As David Kelly and Ian Bannen slide into a booth in a New York City pub, the eyes of Old Hollywood gaze down upon them. Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Edward G. Robinson — their photographs line the walls of Rosie O’Grady’s like some lethally suave grand jury. If Bannen and Kelly don’t seem too fazed by the snapshots — if you even detect a note of impish defiance when Bannen points to a picture of Tyrone Power and recalls encountering him in Dublin years and years ago — well, maybe that’s because Tyrone Power is just a picture on the wall these days, whereas Ian Bannen is plunging with wild abandon into a dish of ice cream and pecan pie.
See, Bannen and Kelly are pretty old guys — at least by Hollywood’s kindergarten standards. At 70, Bannen is old enough to tell you stories about joshing around with Jimmy Stewart on the set of The Flight of the Phoenix back in 1965. (Which is such ancient history that a lot of people don’t know it landed Bannen an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.) And at 69, Kelly is old enough to come to the pub elegantly dressed in a dove gray wool suit. ”Actors nowadays, they do tend to dress like urban terrorists,” he muses. ”Which always looks ridiculous to me. It used to be that as a young actor you would get dressed up, whether you could afford it or not.”
But it’s what they don’t wear in Waking Ned Devine that could make the two actors feel the first blush of stardom at an age when most of their colleagues are lucky to be shilling for Polident. Due to circumstances too complicated to go into here — and too funny to spoil — the superannuated duo spends a good portion of Waking Ned Devine in the buff. ”My daughter roared up the stairs and said, ‘My lunatic father is in a movie, and he’s stark naked!”’ Kelly says. ”She said, ‘What would you say if I turned up in a movie stark naked?’ I said, ‘When you’re 69, you can do it.”’ Kelly’s wife had a simpler response: ” ‘Nice a– ”’ is how he remembers it. ”She hasn’t seen it for so long.”
For reasons that anthropologists have yet to determine, naked men are funny. (The wrinklier and pudgier, the better.) Fox Searchlight has made this discovery to the tune of $256 million, and the studio that mined gold with the G-string-snapping steelworkers of The Full Monty is gearing up to do the same thing with Ned this fall. ”It swayed me,” admits Ned‘s director, Kirk Jones, a 34-year-old Englishman who sold the rights to Searchlight for $4 million after winding up in a five-studio bidding war at last spring’s Cannes film festival. ”What Fox did was take a great little film and make it into a huge commercial success. I was really impressed by that.”
Like Monty, Jones’ feature debut is a sweet-natured, delicately crafted comedy that takes place in a small town — in this case, a quaint Irish hamlet straight out of the Celtic Blarney Handbook — where the locals want to score some cash. (Jones actually shot the movie on Britain’s Isle of Man, whose government offered to pony up one quarter of the less than $2 million budget.) Kelly and Bannen play a couple of codgers who learn that someone in the village has won the lottery. As they cook up schemes to get the money, Jones — true to the blacker currents of Irish humor — manages to score belly laughs from a botched funeral, a toothless cadaver, and a car accident. After a test screening in the States, a researcher warned Jones that someone in the audience had been deeply troubled by that car crash. ”Then he said, ‘But I should also stress that over 99 percent of the audience stated that this was their favorite scene,”’ chuckles the director. ”That’s a pretty good average. I quite like the fact that I upset one person in an audience of 250.”