Performance & Media: Notes on The Irishman & Cats

TL;DR: The Irishman & Cats have some surprising similarities in their integration of computer technologies and live performance. I look at both with attention to the “live” performing body amid digital distortions. [2848 words]

Although it may seem odd to compare The Irishman (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2019) and Cats (dir. Tom Hooper, 2019), these two films were among the most interesting for their mutual engagements combining live performance and computer technology.

I saw Martin Scorsese’s film The Irishman (Netflix) twice without interruption for the 3.5 hours: once on mid-size television with modest resolution, and again in a single-screen cinema house (Regent Theatre, Toronto). Overall, I agree with critics who argue that the film is probably too long (to me, it felt rather ponderous at moments) and it’s unfortunate that all of the women who speak in the film have about a dozen lines split among them over 3.5 hours. But, I found the film interesting for other reasons, namely its intersection with digital media culture and movie history.

For similar reasons, I attended Cats, but only once in a multi-screen cineplex. Although the stage version was playing simultaneously in Toronto, I didn’t return to the stage musical. It’s a show I’ve seen a few times on stage and I wrote about in an chapter for the Blackwell Companion to T.S. Eliot (ed. David Chinitz, 2009). In case you’re interested, the essay is available here.

My first thought on Scorsese’s Irishman is its similarity to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). There are some fairly superficial similarities. Both are big-screen, large-scale films about outsized political figures more or less based in history. Scorsese focuses on the historical figures of Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Sheeran, and myriad other figures in the history of labor politics and the American mafia. We know it’s historical because upon introduction, many of the film’s characters, both central and peripheral, are frozen on screen to reveal the date and method of their (mostly violent) deaths. It’s a film knowingly created about the past and it makes repeated claims to historical truth and accuracy.

Citizen Kane though nominally fictional was modelled on William Randolph Hearst. Indeed, Welles’ film ventured closely enough to the truth that it prompted extensive efforts by Hearst and his executives to prevent the film’s release and thereafter to discredit it. (New evidence came to light in 2016 with details in a Guardian story that year.)

Both films begin with a central nagging question: what is the meaning of “rosebud”? and “Who killed Jimmy Hoffa?” They both feature early scenes of memories told from nursing homes by weary elderly men in wheelchairs: Robert De Niro as the aged Frank Sheeran and Joseph Cotton as Jedediah Leland. Both films retrace the histories of long and eventful lives at the extremes of their societies. But more interesting than the thematic and plot similarities are the parallels in their respective making, especially with respect to acting.

Key to both films is the role of the ensemble acting company. Welles worked with his young company from the Mercury Theatre and Scorsese with the informal cohort who have populated nearly every Scorsese film since I Call First (1967 with Harvey Keitel) and Mean Streets  (1973 with Keitel, De Niro). Scorsese highlights the centrality of a consistent company in his interviews about the film. As reported in his interview with Esquire magazine:

“De Niro is the only one who knows where I come from,” Scorsese says. […] That deep connection of experiences makes finding young actors to play young versions of De Niro, Pesci and Pacino pointless, he says.

“Even if they come from a similar area, the context of time is different. You’d have to explain who, you know, who [jazz singer] Billy Eckstine is or, you know, [singer and actor] Jo Stafford, as opposed to Patti Page as opposed to Ella Fitzgerald. And then you go into rock’n’roll. So he just knows the context.”

Perhaps ironic, given his claims of authenticity of time and place, Scorsese turned to contemporary digital techniques to de-age his actors, especially De Niro so that he could work exclusively with his core company. These techniques have received quite a bit of attention, including a recent story from the CBC-The National to which I contributed an interview (cf. “How digital de-aging is changing the face of movies“).

Because of the limitations of working with a fixed group across multiple decades in the plot, Welles also had to use new techniques to appropriately age his young actors. As in The Irishman, the special effects played a key role in the film. According to Citizen Kane‘s make-up artist, Maurice Seiderman: “When Kane came out in script form, Orson told all of us about the picture and said that the most important aspect was the makeup” (see “Making Up KaneFilm Comment, 1978). By many accounts, Welles’ make-up took up to 3-4 hours preparation before filming.

So what does this have to do with Cats?

As with both The Irishman and Citizen Kane, the film Cats faces a fundamental problem: how to create convincing distortions of the human actor on screen. Welles uses make-up and the actors’ physicality to age his characters across multiple decades, sometimes within the same film sequence (e.g., the wonderful breakfast-table sequence that details the decline of the Kane marriage). Scorsese uses the latest in computer technologies–specifically, the MEDUSA facial capture system from ILM–to de-age the faces and hands of his actors, while also employing a “movement analyst” to assist with the physical portrayal across decades.

