BLOODBROTHERS (1978 | Drama | 1hr 56min | United States)
Set in the Italian blue collar culture of The Bronx in the 1970s, Bloodbrothers (1978) is a variation on the coming-of-age story. Stony De Coco is a young man just out of school with little idea of what he really wants out of life. While his father and his uncle map out a future following in their footsteps as a union construction worker, Stony takes a position helping kids at a local hospital, a job that gives him great satisfaction but puts him in conflict with a father that has definite ideas about masculinity.
Richard Gere, then a rising star thanks to attention-grabbing performances in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) and Days of Heaven (1978), takes third billing behind Paul Sorvino (playing his uncle, Chubby) and Tony Lo Bianco (his father). They provide the boisterous, sometimes violent backdrop to the film while Lelia Goldoni (as Stony’s unstable mother) helps set the operatic family life with an emotional hysteria that matches his father’s temper, but it is very much Stony’s story. Gere received good notices as the sensitive young man trying to maintain the pose of toughness and machismo his father demands.
Bloodbrothers is based on the second novel by Richard Price, then the young author of The Wanderers (which was turned into a 1979 movie). Though not Italian himself, he was surrounded by the Italian-American culture and drew from the lives of his friends for the characters. “Maybe I thought of my Italian friends’ families as more externally dramatic than my own,” suggested Price years later. Like The Wanderers before it, it has autobiographical elements; Price drew from his own experiences working summers on a construction crew while attending college. “Stony was a stand-in for an entire crew of kids that were born around 1949 into families that were basically blue collar. There’s a lot of me in him, but not all of me.”
Price went on to adapt The Color of Money for Martin Scorsese, became a prolific screenwriter of the 1980s and 1990s, and penned such acclaimed novels as Clockers and Lush Life, but he was still a young author when his book was bought in 1976 and the producers brought in Walter Newman to script the film. Newman earned nominations from the Academy Awards and Writers Guild of America for his adaptation.
Director Robert Mulligan learned his craft directing live TV in the era of original television plays and made his name in film with a series of intelligent, mature dramas marked by fine performances, including To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Inside Daisy Clover (1965), and Summer of ’42 (1971). He shot exteriors on location in New York City, including scenes shot at an abandoned construction site at City College, to capture the color and texture of the culture, with interiors filmed on sound stages back in Hollywood.
The film also gave actress Marilu Henner her first significant big screen role, playing a club waitress who supports Stony’s personal ambitions. By the time the film was released in the fall of 1978, however, she already debuted in the role that made her famous: Elaine O’Connor, the sole female cabbie in the hit sitcom Taxi. Robert Englund is featured in a small but memorable role years before he became a horror star in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and you can spot Danny Aiello, then a journeyman actor, in a bit role as a member of the construction crew.
by Sean Axmaker
As much as Robert Mulligan is associated with the South, for To Kill a Mockingbird and The Man in the Moon, he was actually born in the Bronx. A few years after his tepidly received L.A. noir The Nickel Ride (1975), he adapted Richard Price’s Bronx-set second novel, Bloodbrothers, which was released in ’76 (the film came out in September of 1978). An epithet-laced trawl through an Italian working class family, Mulligan toned-down the language (from the book’s first page: “His hand smelled from that oily shit inside Trojans”), but captured the twitchy, carnal energies that fueled such texturally dirty talk.
Robert Surtees, who had shot Mulligan’s Summer of ’42 (‘71) and The Other (’72), returns as the director of photography, although the the gauzy images of those films are replaced with hard-edged, dark blue tones. Clearly Mulligan was impressed with Jordan Cronenweth’s similarly detailed work in Nickel Ride. The film opens in a helicopter shot of a smoggy Bronx as night falls, crossing highways and subways until there is a cut to a crane shot that eases onto the facade of Banion’s Bar, seemingly the palpitating heart of the borough. This amiable joint, the local watering hole for the construction worker’s union, is named after wheelchair bound Irish carouser/owner Banion (played with immense warmth by Kenneth McMillan) who trades handjob jokes and chummy backslaps with the volatile De Coco brothers, the insecure macho teddy bears whose family is the center of the film.
Banion’s is more home to the brothers than their walk-up apartments, filled as they are with the disheartening markers of adulthood like children, wives and bills. Tommy De Coco (Tony Lo Bianco) and his brother Chubby (Paul Sorvino) are the patriarch of a struggling clan, with Tommy’s wife Maria (Lelia Goldoni) on the brink of a nervous breakdown, while his fragile, feminine youngest son has been browbeaten about his weight into anorexia. Tommy’s hope lies with his eldest, Stony (Richard Gere), a handsome, reassuringly hetero playboy who is about to enter the construction union. But alas, Stony has dreams of escape, implied in the cut from Banion’s to the elaborately outfitted cavern-disco he frequents, with faux-stalactites dripping from the ceiling in honor of his own raging, confused hormones. Focused by the straight talk of liberated chick Annette (an inflammatory Marilu Henner) Stony shirks construction for a job as a recreation assistant at the local hospital, fulfilling his dream of working with kids. Tommy is incensed, and Stony has to choose between family or freedom.
