymore. I call it the “Runaway Train” effect. Soul Asylum got killed by its own popularity in the 90’s, and I still can’t listen to that song all the way through.
Part of what makes Once so good is that while it tells an old story- two people who aren’t looking for love but happen to find it- it does so without falling back on hackneyed character types. Female musicians and singers are often pigeon-holed as a pretty voice with some emotional flaw that the guy has to overcome, but here she is the strong and sensible one, and we never doubt it for a minute. That’s pretty amazing for an 18-year old who hasn’t acted before. Look out, Ellen Page. There is tension of course, but it’s handled with subtle panache and no one goes stomping off screaming, and there are no annoying misunderstandings that would have been averted if they’d just spoken up.
The ending is bittersweet but perfect, and actually it’s a beginning. As in that other understated, excellent romance Before Sunrise, these are two people we meet briefly and wish we could get to know better. We know the guy won’t be coming home to fix vacuum cleaners after he takes his single to London. And maybe the girl will be his producer, with her savvy sensibility. It’s a story we’ll have to finish in our heads, and that’s the best place for it. Fairy tales can’t go on too long before we question them.
It is a truth generally accepted that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who like the Duke, and those who don’t. This is a man whose biggest promoter, John Ford, once said, “I didn’t know the big sonofabitch could act!” Much of his career depended on presence alone, but when called upon, he could act with the best of them- it’s just that his best roles are pretty unlikeable. He’s often cast as the old, violent kind of man that was needed to “tame” the west, but is no longer needed, or just another macho loner. Here he gets to play the lead in what’s essentially a romantic comedy, albeit one that plays on quaint Irish customs that were long gone when the movie was made 50 years ago. It has a deep and abiding sense of nostalgic for the Ould Country but knows when to play it tongue in cheek. Like any good Irish film the dialogue is sharp and witty.
The story begins with the Duke as Sean Thornton, a retired boxer returning to the village he grew up in but left in early childhood. He plans to buy his childhood home and settle down. he has a secret and goes to church to pray, where he meets Mary Kate Danaher, a fiery redhead who could only be played by Maureen O’Hara. They have the sort of immediate dislike that is destined to smolder into romance, and movie does not disappoint. When this becomes apparent, old Sean gets his first lesson in Irish etiquette, when her brother “Red Will” doesn’t approve of the courtship and she won’t have anything to do with him. Will is played by one of my favorite character actors, Victor McLaglen, who played alongside John Wayne in many films and won the Oscar back in ’35 for The Informer. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this film, as well. He’s an irascible force of nature, a hulking Irish brute with a wicked sense of humor, though in this film he leans toward stubborn S.O.B. instead of “lovable galoot.”
Eventually Red gives in and the courtship is allowed to commence. Duke wants to pull up in front of her cottage and honk the buggy horn like he’s back in the States, but he learns that courtship is done with a chaperone, under whose watchful eye, it is assured no “pattyfingers” will ensue.
Of course they get away and the pattyfingers commence. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, they get caught in the rain in a graveyard and weather the storm. Thankfully this lets them speed past the other stages of courtship and be married early into the picture, but don’t let that trick you into thinking it’s all sunshine and roses. On their wedding day we learn that her brother was tricked into giving her hand in marriage because the whole town told him that his sweetheart Sarah wanted to marry him. When he arrogantly asks for her hand in marriage at the party, without the proper courtship, he’s spurned and humiliated. He assumes that Sean put the town up to it, so he withholds his sister’s dowry, knocking the coins to the floor. And sucker-punches Sean out cold.
Now here’s where the two cultures clash and the film gets credit for using the “misunderstanding” plot device in a way that actually works. She demands that the dowry be paid for the principle of the thing, and to force Sean to confront her brother and be respected by him. But he, being American, thinks it is shameful to beg for money that they don’t need, and he doesn’t want to fight anymore, because he killed a man in the ring. As each holds stubbornly to their principles, they ignore the wedge in their marriage. She even withholds her “Irish Rose” if you know what I mean.
If you don’t know what I mean, on her wedding night she locks the bedroom door, so he kicks it down and kisses her before retiring to the parlor in his sleeping bag. For a moment I’d thought they’d go the Rhett Butler route, but he’s a gentleman in this picture. He just throws her on the bed and breaks it, to give us the subtle-as-a-hammer “this marriage has a broken bed!” symbolism.
In typical Roman Catholic fashion, Mary Kate goes to Father Lonergan for help, but he’s more interested in catching salmon than helping her and her husband spawn. So, unable to comprehend his stubbornness, she leaves home to take the train out of town one day. This leads to the infamous “Where’s my tay!” when he wakes up and finds the teapot empty. He hasn’t been getting any “tay” since the wedding night, either. His fiery redhead wife finally found a way to get him to look past his own customs and follow hers. In a particularly delightful scene for us men, he grabs her off the train and drags her to her brother, to throw her back unless he gives up her dowry. The whole town is excited that the American finally gets it, and follow them on their way.
Oh, those Irish and their strange ways! By tossing her back at his feet, he gains her brother’s respect. He gives them the dowry, which they immediately toss in a nearby fire to show him it was the principle of the thing. Will tries for another sucker-punch, but the Duke socks him in the gut. Satisfied that her husband is not a pussy, Mary Kate heads home to put supper on the table. And we assume, to fix that bed.
I love this movie beyond all reason, probably because John Wayne kicks Maureen O’Hara in the ass and drags her across a field. Even though it’s played for laughs, the first time you see it you can’t believe it. Then a little old lady comes up and offers him a stick to “beat the lovely lady with.” John Ford was a movie-making genius and knows when to go over the top, and he does so here. This is like the Irish version of “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” in some ways, where only an Irish-American director could get away with the jokes he makes here. Michaleen the chaperone is a sly wee leprechaun of a fellow with the immortal line, “when I drink whiskey, I drink whiskey. And when I drink water, I drink water!” when asked if he wants whiskey and water. And when he chases the lovers in his horsecart, the steed halts in front of the pub, since it knows that’s the only place its master would hurry to.
The “gift of gab” isn’t given short shrift here, and everyone gets in on the act. Even Red Will, in his nearly thankless role as the ornery brother, says “he’ll regret to his dying day. If he lives that long!” So while you might watch Darby O’Gill and the Little People on St. Paddy’s day, or perhaps The Secret of Roan Inish, or The Wind That Shakes the Barley or My Left Foot if you’re in an arty and somber mood, I highly recommend you reach for this classic and give the Duke a chance whether you like him or not. He wasn’t always the stolid drawling tough guy, and this is one of his best roles.