[Aside: Viewers have debated the credibility of these effects, including the unnatural smoothness of De Niro’s face in the flashback sequence to Frank Sheeran’s service in World War II. To my eye, De Niro’s digitally altered face closely resembles the central character from the videogame Call of Duty: WWII:


It may be that viewers who have received more WWII history from Call of Duty than from, say, Ken Burns’s documentary miniseries The War, will find Scorsese’s depiction the most convincing. There is more to say about the impact of videogames on the historical imagination, but that’s for another post or two.]

The film Cats (2019) doesn’t alter its characters in time, but rather in species, and here, it draws a clear parallel to the juxtaposition of The Irishman and Citizen Kane. Welles started as a theatre director, so he applies the techniques of theatre to cinema: make-up, costume, physicality, voice, and ensemble acting. Even as he shares with Welles an affinity for a consistent company of actors, Scorsese applies the latest techniques of screen special effects. Tom Hooper is a film and television director, who found success adapting the popular musical Les Mirerable (2012) to the screen. In Cats, Hooper adapts a stage production originally created through the techniques Welles used in Citizen Kane (make-up, costume, physicality), and replaces them with computer effects (created by Mill Film) not unlike those used in The Irishman: motion capture, digital animations.

Where Hooper and Cats fall short, however, is from a fundamental misunderstanding of the original source material. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score for Cats, though catchy is largely repetitive and, as many others have observed derivative from other sources (hello, Puccini!). The lyrics are drawn from T.S. Eliot’s poems written for his friends’ children. Although occasionally clever, the lyrics often veer into the ridiculous, as in the repeated chorus in “The Addressing of Cats”: “So first, your memory I’ll jog / And say: a cat is not a dog.”

Seeing only the 2019 version, one might wonder how the original show became a success. Having seen the show a few times in the 1980s, what I remember made the original so engaging was that it was first and foremost a musical about dancing. All of the other stage effects, including costumes, make-up, and scenery were carefully calibrated to create illusions of scale and immersion within the world. As I recall, the original production sent chorus dancers into the house with blinking cat eyes that in the dark were startling in their ability to convincingly convey the human dancers as cats (especially for those of us under 10 years old).

The original stage set included an oversized tire, debris, and trashcans that established the world and scale for the dancing cats. The original costumes augmented the dancers’ bodies in part by making their heads larger and furrier (to hide their human ears) and with colors and patterns that drew attention to the lines of the dancers and their movements. What many of us marvelled at in the original stage production was not that the humans looked like cats, but that recognizably human dancers could move like cats, including choreography well beyond the abilities of us normal humans. It’s a show about virtuosic dancing, which is why there’s no real plot and it doesn’t really matter.

As I’ve written before, Cats is basically A Chorus Line (1975) for felines. The show is structured as a series of  introductions and thus provides little more than an excuse for exceptionally talented and skilled performers to show off what they can do. There’s a fairly general “I Want” song early in both–“I Hope I Get It” and “Invitation to the Jellicle Ball”–framed by a key selection: casting for a show and the jellicle choice. Both shows end with the selection. That’s it. No plot twists, no intrigue. At the beginning, there’s a choice to be made, and by the end, someone makes it. End of show. In between, performers perform individual numbers and join in a few full-stage ensemble pieces. In short, it’s mostly about virtuosic dancing with a few opportunities for exceptional singers, who are given key moment for arias: Old Deuteronomy is a challenging bass part in the original; Grizabella is given the show-stopping number, “Memory.” (Remember, Webber wanted to be an opera composer and often imagined his shows as contemporary operas.) But, even allowing for a few key vocal numbers, the show is really about dancers.

The importance of dancing was acknowledged in the original Cats poster image, which featured tiny dancing bodies as the pupils of the cats’ eyes:


Cats Broadway poster (1981)

Director Hooper is presumably aware of the importance of dancing in Cats. He casts his lead with Francesca Hayward, principal dancer of the Royal Ballet in London (the make-up and costuming choices for her require a whole other post), and the narrator-cat Munkustrap is played by Robbie Fairchild formerly of the New York City Ballet.  However, Hooper’s respect for dancing seems to stop with the casting decisions.

The movements by the individual performers are obscured by their digital costumes, rather than augmented by them. The cinematography keeps up a fairly rapid editing pace, such that there’s little opportunity to appreciate the movements within a given number. This constantly moving environment also seems to change scale constantly. (The Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer scene felt particularly off. What cat paw fits loosely through a human-sized ring? See below.)