The script by studio veteran Walter Newman (Ace in the Hole) is overstuffed with incident (and received an Oscar nomination for it), and Mulligan embraces the abundance by pushing for an across-the-board hysterical style of acting. This is grating and invigorating in turn, with Tony Lo Bianco performing as an over-gesticulating stereotype, while Paul Sorvino’s papa bear routine secrets away layers of pain that well up in his often overfilled eyes (although he does have the benefit of the most emotionally naked monologue in the film). Richard Gere is effective in mumbly James Dean mode, a figure of naive charm starting to become aware of a world outside the Bronx. Although, as with all of Mulligan’s coming-of-age films, this knowledge is rife with dangers, as Stony and his brother drive off into the unknown, with only a few bucks to their name, but a dream of independence just over the horizon.
by R. Emmet Sweeney
From Machismo and Hollywood’s Working Class
by Peter Biskind and Barbara Ehrenreich
In the late 1970s, the movies introduced a new, and politically intriguing, perspective on the male condition. After decades of cowboys, detectives, spies, and earnest young scientists, the cameras turned–long enough to establish a genre–on working-class men, in particular the white, ethnic variety. Previously encountered in the postwar period mainly as enlisted men in World War II films, working-class males now zoomed to individual prominence as the heroes of Saturday Night Fever, Blue Collar, Bloodbrothers, Rocky I and II, Paradise Alley, FIST, and a handful of others.
Politically, these films fall into three categories: liberal, conservative, and ambivalent. The ambivalent films, such as Breaking Away, romanticize the neighborhood, or in this case the town, but give it up anyway to go on to something better. The liberal films, such as Saturday Night Fever, Bloodbrothers, and The Wanderers, embody a frank middle-class attack on working-class life, a “modern” attack on ethnic enclaves, and a “feminist” attack on machismo. Although they contain a strain of romanticism and nostalgia, the ethnic world of the neighborhood is seen as narrow and parochial compared to the liberal and humane values of the world-out-there. The extended family is either ridiculed or patronized as a hotbed of social pathology. Domesticated women are bad, while career-oriented, upwardly mobile, “liberated” women are good. Working-class men are basically pigs, and must learn to become more sensitive.
Conservative films romanticize the ethnic working-class community and the traditional masculine values it nurtures. Far from attacking the family, the neighborhood, the working class, and machismo as narrow, parochial, and stultifying, films like Rocky I and II, Paradise Alley, Moment by Moment, and The Deer Hunter cherish them and use romanticized images of them as a standpoint from which to assail society for being decadent and corrupt. They value traditionalism and attack “modern,” melting-pot values, often in frankly racist and sexist terms.
In Robert Mulligan’s Bloodbrothers, the masculine alternatives are laid out with stark clarity: Stony De Coco (Richard Gere) can either be a “man,” like his father, Tommy (Tony Lo Bianco), and his uncle (Paul Sorvino), or he can–in the film’s terms–"grow up." In practical terms, Stony has to decide between following in his father’s footsteps as a construction worker or defying his father to work as a children’s recreation assistant in a hospital. It’s a choice between two worlds. On the one side are the union and the family–patriarchal, parochial, but able to command the loyalty of blood: “The blood that runs in your veins–that’s De Coco blood. You’re ours!” Tommy De Coco bellows at his son. And the attractions of the blue-collar world are real: the barroom camaraderie, the joy of a job well done, the loving ties between the older men. When Stony goes to work with his father for the first time, the hard-hitting score reaches a crescendo as the camera pans dizzily upward at the shell of the half-constructed building. There is no particular dramatic point to this sudden surge of adrenaline (after all, people go to work every day)–the drumbeats celebrate masculinity itself, father and son united in a world of men.
On the other side is the unfamiliar middle-class world of social service, which allows a more nurturing, softer side of Stony’s personality to emerge. Anticipating Dustin Hoffman’s Kramer (of Kramer vs. Kramer), Stony finds that he likes nothing better than being with kids, hard as that is to explain to dad. “A recreation assistant? That’s woman’s work,” Tommy scornfully tells his son. As in Breaking Away, the conflict between father and son centers on what is acceptable male behavior. Dave’s (Dennis Christopher) father in Breaking Away shudders at his son’s affinity for opera and draws the line when Dave (in imitation of Italian bicycle racers) shaves his legs. In both films, traditional masculinity–for all its allure–is constrictive. Feminization opens up a broader world.
In Bloodbrothers, as in other films of this genre, this message is articulated by a young supporting actress. Stony’s girlfriend, Annette (Marilu Henner), was a social flop in high school because she “put out,” but what was regarded as promiscuity a few years ago is now regarded as sexual liberation and defiance of hypocrisy. She makes Stony treat her like a human being, not a sex object, and tells him that she likes him because “you know there’s something more out there besides playing cool, macho, and getting laid. You could even go to college, get a degree.” Against the ties of family and class she pits self-interest. “Worry about your own ass,” she tells Stony, “‘cause your dad’s is way outta reach.”
