There was much talk about the lack of diversity at this year’s Academy Awards. It’s pretty hard to disagree that, as host Neil Patrick Harris quipped, this was a gathering of Hollywood’s “best and whitest.”
It must be added, though, that while it seemed like the Oscar nominee lists were positively crawling with Brits (Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, Rosamund Pike, Felicity Jones, Keira Knightley) there wasn’t all that much going on at this year’s Oscars when it came to Irish or Irish American movies or acting talent.
That may change next year. Looking ahead to the 2016 Oscars, one of the most-anticipated movies of the coming fall and winter, when studios roll out their prestige films, is about a New York Irish Catholic (played by two-time Best Actor winner Tom Hanks) who played a key role in one of the most infamous international incidents of the Cold War era. The film also could not be more timely, given President Obama’s recent decision to normalize ties with Cuba.
The film is called St. James Place and was directed by another artist quite familiar with the Academy Awards, Steven Spielberg. Irish American Amy Ryan and Irish actress (and Bono’s daughter) Eve Hewson also star in "St. James Place."
The hero of "St. James Place" was born on 139th Street in Manhattan 99 years ago this week, on February 29, 1916. His name was James Joseph Donovan, though he later used the middle name “Britt” to honor a family friend. According to family history (as recounted in the book "The Negotiator: the Life and Career of James Donovan" by Phillip J. Bigger), the Donovans originally hailed from Clonakilty, Co. Cork.
According to the book, James “was reared in a conservative Catholic home where concepts of family, religion, educational attainment and patriotism were key essentials – and he lived up to all of them.”
Donovan attended Fordham University and was already familiar with international law. He’d served as a lawyer at the Nuremberg trials, which sought to prosecute surviving Nazis after World War II, when he was thrust into the spotlight by the Kennedy family and the heightened tensions of the Cold War.
Donovan was (secretly) tabbed by the Kennedy administration to meet with Fidel Castro personally. Donovan was charged with negotiating the release of prisoners who were captured by Cuban authorities during the Bay of Pigs invasion, which American officials had supported in the hopes that it would lead to the overthrow of Castro’s communist regime.
"St. James Place," however, looks at a different conflict Donovan had to negotiate. One of the most infamous moments of the Cold War era began in May of 1960. A pilot by the name of Francis Gary Powers was flying missions over Soviet airspace when a missile was fired, forcing him to crash in hostile Soviet territory.
Powers was eventually taken prisoner, in what became a diplomatic showdown between the world’s two superpowers.
Donovan was charged with negotiating Powers’ release. Donovan was already intimately familiar with Cuba and had become America’s go-to guy when it came to negotiating prisoner releases.
A New York Times Magazine profile of the Cuban negotiations noted that Donovan "has been the sole direct channel between the United States and Cuba.”
A 2013 article in The Nation magazine added that while Donovan was basically a civilian "volunteer with no diplomatic status (it was not publicly known at the time that Donovan's missions were overseen by Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the CIA), he had negotiated the release and return to the United States of 1,163 members of the CIA-led exile brigade captured by Cuban forces at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. In addition, he had secured the departure of some 3,500 of their relatives after the 1962 missile crisis.”
Clearly, Hanks and Spielberg believe there is lot of cloak-and-dagger potential – and perhaps even an Academy Award or two – in the Irish American life of James Donovan, which was sadly cut short in 1970, when he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 53.* Contact [email protected]