Monday, December 25, 2017

What Happened to Jimmy Hoffa?

"He knows the words, but he don't know the music."

Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson)

What became of Jimmy Hoffa?

We all know he disappeared in the summer of 1975, and he is presumed dead. He was 62 when he disappeared so that is a reasonable presumption; if he is still alive, he would be well over 100 years old.

It's pretty safe to presume he is dead. The courts declared him deceased more than 35 years ago, and there has never been a credible account that he was still alive in all the years since. No Elvis sightings for Hoffa.

But it is still the kind of thing about which people like to speculate. In some circles it is like a parlor game. In others it is the inspiration for movies — one of which, "Hoffa," premiered on this day in 1992. Jack Nicholson played Hoffa, and Danny DeVito, who also directed the movie, played a character that merged several Hoffa associates from over the years.

The movie told Hoffa's life story in flashbacks, primarily in the form of thoughts DeVito had as he and Hoffa waited to meet with organized crime leaders in the summer of '75.

That infamous meeting was supposed to take place at a roadside restaurant in a Detroit suburb in July 1975.

Jimmy Hoffa was long before my time, but from what I have learned Nicholson's portrayal was spot on.

I knew little about Hoffa's personal life before I saw the movie, and I knew little more than that after I saw the movie. And that, it seems to me, is appropriate. Hoffa was obsessed with the union. It was his whole life. Everything else came second.

To keep those and other matters in perspective, it was necessary for the story to have DeVito's character. Clearly he had to be created specially for this movie; if a person like that really existed, he wasn't willing to go on the record. And while the law frowns on fabricating witnesses, in Hollywood it is called poetic license.

So the audience had to accept Bobby Ciaro (DeVito's character), whose name fit the part and whose flashbacks filled in most — but not all — of the gaps in Hoffa's life story. Make no mistake about it. That is what "Hoffa" was. It was a biopic, not a theory about what happened to him.

I wouldn't recommend that a student doing research for a paper on Hoffa's life use the movie as a resource, though. At least, not as an unbiased one.

The movie did seem to provide faithful, albeit slanted, looks at Hoffa's well–known feud with Bobby Kennedy and his less–recognized conflicts with his successor as Teamsters president, Frank Fitzsimmons.

And I have no doubt that whenever and however Hoffa died, his last thoughts and acts were about the union.

The movie made a suggestion about how Hoffa died, by the way, but it didn't seem plausible to me. It didn't fit any of the facts with which I was familiar.

Then again it wouldn't be surprising to have witnesses go silent and physical evidence disappear in a case that might just involve organized crime. Would it?

So maybe things did go down the way the movie suggested.

I don't know. And, after more than 40 years, I doubt that anyone will ever know the truth.

But I didn't get the feeling that "Hoffa" was really about a search for the truth — or, at least, the specific truth about Hoffa's disappearance. Unlike "JFK," which premiered about a year earlier, it didn't explore suspects or motives or anything much, just gave a brief dramatization of what could have happened — but didn't seem likely, given how randomly it was presented — and concentrated primarily on the events of Hoffa's life.

I would have preferred a movie that examined the known facts about Hoffa's disappearance and offered suggestions about what could have happened. But I suppose that would have deprived audiences of Nicholson's portrayal of Hoffa.

And I will concede that Nicholson gave a great performance. His appearance was startling, like every photograph I have ever seen of Jimmy Hoffa brought to life. I haven't heard many recordings of Hoffa's voice, but Nicholson's voice was more gravelly. The real Hoffa's voice was a little higher pitched.

But I suppose that is a minor thing.

While the movie tended to be sympathetic to Hoffa, I thought it was well done but not necessarily Oscar worthy.

"Hoffa" actually was rewarded with two Oscar nominations, though — for Best Makeup and Best Cinematography. It won neither — understandably. Best Makeup went to "Bram Stoker's Dracula." In such a category, you can't beat vampires.

And Best Cinematography went to "A River Runs Through It." How could any movie compete with the Montana landscape?