Alex Beam

Hollywood can’t let go of old image of Boston

Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Sheen in one of Hollywood’s tired tales of a thug-ridden Boston, “The Departed.’’
Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Sheen in one of Hollywood’s tired tales of a thug-ridden Boston, “The Departed.’’WARNER BROTHERS

In theaters now: "The Equalizer," a Denzel Washington shoot'em-up that "envision[s] Boston as an irredeemable pit of corruption," according to Variety. On TV now: Showtime's mumblecore Bulger-fest, "Ray Donovan," about a family of Southie thugs that relocates to thug around Los Angeles.

Slated for 2015 release: "Black Mass," no doubt a scrupulously accurate reconstruction of BulgerWorld, starring Johnny ("Tonto") Depp as Whitey and Benedict Bumpershoot — sorry, Cumberbatch — as his brother William.

The august New York Times notes that these recent movies, in tandem with "The Town," "The Departed," and "Mystic River," paint a particularly bleak picture of our little city on a hill. Boston, the Times opines, is "a city of melancholy . . . a tough wounded place that could use some fixing."


Oh, shut up.

But it's our fault, isn't it? Because we are the creators, curators, and consumers of this endless loop of stereotypical ethnic minstrelsy, the tired trope of whiteracistIrishBulgerBostonthugsrulethecity nonsense? Facts are slippery things, but the better half of the mob decamped for Providence decades ago, and whites, much less Irish-Americans, haven't been a clear majority here for nearly a decade.

The Bulgers? Didn't George V. Higgins ("The Friends of Eddie Coyle") pretty much catch their drift in the 1970s? I bet he'd be plenty ticked off that these youngsters are running his gamey material through their typewriters — sorry, word processors. Whitey's last hit was 29 years ago. Heck, Neil Sedaka's done better than that.

I'd be the last person to get between Dennis Lehane ("Mystic River"), Chuck Hogan ("The Town"), Howie Carr ("The Brothers Bulger"), and my friends Dick Lehr and Gerry O'Neill ("Black Mass") and a paycheck. But fellas, the last century has been over for almost 15 years now. Could it possibly be time to move on?

I'll admit, the dark Irish clichés have been good for some laughs. Jack Nicholson and Leo DiCaprio mugging their way through Boston accents in "The Departed"? High comedy. And the great Hispanic actor Ramon Antonio Gerardo Estevez — Martin Sheen to you — playing a Boston police captain — why not? You had to love former Marlowe Society (that's a theater troupe at Cambridge, the university, not the little town across the river) actress Rebecca Hall vamping through an improbable turn as a Charlestown bank employee in "The Town."


Marton Csokas, center, in a scene from "The Equalizer."
Marton Csokas, center, in a scene from "The Equalizer." Phillip Caruso/Associated Press/Sony, Columbia Pictures

Wait, it gets better. Lest you think that Ray Donovan and his family are the Bulger stand-ins in the Showtime series, the writers just introduced "Sully," a Southie hood played by the ineffable James Woods (must be smart, went to MIT). Sully is "hiding in plain sight" in Santa Monica — dyaggedit? He and Ray's father Mickey (Jon Voight; be still, my heart) ran the mob back in Southie.

Did you think I would get through this column without mentioning the Globe? Think again. "Ray Donovan" [hearts] the Globe. Season 2 features the strikingly beautiful, round-heeled Globe reporter Kate McPherson, who plans to expose the misdeeds of the transplanted Irish baddies.

"You keep this up, you're going to end up dead, Kate," Ray (Liev Schreiber) tells her.

"Journalists die all the time," Kate (Vinessa Shaw) replies. "It's an occupational hazard."

Disclosure: No journalists were harmed during the writing of this column.

All Globe, all the time: Schreiber has a lead role in the forthcoming movie "Spotlight," about the Globe's Spotlight Team investigation into the Catholic priest abuse scandal.


That issue is handled with extraordinary delicacy in "Ray Donovan." "Everybody got molested," Voight declares during Season 2, after his family has murdered two priests in cold blood for past sins. Boston, you're my home.

Why the long face, O City of Melancholy? It all goes back to 1974, Lehane explained to the Times; "You don't understand Boston until you understand busing." That's arguable. More than half the city's population was born after 1974, and well, what about the tens of thousands of people like me? I moved here in 1984, and I have a decent feel for what's going on.

William Faulkner famously observed of the South: "The past isn't dead, it isn't even past." In Boston, the past isn't dead, it's just done to death.

We've all seen these movies before; maybe it's time for some new material.


Alex Beam's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.