Love for sale: John Turturro directs and collaborates with Woody Allen on comedy about unexpected 'Fading Gigolo'
Once upon a barber’s chair, John Turturro was rattling on about an idea he had for a movie. Turns out, his barber cuts Woody Allen’s hair too, and passed the plot along.
“Very interesting,” said Woody. “Tell me more.” A few more months of “mores” later—at their mutual barber’s urging—they got together on neutral tonsorial turf.
This was—after Mac, Illuminata and Romance & Cigarettes—Turturro’s fourth time directing one of his original screenplays, and he was huddling with The Grandfather of Original Screenplays! (Allen has received more writing Oscar nominations than anyone—16, four more than the previous title-holder, Billy Wilder.) “Woody liked the idea and told me he would give feedback along the way,” Turturro recalls. “I wrote it—rewrote it—over a couple of years, between acting assignments, and each time we’d confer. He encouraged me to make it as sophisticated as I could, which helped.”
The result is Millennium Entertainment’s Fading Gigolo, a quirky little human comedy with writer-director Turturro in the title role and a major supporting part for Allen. The comedy comes from the fact that the filmmakers have cast themselves against type—way against type: Turturro as Joe Buck and Allen as Ratso Rizzo. They may go under the names of Fioravante and Murray, but they still function like stud and manager, despite physical appearances that are actively to the contrary of such jobs.
“A lot of times in movies, people are cast because they’re really, really beautiful, but this film says, ‘Well, what about people who are not beautiful but have their own sexuality?’ Some people are considered sexy just because they are charming. There are people who are great lovers and don’t look it at all. That was the idea of the film.
“Every one of us is the leading player in our own life. We don’t have Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts stepping in for us. Some great love stories have starred unlikely candidates: that great French actor, Michel Simon, or an Everyman guy like Gene Hackman.”
To that list of the potent-but-unprepossessing, add Turturro’s Fading Gigolo. He had no qualms about writing and casting himself in the title role. “I’ve always gotten along well with women, whether as a boyfriend or a friend,” he says. “I have a lot of women friends. I like working with women a lot. I also feel comfortable with them.”
Another reason the actor feels comfortable in the role is that Fioravante arrives, as a character, a clean slate, with no family life or sexual history to speak of—a meek, mild-mannered florist who may or may not have picked up some worldly wisdom along the way. Turturro based this perfectly formed zero on people he knows.
“I thought of a few I knew who were hitting that 50 mark, and they were still living a life that you would live maybe when you were in your mid-20s—a very solitary life.”
A little late-blooming color is added to this florist’s life when his elderly friend, Murray, who, out of the blue and off the top of his head, recommends him on hearing that a dermatologist (Sharon Stone) needs a third for a threesome she wants to have with a friend (Sofia Vergara). He charges $1,000 for this information, making him a pimp and Fioravante a “ho.” Having nothing better to do (or maybe just nothing), Fioravante rises to the occasion and discovers belatedly he’s proficient at the art. Both predatory dames give him a test run before they go after the ménage a trois.
“There have been lots of films made about the oldest profession—mostly with women. That was one of the go-to roles for a lot of actresses—that and a nun. I know, in reality, it’s a very exploitive transaction, often a very brutal one, but I was thinking of this particular situation as being a little more charming than that.”
Murray, who runs a rare-books store (so rare it’s going out of business), also has a real-life reference. “I have a friend, who’s older than me, who runs a bookstore that’s not doing very well these days,” Turturro notes. “That started me thinking about all these little places that I love that are disappearing. I thought that this would be an interesting element for the movie, because the middle class is starting to disappear.”
Because Allen is so present and accounted for in the film, one sometimes forgets this is not a Woody Allen movie. In his 45-film career, this is about the seventh or eighth time he has taken direction from another director. “I had this feeling that we, maybe, would have this great chemistry together,” Turturro admits. “Some of what you see on the screen is a little bit our relationship. We’re acting, of course, but there’s kind of an affection between us. He’s older than me, and I maybe defer to him. He’s, actually, a really wonderful actor, and I had a terrific time working with him on this.”
Evidently, the feeling is quite mutual: In the middle of this project, Allen tapped Turturro to direct a one-act play of his on Broadway (which with a one-act play by Elaine May and a one-act play by Ethan Coen constituted 2011’s Relatively Speaking). “I got to know him even better doing the play,” he recalls. “He is so easy to work with—one of the two easiest people to work with on the whole movie.”
The easiest person to work with on Fading Gigolo, in Turturro’s view—one had to ask—was Vanessa Paradis, the popular French singer-model and César-winning actress who is mostly known in this country as “the face of Chanel” and (until recently) as Johnny Depp’s main squeeze and the mother of his children.
Her achingly vulnerable performance as an Orthodox rabbi’s widow who avails herself of Fiorvante’s services gives the picture an emotional heft and takes it in a completely different direction (a good thing, considering the unsavory alternative).
“Vanessa has this quality that’s very unusual,” Turturro observes. “I think it almost deepened the movie and changed it all for the better. She’s got this gracefulness about her. It’s very hard not to fall in love with her when you’re watching her.”
Turturro finessed a number of old friends into his picture, as is his wont. Most notable is Liev Schreiber in the underwritten role of Paradis’ smitten, secret admirer. Others variously involved in the film: Bob Balaban, Tony winner Tonya Pinkins and David Margulies, along with Turturro’s wife (Katherine Borowitz), son (Diego), sister (Aida), sidekick (Max Casella) and college bud (Michael Badalucco, who can always be counted on for a funny, fiery Vesuvius display of emotion.)
For crew, he re-enlisted his Passione DP, Marco Pontecorvo, and editor Simona Paggi. “It took a long time to edit, but we had a tight shooting schedule: six weeks.”
Last month, Turturro returned from Brazil, where he wrote and appeared in an “I Love Rio”-type short with Paradis, based on one of her songs on her new album.
In his next picture as an actor, Turturro will continue to mix it up with the Jews. He plays the Pharaoh in Ridley Scott’s retelling of the Moses story, Exodus. “No, I don’t play Yul Brynner. I’m Yul’s father” [Sir Cedric Hardwicke, for those who know DeMille’s film]. It came with an additional indignity: “They shaved my head."