Geoff Pevere: Revisiting the Pope

There’s a lot that’s changed since 1984, but the most arresting thing is this: The Pope of Greenwich Village has become gripping.

Not sure if you remember it. It stars Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts as a pair of luckless Village hustlers who run afoul of the local mob. They get caught stealing a stash of cash intended as the police bribery pot, and the movie depicts the stress placed on the blood-tie loyalty between the two cousins as all hell comes closing in.

I saw it when it opened and haven’t watched it since. What I remember hating about it were a couple of things. First of all, there was the lame way it recycled Martin Scorsese’s scorching Mean Streets, primarily in the depiction of a how a relatively chill and rational punk (Harvey Keitel in Scorsese’s movie, Rourke in Pope) tries to keep the lid on his nutjob best buddy (Robert De Niro inMean Streets, Roberts in Pope) because the nutjob is pissing off the wrong people. Secondly, and maybe even more unforgivable, were the performances of the two leads. Rourke, relatively fresh from his head-turning silky-toned performances in Body Heat and Diner, was taking his first top-billed role – a guy named Charlie — and turning it into an opportunity to see just how quickly he could make himself into an entirely insufferable cliché: mumbling, preening, smoking expressively and punctuating just about every scene he was in by going into an explosive rage and pounding his fists into the walls.

And Roberts, oh Jesus. As Paulie, Charlie’s cousin, Roberts may give one of the most single-handedly grating performances in the entire world history of cinema. He’s either screaming or crying or both in every scene, and his spasmodic fits of full-body flip-out – as though someone had suddenly hit the juice button on an electroshock device stuck somewhere deep in his rectum – never fail to make you wonder why everyone else in the movie isn’t either running for cover or the nearest automatic weapon. Yes, my friends, he’s that annoying.

And yet somehow, some twenty-eight years later, I found myself glued to The Pope of Greenwich Village. Time has somehow intervened on my response mechanisms and rendered what was once almost entirely unwatchable somehow fascinating. The context was a rather lunatic project I’ve committed myself to that involves watching every crime-related movie I can get my hands on in order to build a website devoted to all things cinematically crime-engaged, and Pope – as well as sitting right there on my shelf since the day I got it real cheap – fit the bill.

To look back from this perspective is find one’s self pretty much screwed to the couch by a series of mesmerizing questions. Such as, whatever happened to this New York, anyway? Is there anything gritty left there any more? Is there anywhere on the entire island of Manhattan that still serves coffee out of those paper cups with the Grecian pillars on them?

Or there’s whatever happened to Mickey Rourke? By what sinister process of rampant egoism and ill-advised career planning did this rather sweet-voiced but clearly narcissistic young actor – still in his twenties – become the terrifying cosmetic surgery casualty and dog-hugger that we see today? The post-Method version of Joan Rivers? As Charlie, he’s clearly in love with himself, so at what point did that love translate into something resembling what Vincent Price might have done to himself in a William Castle movie?

And Roberts, oh Jesus. The fact is, it was pretty much over for this guy instantly, and I think this movie did it. He’d never again be seen getting second billing in a major studio release, and within just a few years you’d have to be a dedicated trawler of the direct-to-video bins before you could find him at all. Interestingly, he appeared in Pope just after appearing as the phenomenally creepy Playboy playmate killer in Star 80, and I think that was a one-two punch – the first being too effective, the second being too insanely out-of-control – his career never recovered from. So we got Julia instead.

These are the kinds of things that preoccupy me as I watch older movies these days, and it’s amazing how forgiving I can be looking back from a distance. Movies I once might have dismissed, loathed, got bored by or just ignored now fascinate me. I now see them all as documentaries of a sort; records of where we were and what we thought was important, how we saw ourselves at certain points and what we dreamed about, and what we never saw coming. Without a doubt, the most indelibly unforgettable shot in the entire movie is the one where Roberts is sitting with Rourke on the roof of a village apartment building, his horrible curly perm job appearing in perfectly balanced harmony with the towers of the World Trade Center in the distance. Like I said, a lot has changed.

— 30 —

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Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and popular culture for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

One Response to “Geoff Pevere: Revisiting the Pope”

  1. I was just thinking along a similar line, about actors. It’s easy to dismiss the talents and looks of an actor – or musician – we’ve grown up with. Their best years were our best years. When we see them, we see our own, not so photogenic aging, and the lack of passion we bring to our everyday life. “Whatever happened to …” is our own question of ourselves.

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