From the stage to the screen, the director’s chair to the writer’s room, real-life jack-of-all-trades John Turturro channels his versatility in his latest feature, Fading Gigolo. As Fioravante, a sensitive florist and handyman who turns to the world’s oldest profession to help out a cash-strapped friend, played by Woody Allen, Turturro puts a lighthearted spin on this surprisingly poignant story about intimacy, companionship and love.
His first full auteur effort since 2005’s Romance and Cigarettes, at first glance, Fading Gigolo seems to possess the uncanny look, feel, and sound of a Woody Allen film: an opening New York City montage shot on 8 mm, a jazzy soundtrack, and a broad cast of quirky characters including Liev Schreiber as an overprotective Hasidic neighborhood watchman and, of course, Allen himself.
“I’d write the script and [Allen] would give me his feedback and tell me all the things he hated, which were many,” recalls Turturro. “He wouldn’t tell me what to do, but [it was] completely uncensored, brutal criticism.”
The pair’s friendship comes through onscreen, becoming – despite the gigolo business – the central relationship of the story. Yet the director was quick to point out that the banter-fueled dynamic is not an accurate depiction of their offscreen bond: “If that were true, then I would have written it in 5 days, not 2 years!” If anything, Fioravante and Murray’s (Allen) foray into prostitution was inspired by reality.
The opening sequence shows Murray left with no choice but to shut down the family bookstore for good, depriving him of income to help support his younger girlfriend and two children; a fate that Turturro watched happen to a friend of his. “I’ve seen a lot of bookstores close, and a lot of theaters close, and a lot of record and music stores close,” he says. “I [liked] the idea of things fading away, like flowers, and then trying to reinvent yourself out of it. Especially because things change, and what was once a job is no longer a job…I wasn’t trying to make a political statement, but I do think that with progress, there is loss.” At the same time, even in this age of technology, some issues remain that require human interaction. “If you have a plumbing problem, your app can’t fix it,” the actor adds wryly.
As the conversation winds its way around themes of exchange between individuals, intimacy and dating, Turturro elucidates what fascinated him about the sex industry. “I didn’t want to explore the dark, exploitive side of it at all, but I thought there is kind of a human transaction that goes on…There’s a lot of people who get abused by [the system], but I’m just using it more as a metaphor for intimacy.”
Although Fioravante and Murray develop a sizable clientele, the film focuses on a select few: a dermatologist (Sharon Stone) with a cold husband who wants to “try out” the protagonist before committing to a threesome with her bored, wealthy friend (Sofia Vergara); and Avigal, a Hasidic widow (Vanessa Paradis), whose traditional convictions prevent her from moving on. The juxtaposition may seem predictable (“If you’re gonna make a movie about sex, you need to have an obstacle or else you run out of steam”), but Turturro unveils more nuance as the film progresses, thanks in no small part to a delightful performance by Paradis.
Encouraged by Murray, who takes his girlfriend’s children to Avigal for a thorough head lice inspection, the widow first sees Fioravante on the pretext of a therapy session. After observing the proper pomp and circumstance (religion dictates that Avigal’s head must remain covered and that Murray cannot ride with her in the backseat of the car), she arrives at Fioravante’s apartment. “Sex and religion go hand in hand,” says Turturro, who grew up Catholic. “The spirit and the flesh – that’s part of life.”
Yet what happens between Fioravante and Avigal in this scene, arguably one of the film’s best, conveys much while showing little, which is exactly what Turturro wanted to capitalize upon when incorporating religion into the story. “I watch a lot of sex scenes and they’re so unaffected – they’re ineffectual. You watch and you go, ‘Ah, they’re in good shape,’ but you don’t feel anything.” Instead, Avigal lies down on the massage table that’s been brought in for her appointment. The camera lingers on her face as Fioravante carefully undoes her blouse and, as soon as he places his hands on her back, she cries; it’s the first time anyone has touched her since her husband passed.
As Fioravante and Avigal continue their clandestine meetings (cue Schreiber’s character), we see him losing interest in the doctor and the prospect of a threesome. But just because there’s an element of the thrill of the chase, don’t peg it as a typical romantic comedy. “I wasn’t interested in the end result,” admits Turturro, who instead focuses on how the characters evolve over the course of their sessions. “[I liked] the idea of putting these people who have life experience in situations where they’re like 16 or 17 – like Avigal. She’s never been courted. She doesn’t know what it is.” On the flip side, Stone’s character, who is Fioravante’s first client, begins to show signs of jealousy.In previous interviews, the director has compared his work as an actor to the work his character in Fading Gigolo performs in that both provide specific services. And perhaps his eclectic filmography, which includes multiple collaborations with the Coen brothers and Spike Lee, as well as a supporting role in the second and third installments of Transformers (he made it clear he’s not back for the upcoming sequel), affirms the similarity. “I have to make a living, man!” he says with a laugh.
“I did Transformers because I had turned down so many big movies that my son said, ‘Dad, just do it.’ And I had a good time doing it, but I don’t live in that world…I don’t look down on it. I try to do a good job but it’s more like, if I’m a painter, it’s a sketch versus a really detailed painting.”
In other words, don’t come down too hard on the big budget action movies that will fill theaters from now until Oscar season, because it’s thanks to them that actors like Turturro can afford to pursue smaller passion projects like Fading Gigolo. He’s certainly not the first to voice these opinions on the state of contemporary cinema, but here’s to hoping that more of these smaller features can reach bigger audiences and not, simply, fade away.
— Misa Shikuma