Screen Shot 2020-01-04 at 10.28.31

Screencapture: Francesca Hayward as Victoria in Cats (2019)

Elsewhere, Hooper seems to take the original text literally. The film’s climactic scene (such as it is) centers on a rescue of Old Deuteronomy from a barge on the Thames, where she and other cats have been captured by Macavity. Mr. Mistoffelees must successfully perform magic to bring the older cat back. That he fails multiple times before success seems to justify the repeated original lyrics: “Oh, well I never, was there ever / A cat so clever as magical / Mr. Mistoffelees.” But taking his magic literally means that Eliot’s wit in the original poems, which anthropomorphized very typical actions of cats as somehow magical and mysterious, is lost.

The joke of this song in particular is that the mischief of cats–sneaking food and playing with random objects–is recast as magic.

He can play any trick with a cork
Or a spoon and a bit of fish paste
If you look for a knife or a fork
And you think it was merely misplaced

You have seen it one moment
And then it is gone
But you find it next week
Lying out on the lawn

It’s not just the text that Hooper takes too literally. Everything is portrayed in actuality: the songs, the dance, the setting, the costumes, the story (such as it is). But, it is the attempt to use the computer-generated imagery to create more realistic cats that most severely limits the film. Instead of augmenting the human heads with fur, he uses digital effects to create a more realistic cat-like head. Compare Elaine Page as Grizabella with Jennifer Hudson in the role:

On the one hand, Hudson’s digitally augmented appearance seems more realistically cat-like. She has fur instead of layered human-like hair and a furry neck and chest. Elaine Page’s costume is pretty clearly a wig and coat designed to obscure but not obliterate her human form. (Remember, she’s one of a few signing cats; the dancing cats perform almost exclusively in skin-tight leotards.) However, these differences make Hudson’s “coat” appear all the stranger. If we can see her own “fur” what is she wearing on top? The hide of a deceased relative or stranger? (The same effect occurs with Judi Dench’s Old Deuteronomy, who appears to be wearing at least one or two other cats.)

Throughout the film, the digital effects in costume and make-up draw our attention away the performing body to the juxtaposition between the real and the virtual. The digital overwhelm is, oddly enough, in contradiction to Hooper’s claims that the film works to maintain the “live” performances on screen:

It’s really more live-action than you realize in the sense that we shot it all live on set. With a couple of exceptions of Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly, where obviously it would be insane to build an oversized version of Piccadilly Circus. We built this world at sort of three times scale, so that humans could be looking at cats’ relation with the world. And my great dream with the visual effects was to find a way to add … To make the actors feline while preserving their faces and their real performances, and the integrity of what they did as actors and singers. To preserve the integrity of their live dance. (Hooper interview for Observer, 2019)

There are many excellent examples of dance on screen, so it’s not as if “real performances” by actors and dancers haven’t been compellingly conveyed in other films. I’m thinking of Singin’ in the Rain (dir. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952) and West Side Story (dir. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961); as well as more recent Hairspray (dir. Adam Shankman, 2007) and even La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle, 2016). The latter featured performers with signing and dancing skills far inferior to those cast in Cats, but managed to create far more compelling musical numbers.

In short, it is Hooper’s (mis)use of computer effects that destroys this sense of the live performing body, distorting not only the actual physical bodies of his performers (and weirdly fetishizing them, as various critiques have noted), but also their movements. And, like The Irishman, the impetus behind this choice appears to be a misguided sense of “authenticity.” That is, both The Irishman and Cats seem to be fundamentally misunderstanding what makes a particular acting performance compelling on screen.

The unnatural smoothness of De Niro works better in The Irishman because his blank stoicism is, in fact, a feature of his character and the times. Frank Sheeran is a largely blank canvas onto which others project their directives. He is fundamentally inexpressive and therefore unknowable. As Jimmy Hoffa says to Sheeran at one point, “Frank, you never reveal how you feel.” There’s also the way in which Hollywood cinema is always intent on preserving actors’ youth and is little else, if not a de-aging machine.

But, in Cats, the joy of the show comes from seeing through the artifice of the cats’ portray to the sophistication and skill of the performers underneath the costume and make-up. (Watch some of the online footage from professional stage versions and you’ll see what I mean.) Stage choreography, including real-time synchronization among performers, balance, and physical control is impressive because of the technical challenge. When such techniques are rendered digitally–as in the strange dancing cockroaches scene and extensive use of rigging in Hooper’s dance sequences–we tend to dismiss the whole thing as digital fakery. Thus, the very real skill and technique of the performers is lost.

Much of my recent academic writing has been about the negotiations of ostensibly live performance and distortions in recorded and digital media (more here, if you’re so inclined). I’m not convinced that one form of acting is better than the other and I suspect that improved techniques in digital augmentation will continue to shape actors’ performances on stage and all kinds of screens. However, there is clearly a danger in forgetting the pleasures of watching exceptional human bodies perform, even if they’re made to look older or dressed up as cats. One hopes that the next time Hollywood moves a big-budget stage show to the screen, they will remember to include a few more theatre people behind the camera and not just in front.