Ham Salad: "The Pope of Greenwich Village"
Back before "method acting" meant Jared Leto sending boxes of used condoms to his co-stars in Suicide Squad, and just being an insufferable pain in the ass to everyone on a movie set, it meant getting so deeply, intensely into a role that the audience wouldn't be able to tell where the actor ended and the character began. It took a lot of grueling preparation, putting oneself through the wringer emotionally and sometimes physically, to bring the character to life. Sometimes, it resulted in Academy Awards, other times, it resulted in performances so over the top that they far outlived the movies they were in, as did Eric Roberts in 1984's The Pope of Greenwich Village.
Considering that some of the recent movies in Eric Roberts' astonishingly prolific career include such titles as Fatties: Take Down the House, Sorority Slaughterhouse, and Get Naked!, it may seem a tad unlikely that he was once considered a serious actor, particularly in the early 80s. Combining pretty, almost delicate features with a strange, jittery energy, Roberts seemed always just on the verge of stardom, earning critical acclaim for his terrifying performance as Paul Snider in Star 80, in which he disappeared so effectively into the role of a murderous scumbag that it was a wonder he was able to get another acting job after that. Immediately following Star 80 was the The Pope of Greenwich Village, which paired Roberts with Mickey Rourke, another capital-m Method actor who was being hailed as the next Marlon Brando. A formula crime drama about a pair of well-meaning but dumb mooks who get caught up in a scheme to rob a local gangster, it'd be utterly forgettable, if not for Roberts' performance, in which he acts so hard, he can't help getting a little bit of it on you.
Roberts, with his hair in a magnificent mid-70s Barbra Streisand perm and wearing a series of form fitting sweaters and even tighter pants, plays Paulie, a waiter who has champagne dreams on a Budweiser budget. Together with his cousin Charlie (Mickey Rourke), a maître d' who has too many bills and not enough cash, he comes up with a plan to crack a safe full of money, not realizing until it's too late that the money belongs to the mob. A police officer is accidentally killed during the robbery, but that's the least of Paulie's problems--the mob figures out almost immediately that he was responsible for the stolen money. Only the fact that Paulie's uncle runs with the crew saves him from certain death, but he does pay a price--one of his thumbs, to be exact.
Paulie shows up at Charlie's apartment the morning after he's injured, and, well...the audience is treated to some Master Thespian level ACTING. This scene is a masterclass in overdoing it, in amping up every little tic, quirk and vocal affectation for maximum effect, while gobbling chunks of scenery by the handful. It's important to mention here that Roberts has already made a number of interesting creative decisions, most specifically with his voice. It somehow manages to be both whiny and gruff, muttering and shouty, all at the same time, while also occasionally sounding like he's talking with a mouthful of oatmeal. He sounds like no other human being on this green earth has ever sounded, or will ever sound like, and it's absolutely fascinating.
Charlie, who's just had a rough night himself, opens the door to Paulie, moaning and keening like a feral cat and waving around his wrapped but still bleeding hand. "Cholly, dey took my thumb, man," he says, and strap in for more than three minutes straight of crying, wailing, shouting, and monologuing his co-star into submission. He tells Charlie that he took all of the pain medication he was given at the hospital, then announces to the back of the theater "IT WAS MY LIFE, MAN!" while he staggers around the apartment, Godzilla destroying everything in his path with the power of thespianism.
After Paulie implies that he might have given up Charlie to the mob as his robbery accomplice, he lets loose with another shrieking "Dey took my thumb, Cholly!" and Charlie embraces him. Now, given that the two of them are standing in the middle of a smoking pile where the scenery used to be, you'd think that was the end of it. But hold onto your butts, kids, because it just keeps going. Paulie momentarily forgets about his missing thumb and notices that Charlie's apartment is a bit of a mess. He asks Charlie what happened, and Charlie admits that his pregnant girlfriend left him, taking his share of the robbery money.
Jaw literally dropping open like a Looney Tunes character, Paulie is aghast. Sounding more New York Eye-talian than a $2 slice, he says "That twat robbed ya? My God, Cholly, what didja do?" When Charlie says he doesn't know why she left, and that he never mistreated her, this sends Paulie into a mindblowing rant about how it's important to smack around your woman sometimes so she remembers who's in charge. "I don't mean dat ya walk around mornin' to night whackin' 'em upside da head like someone from da other side, but ya gotta terrorize 'em every once in a while just ta keep 'em in line, ya know what I mean?"
He then starts addressing a punching bag hanging in the middle of the living room, hitting it and letting Charlie know that you don't abuse your partner in front of everybody "like some kinda animal," but in private, the classy way. Charlie begins to cry, though whether it's because Paulie is falling apart, or because Mickey Rourke himself has never seen ham so beautifully piled up on a platter before is unknown. "What am I, some kinda asshole?" Paulie says, again talking directly to the inanimate punching bag, and hitting it a second time. He then throws his arm around it and says "You get ya coat on fast and you don't say goodnight to NOBODY," now in a voice reminiscent of the Abominable Snowman who grabs Daffy Duck and tells him that he's going to love him and squeeze him and call him George.
For a brief, glorious moment, Paulie stares at the punching bag like he's considering whether or not to make out with it, then turns to Charlie. "Dat's to keep 'em humble, when you don't let 'em say goodnight to nobody," he says. Having bestowed relationship advice to his favorite relative and closest friend, Paulie suddenly remembers why he came to Charlie's apartment. Almost literally revving up like an engine powered on melodrama, Paulie lets out one last majestic, howling "CHOLLYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY! DEY TOOK MY THUUUUUUUMB!" before his eyes roll back and he swoons into Charlie's arms, like a Southern belle with a case of the vapors.
Given that slam bang closer, and Charlie's own weepy tantrum, you'd assume that Paulie has died, perhaps of shock (or embarrassment). But no, he's fine, amply recovering enough from his injury to return to waiting tables a couple scenes later. He and Charlie even manage to get away with their crime in the end. Anything that comes after this scene, however, is a bit of a letdown, because how could it not be? How could anything, short of a last minute alien invasion, live up to Paulie's post-thumbectomy meltdown, a scene so over the top that a new top had to be created so it could go over that? It's a wonder Mickey Rourke's eyebrows weren't burned off by the time it was over.
Given Eric Roberts' performance in this scene, which can best be described as "The Exorcist meets Mean Streets," it doesn't seem likely that he was "directed," so much as a camera was pointed at him and everyone else just backed away, perhaps to hide behind an overturned table for safety. Paulie's rant about the benefits of domestic violence in particular feels like something Roberts just felt he needed to do with this character, and went with it. This was back when going off script was something Real Actors who truly appreciated the craft did, rather than just read what some pencilneck screenwriter wanted them to read.
Sadly, though Roberts gave blood, sweat, tears, and even snot for his role, The Pope of Greenwich Village barely made a dent at the box office, and almost immediately faded into obscurity, save for this one specific scene. "Cholly, dey took my thumbs" is a sort of speakeasy password for 80s film buffs, and connoisseurs of overacting.