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Oscars a family affair for the Sheridans

The director and his daughters wrote the screenplay for ‘In America’
/ Source: Reuters

The Oscars have a family feel this year — there’s Sofia Coppola, daughter of “Godfather” creator Francis Ford Coppola, up for best director and best original script and there’s the cast of “Lord of the Rings” who say they became a band of brothers after all those months filming in the back of the beyond.

Then there’s director Jim Sheridan, his wife Fran and daughters, Naomi and Kristen, who will be sitting in a row, their fingers crossed tightly, praying for the luck of the Irish to pull off what some might call an Oscar miracle.

Sheridan and his daughters are up for an Oscar for best original screenplay for their “autobiographical” film “In America” which has also garnered nominations for best actress (Samantha Morton) and best supporting actor (Djimon Hounsou).

The movie, a small, heart-warming tale, borrows heavily from Sheridan family history as it tells of an Irish family who sneak across the Canadian border in a beat-up car to take up residence in New York City, most specifically in a wreck of a tenement building in the heart of pre-Yuppified Hell’s Kitchen, once one of the city’s most notorious slums.

The family, two young daughters, a wife recovering from the loss of a young son named Frankie and a husband emotionally deadened by that experience, fall in love with the Big Apple, despite the usual assortment of transvestites, heroin addicts and hookers, and recover from their spiritual ailments.

Some truth, some fiction
To hear Fran Sheridan tell it, the film is Sheridan family fact only up to a point, but all that’s in there was definitely hammered out at the Sheridan family table.

The family did sneak into the United States in the 1980s, did take up residence in Hell’s Kitchen, although their apartment was in much better shape than the one in the film, and yes, Jim Sheridan, then an aspiring theater director, did lug a hugely heavy air conditioner up four steep flights of tenement stairs to bring his children some relief from the relentless New York summer.

But, said Fran Sheridan over coffee the other day at a posh Sunset Boulevard hotel, a far, far distance from either Hell’s Kitchen or Dublin, the Sheridan family did not hesitate for a moment to change their life story to fit the silver screen.

“I didn’t have a child who died but Jim had a brother Frankie who died at age 10 when he was 17. But I did have a premature baby in New York, just like in the movie, but I don’t think I reacted as emotionally as Samantha Morton did in the movie,” Fran Sheridan said, adding that she only met Morton once before filming so the actress really did not try to play her. (Although when Morton received an Oscar nomination, Fran Sheridan did boast to her husband that her role got the recognition, not his.)

Jim Sheridan, whose other films include “‘My Left Foot,” which won an Oscar for Daniel Day Lewis and “In the Name of the Father,” had the idea for “In America” in the late 1980s but never got it off the ground.

He enlisted his two oldest daughters, both of whom have careers in film, to assist him in writing the screenplay and pretty soon, father did not know best. He says the girls began to whittle his role out as they expanded theirs.

Fran Sheridan says that still wasn’t enough to get the film going until her husband of 32 years had a brainstorm. “That’s when Jim brought in the story of Frankie and that is how it all came together. how it finally jelled.”

Key also to the film  was the character played by West African actor Djimon Hounsou, a neighbor in the tenement dying of AIDS who is befriended by the Sheridan daughters.

“That was was based on two friends, including one who is alive and told Jim recently he liked the portrait,” she said.

Life, Jim Sheridan has pointed out, does not have neat beginnings, ends and middles. But films do.