The success of Angela’s Ashes has to be one of the strangest phenomena of the decade. Here we are in the midst of an economic boom — a cybernetic whirlwind of new wealth unseen since the Industrial Revolution — and one of the top-selling books of the era is the tale of an Irish lad crawling out of poverty. Hellish poverty. The kind of dank, Dickensian poverty in which fleas bounce on the blankets and raw sewage floods an apartment and babies die before they learn to talk.
Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s harrowing and poetic memoir of that woeful childhood, has sold over 5 million copies around the world—not bad for a book about a boy growing up in a Limerick slum with no cash, no food, and only sporadic appearances from an alcoholic father. Nobody is more shocked than the author. ”What has happened has happened to me is beyond the American dream,” says the schoolteacher-turned-scribe, 69. (The book’s sequel, ‘Tis, is also on its way to astonishing sales.) ”It’s like going up Sixth Avenue in New York City and seeing our national debt on that electronic sign. It goes up billions every few minutes. I can’t handle figures like that, and I couldn’t handle what happened to Angela’s Ashes.”
Try handling this: The McCourt family’s struggle with destitution has become a $25 million Hollywood movie. Normally, muses McCourt, ”it’s not the kind of movie that Hollywood takes to its bosom. At least in The Grapes of Wrath with Henry Fonda, everybody was warm and dry and they wound up in California.” Misery loves company, sure, but the company usually doesn’t fall head over heels for misery.
Ironically, misery was hard to come by when director Alan Parker journeyed through Ireland to scout locations for Angela’s Ashes. He’d had no trouble tracking down Dublin squalor when he shot The Commitments in 1990, but a decade’s worth of prosperity had made the Emerald Isle gleam. ”It’s gone through an economic boom,” says Parker. ”Ten years ago in almost every city in Ireland there’d be 20 streets that hadn’t changed for many years. They had a weird but depressing beauty. But the people living there now want it to be a bit more cheerful than that.”
McCourt’s old neighborhood in Limerick is gone, so the crew built a slum right off the river Liffey in Dublin. ”It was an amazing set, with lots of drains to take away all the puddles,” says Emily Watson, who plays Angela McCourt, the film’s iron-spined matriarch. ”I was just soaking — cold and wet, and there were rain machines on all the time. And of course the house was always flooded; we were up to our ankles in water, trudging about.” Factor in a pack of shrieking infants and you’ve got what sounds like an actor’s nightmare—or, in Watson’s case, paradise. ”It was a great way for me to get into character, because that was Angela’s life,” says the twice-Oscar-nominated star of Breaking the Waves and Hilary and Jackie. ”You can’t be pretentious about your work if you’ve got four or five children under 6 going ‘Waaaaa!’—screaming at your feet. You’ve got to get on with it.”