This is a dark, grim, and gritty movie about bums living the hard life in Depression-era Albany, New York. Nicholson is a former ballplayer turned drunk who is bothered by visions of the past, and Streep is a tubercular boozer. (She also turns in a wonderful scene where she sings.) Tom Waits also turns in a fine supporting role. The director is Hector Babenco who also directed Pixote, a very powerful film about children in Brazil. The screenplay is written by William Kennedy from his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
The time is 1938 when the soup kitchens and flophouses are overflowing with homeless street people seeking food and refuge from the unforgiving cold. Francis Phelan (Nicholson) wanders the streets, back in his hometown after 22 years, an aimless vagabond ready to confront the family he abandoned long ago. While sharing his whiskey with longtime "pal" Helen (Streep), Francis reveals the dark secrets of his past, the painful memories from which he once tried to escape…but now must reconcile.
Each night Francis and Helen drunkenly search for a warm place to sleep---a doorway, a car, some soft weeds---living minute to minute, tenderly drawing on each other for the friendship and the courage they need to survive. But in the cold and sobering morning light, Francis knows he must go home, to make peace with his wife, children…and himself.
Although social upheaval like the depression may not cause all of our problems, it is clear that they powerfully exacerbate whatever problems we may have. What social forces exacerbate the problems that you or your friends have? How can you effectively resist the pressures of society?
The movie came out in 1987 and runs 135 minutes. The New York Film Critics gave Nicholson the award for best actor and the Academy Awards gave both Nicholson and Streep nominations but neither of them won. That year the Academy Awards went to The Last Emperor (deservedly won as the best picture), Cher got the nod for her fine role in Moonstruck (she not only beat out Streep but also beat out Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction), and Michael Douglas got the nod for Wallstreet.