In both Bloodbrothers and Saturday Night Fever, the spokespeople for upward mobility and feminized masculinity are women, Annette and Stephanie. They are single women on the make, the kind who are punished for their independence by death in a conservative film like Looking for Mr. Goodbar. But they still play woman’s perennial role in American folklore, as the tamer of men. In the films of the 1950s, domesticated women showed alienated or defiant men the way to adjustment. In these films of the 1970s, the “liberated” woman takes on the same task, chiding the men for their boyish machismo and prodding them to accede to the “realities” middle-class men have already accepted.
A similar female figure passes through The Wanderers (1979). She is herself middle class, inexplicably slumming among the film’s ethnic youth gangs. At the end of the film, the hero is forced into an engagement with a neighborhood girl, but he bolts from his own party when he catches a glimpse of his true love walking outside. He follows her for two blocks and suddenly he’s out of the Bronx and into Greenwich Village. She vanishes into a dimly lit club where a Dylan clone is singing “The Times They Are A-Changing.” But not our hero, who knows he will never fit into his lost love’s faintly androgynous, bohemian world. It’s back to the trattoria under the wing of his Hawaiian-shirted, mafioso father-in-law.
But _Bloodbrothers_’s Stony will make it out. For him it’s not the attraction of the middle-class world (represented by the hospital) that tips the balance, but the horrors of the ethnic enclave, particularly dad’s macho madness. The world that was romanticized in The Godfather is condemned in Bloodbrothers. Underneath the expansive male solidarity of the barroom and construction site lies the family-as-nightmare. Stony’s mother is a hysteric who has managed to induce anorexia nervosa in his frail younger brother. If the mother-son dining scenes are hard to take, the wife-beating scene is the last straw. Stony’s father beats his wife senseless for a suspected infidelity. With this, Stony begins to see his family (and class) from the perspective of the doctor who has befriended him at the hospital: the people he has grown up with are little more than emergency-room regulars, professional outpatients. This was also the judgment of A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and The Wanderers: the working class may be a refuge for uninhibited masculinity but, viewed “objectively” by a professional (doctor or filmmaker), it’s sick. Stony grabs his little brother and runs for it, taking a cab for the “feminized” middle class.
The relationship between parents and children is central to Robert Mulligan’s Bloodbrothers, which was not only the highlight of the New York Film Festival, but also the best American film I’ve seen in several years. Walter Newman’s screenplay, based on a novel by Richard Price, focuses on the tensions that arise in a Bronx blue-collar patriarchy when one of the sons (Richard Gere) announces he wants to work with children rather than follow in his father’s footsteps as an electrician.
Robert Mulligan is one of the most underrated directors working in Hollywood. He is superb with actors, drawing profoundly moving performances from Tony Lo Bianco as Gere’s father. Paul Sorvino as his uncle, and Lelia Goldoni as his mother. The director has also given Richard Gere room to display the range and depth he only suggested in Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Days of Heaven.
In films like To Kill a Mockingbird and Summer of ’42. Mulligan has demonstrated his appreciation for the mysteries surrounding childhood and adolescence. In this movie he acknowledges that strong emotional bonds can exist between a father and son who are temperamentally unable to live together. Gere’s severance of his blood ties is pitched on a level of anguish that brings the film perilously close to bad melodrama. The delirious yet controlled intensity of Mulligan’s visual style, however, supports the explosive confrontations between the characters, transcending the story’s soap opera origins. The direct expression of emotion seldom affects today’s supercool audiences, but at the festival screening Bloodbrothers was continually interrupted by cheers and applause.
—Texas Monthly; December 1978 (from Celluloid Circus by George Morris)
If you can believe that Richard Gere is a teenager and that Tony Lo Bianco is his father and Lelia Goldoni his mother, then you are without doubt also convinced that the world is flat and the moon is made of Camembert, and Robert Mulligan’s Bloodbrothers is for you. This fantasy saga of a rant-and-roll working-class Bronx Italian family, although shot in New York, is riddled with Hollywood conventions. It would have benefited from a few old-fashioned Hollywood story conferences.
Gere must have gone to a different acting class the eve of shooting each of his big scenes. He is a bundle of mannerism—mostly DeNiro’s. He scratches his crotch a good deal all through the film, except during the last reel. Can this be laid at the door of a careless continuity person? If it is only a symbol of his imminent break with machodom, it is a trifle underhanded.
The surprise party birthday scene in the bar is Mulligan pilfering from Mulligan’s The Nickel Ride. The kid brother goes into anorexia nervosa. At the risk of sounding sexist, that’s for teenage girls, guys.
—Film Comment; Festivals: New York 1978 (from Valse Triste by Elliott Stein)
A ludicrously overblown soap opera set in Italian Brooklyn which races from childhood anorexia to adolescent sexual trauma via wife-battering. Gere, as the pretty school-leaver who wants to be a social worker but comes up against his father’s hard-hat ambitions, is fine, but his sensitive performance is simply mangled by the movie’s muddled glorification of the macho ethos. Mulligan recut the film to 98 minutes for TV.
—Time Out Film Guide 2011 (edited by John Pym)Read less