The cast glowed with stars. The shadowy Manhattan streets crackled with violence. And the stakes for cops and crooks grew higher as the mobster story approached its bloodstained crescendo.
But the window to see Hell’s Kitchen ignite like a tinderbox on the silver screen was devilishly narrow. “State of Grace,” a film with actors Sean Penn, Gary Oldman and Robin Wright, lasted just two weeks in cinemas in September 1990.
It’ll be 30 years Monday since the movie opened and then quickly receded in the shadow of Martin Scorsese’s classic tale of Italian-American “Goodfellas” released days later.
The film about the Irish mafia was relegated to the dustbin of history — not unlike the old New York it so vividly brought to life.
But it also has assumed the mantle of a cult classic, a vestige of a gangster genre that slipped away and a window into the period when Midtown’s mean western blocks gentrified into today’s posh playground.
“I don’t even recognize the place — a bunch of yuppie condos,” Oldman, who plays the character Jackie, says indignantly in one scene. “They could’ve left 10 blocks for the Irish. You know, they don’t even want to call it Hell’s Kitchen no more. Renamed it Clinton. Sounds like a f—–g steamboat.”
Gary Oldman (right) proved a major get for Phil Joanou (center). “The whole thing started with Gary,” the director said.
Oldman’s Jackie and Sean Penn’s character Terry, an undercover police officer, pulsate with intensity, and both actors garnered gushing reviews for the portrayals.
The story follows Terry, a local kid who moved to Boston, when he returns to New York City on a sting operation to shake up the Westies, an Irish crime gang. He unravels, discovering he’s too close to the people he’s working to bring down: Jackie was his best friend growing up. Jackie’s sister, Kathleen, was his first love.
Penn plays Terry as a stoic, hard-drinking creature of the street, while Oldman’s combustible Jackie explodes into rages. Ed Harris scowls his way through the film as Jackie’s older brother, the head of the Irish mob. And Robin Wright steals the show as Kathleen, who’s torn by emotions as she seeks distance from her brutish brothers.
(Penn and Wright met on set, and sparks flew. They later married, and divorced.)
Sean Penn, Phil Joanou and Gary Oldman pose at a cemetery on the set of “State of Grace.”
Director Phil Joanou said he lucked into the film’s high-wattage cast, which also includes John C. Reilly and Brooklyn actor John Turturro. As soon as Oldman committed to the project, its arc shifted, Joanou said.
“Little did I know that all of Hollywood, particularly the acting community, was dialed into how great Gary was,” Joanou, 58, told the Daily News. “We had Gary, and that got Sean interested. It’s like dominoes.” Penn, in turn, sold Harris.
Shooting took place on location in the City on a $19 million budget. Landmarks like the Empire State Building and Time Square loom. Waypoints including Fanelli’s Cafe in SoHo and Pier 84 in the Kitchen frame pivotal scenes.
It’s a New Yorker’s New York movie. And its fiery performers embodied the City’s attitude. “A chair would go through a window,” Joanou said, laughing as he looked back on filming. “A couple of fingers got broken, and a nose would get broken.”
New York City’s character was changing when “State of Grace” was shot in the summer of 1989.
The real-life Westies fizzled out in the late 1980s, as informants sank the syndicate. Authorities said the gang accounted for more than 30 murders across 15 gory years between the early ’70s and late ’80s, outpacing the Italians in their violence.
Today, rat armies no longer skitter through downtrodden tenements between 34th and 59th Sts. And the films that once captured the city’s mobs have mostly vanished, too, save the occasional Scorsese blockbuster.
Joanou said making “State of Grace” in today’s superhero-saturated film economy would prove “absolutely impossible” and “cost prohibitive.”
“No one that I know of is making hardcore dramatic gangster movies for the cinema anymore,” he said. “These kinds of movies don’t really have much of a place.”