It’s not hard to see what drew two of the finest actors of their generation to play James R. Hoffa. Sure, the man spent decades in the public eye, led what was then the nation’s largest labor union, sparred with the Kennedys and disappeared in one of the quintessential unsolved mysteries in recent history. But he’s also a great character, a sizzle reel of big, boisterous speeches, roaring dressing-downs and showy theatricality. It’s the kind of role an actor can really sink his teeth into, especially if he’s known for chewing a bit of scenery — a delicacy frequently enjoyed by both Jack Nicholson, who played the title role in the 1992 “Hoffa,” and Al Pacino, currently garnering awards buzz for his work as Hoffa in “The Irishman.”
It’s frankly surprising it took so long for Hoffa to get the big-screen treatment. “The Enemy Within,” Robert F. Kennedy’s 1960 book on his congressional mob investigations and dust-ups with Hoffa, was optioned by 20th Century Fox shortly after its publication, with the “On the Waterfront” screenwriter Budd Schulberg penning the adaptation. But Ronald Goldfarb, one of Kennedy’s colleagues, claimed that it was abandoned because of Teamster intimidation.
So “Hoffa” didn’t arrive in theaters until more than three decades later. Though early casting discussions centered, ironically enough, on “The Irishman’s” Pacino and Robert De Niro, the director Danny DeVito had only one choice: Nicholson, a fellow Jersey boy with whom he’d first worked on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” (Both men were also particularly bankable in 1992, thanks to their consecutive turns as Batman villains.) Fox had high hopes for the production, with Joe Roth telling The Los Angeles Times, “Want to hear the early-morning line? Nicholson’s 4-to-5 to win the Oscar on this one.”
Nicholson did not win the Oscar — he wasn’t even nominated, though he was up for supporting actor that year for “A Few Good Men,” released two weeks earlier. “Hoffa” needed enthusiastic reviews and solid box office to gather awards momentum, and it found neither; notices were mixed and it barely earned back half of its nearly $50 million budget (about $90 million in today’s dollars), which may have been a factor in all those “no”s from the major studios that led Martin Scorsese to take “The Irishman” to Netflix.
There are, to be sure, some similarities between the films. Both start at the end of the story, near Hoffa’s death, and flash back to the events that brought him there; both portray Hoffa as stubborn, combustible, casually anti-Italian, vehemently anti-Kennedy and utterly intolerant of lateness. (Alas, Nicholson’s Hoffa indulges in no ice cream sundaes.) But Hoffa, while only a supporting character in “The Irishman,” is the focus of “Hoffa,” which covers a much larger span of his life, particularly his early, dirty work of making the Teamsters (and himself) a force to be reckoned with.
The two actors diverge markedly in their portrayals. Nicholson immersed himself in the character, taking pains to physically transform himself into the union chief, via nose putty, eyebrow lifts and other makeup tricks: “Lips clamped, jaws screwed down, forehead willed into an unlikely cube, the kisser on Jack Nicholson’s Jimmy Hoffa seems sculpted with a wrench,” J. Hoberman wrote in The Village Voice. Nicholson further altered his most distinctive feature, his voice, twisting its devilish purr into Hoffa’s stridently nasal Midwestern twang (“Dere’s a lot more dere for us”).
Though Pacino replicates the labor leader’s unmistakable haircut, and his raspy voice occasionally finds its way around a Detroit-Chicago dialect, the actor doesn’t particularly look or sound like Hoffa in “The Irishman.” This is by design. Though he’s played several real historical figures in recent years (Roy Cohn, Jack Kevorkian, Phil Spector, Joe Paterno), he’s steered clear of outright impersonation. “You have to find the fictionalization of it in some way,” he explained to The New York Times. “You have to find the drama and the character. Because otherwise, do a documentary on someone.”
Which is not to say he doesn’t do the work. “When you research Hoffa,” he told Variety, “there’s so much footage on everybody, so you watch it, you study it. You think about it, you engage in it, and you really devote your time to that, who this guy is, and try to absorb him.” That last idea is key; Pacino “absorbs” Hoffa, but what comes out onscreen is a combination of both their qualities.
This was not always the case. Pacino and his 1970s contemporaries De Niro and Dustin Hoffman were seen, perhaps oversimplistically, as Method-mad chameleons, unrecognizable from role to role. Nicholson, who achieved stardom around the same time, was more in the mold of the classic movie stars, who honed and refined a persona over the course of a career and filtered characters through it; in the decades that followed, he mostly played variations on the madman or the charming rogue (or, sometimes, both simultaneously).
Thus, because his face and (especially) his voice are so familiar, and so rarely vary from character to character, the contrast in “Hoffa” is jarring — this feels less like a performance than an imitation. We’re always keenly aware that we’re looking at Jack, playing someone else. (“He winds up doing Nicholson shtick in Hoffa makeup,” Terrence Rafferty wrote in The New Yorker.) It’s somehow easier to accept Pacino as Hoffa, even though his interpretation is rife with his own vocal tics and physical mannerisms, which have become more consistently omnipresent in his performances since … well, since 1992, when he won the Oscar for “Scent of a Woman,” the Oscar that Joe Roth predicted was Nicholson’s to lose.
Pacino is, no doubt, aided by the fact that “The Irishman” is a far superior picture to “Hoffa.” The latter is handsome and ambitious, but ultimately muddled; the film, and Nicholson’s performance, is so focused on externals that it never gives us a sense of the man, or his inner life. Pacino’s work may not boast the painstaking authenticity of Nicholson’s, but it has something more valuable: the richness and humanity of an old pro, unafraid to see this flawed man’s qualities in himself.