By People Staff
January 11, 1988 12:00 PM

The casting is startling: Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep playing filthy, boozy bums living on the dregs in Albany, circa 1938. It could have been a stunt. It isn’t. Nicholson and Streep are two of the greatest actors on the planet and they convincingly draw us into the wrenching film that writer William Kennedy adapted from his Pulitzer-prizewinning 1983 novel. Nicholson is an ex-ballplayer who had previously deserted his wife and two children after accidentally killing his infant son. Now, 22 years later, he’s back in Albany. Tagging along is Streep, a once-promising singer-pianist who long ago drowned her potential. Collapsing in the handiest flophouse or gutter, these two beaten lovers use booze to blur unbearable memories. Their efforts are futile. Nicholson, in his most restrained, heartfelt performance, literally sees the ghosts of his past. It’s they he’s wrangling with when others think he is grumbling to thin air. At his son’s grave, he pours out his guilt and grief. But he can’t forgive himself or forget. Neither can Streep. Singing a music-hall ditty, He’s Me Pal, at a local honky-tonk, she momentarily confuses past and present and imagines herself as she was before betraying her beauty and talent. It’s a shattering scene; a triumph for Streep. This time her famed technique (her character is rheumy, slurry and bent from the tumorous belly that’s killing her) enhances a deeply felt performance instead of substituting for it—remember Falling in Love? Nicholson is equally affecting as he briefly visits the wife, beautifully played by Carroll Baker, and now-grown children (Michael O’Keefe and the excellent Diane Venora) he had abandoned. The emotional impact of these family scenes is devastating. Director Hector (Kiss of the Spider Woman) Babenco does less well in keeping the novel’s literary conceits (ghosts, interior monologues) from clanking around self-consciously. And the film, slow going at times, could have used more of the book’s rough-hewn humor. But Babenco and his marvelous actors, including singer Tom Waits as another knight of the road and Fred Gwynne as a sympathetic barkeep, tell Kennedy’s moving tale with a raw and remarkable poignancy. Other movies, from The Grapes of Wrath to Cry Freedom, have affirmed the dignity of the human spirit in adversity. That Ironweed does so without patronizing, canonizing or redeeming its battered, questing homeless makes it unique and unforgettable. (R)