John Turturro Explores His Sexuality in his Latest Film
If it’s hard to imagine John Turturro playing a male prostitute, it might be incomprehensible, at least unconventional, to picture Woody Allen as his pimp. But that’s the basis for Fading Gigolo, about an odd-couple partnership between Turturro’s Fioravante, a mid-fifties florist, and Allen’s Murray, a struggling bookseller. And unlike the two men’s rather flamboyant underground vocations, the film provides an understated rendering of unlikely professions within a warm Brooklyn backdrop.
This is Turturro’s fifth film directing, following his last feature “Romance and Cigarettes” and music documentary “Passione.” It’s one in which the iconic and diverse actor believes is very different stylistically than his others. “This is the most delicate film I think I’ve made of my five films,” he said at a recent promotional press conference.
While Fading Gigolo begins with a conversation between the unlikely pair about a ménage a trois, its erotic ethos is treated carefully and sometimes comically. Murray harmlessly suggests to Fioravante that he would be an ideal candidate for his female dermatologist’s (Sharon Stone) desire for a three-way with her friend (Sofia Vergarra). Soon enough, Murray begins promoting his newest client to other needy women all over the city.
“The one thing I was worried about doing it was having a man with confidence, but who isn’t cocky, not looking for the result, for home base, but to enjoy the moment,” said Turturro. “I didn’t want the character to be that. He’s quiet but he’s not shy.”
The scriptwriting process took about two years for Turturro, who claims the story was inspired to him while in sitting in a barbershop. Part of the research involved Turturro contacting male prostitutes and picking their brains. But more guidance came from Allen offering occasional writing suggestions and sending drafts back and forth, building a relationship with him before filming.
“He made some very good comments without telling me what to do,” explained Turturro. “It became more nuanced as it went on and then we worked in the theater in the middle of this writing process, we did these plays on Broadway, and I got to know him quite well and that helped.
Directing Woody Allen was a different story. It is rare to see Allen in a film he’s not directing (the last time occurred in a vocal role for the 1998 animated movie “Antz”), so naturally Turturro was a little nervous in giving direction.
“The first day on set he wasn’t getting his lines right away, and I’m thinking ‘Oh my God’ he skipped three paragraphs,” said Turturro.
“I was looking at him thinking, I have to actually tell him what to do. But after thirty minutes it was easy. He hardly ever questioned me and was really easy to work with,” he said.
The story hinges of course on the women Fioravante is pleasing. Stone plays Dr. Parker, an unhappily married elite and is eager to get her friend Selima, played by Vergarra, to spice things up in the bedroom. If you consider Thomas Jane’s recent run as a gigolo in HBO’s short-lived Hung as aesthetic protocol, Turturro’s physique doesn’t appear qualified. But the women he sees seem to rely less on defined pectorals than a restrained confident allure.
“I don’t think we were looking for the right man, we were paying for the right man,” joked Vergarra about the female characters. “I think these women are doing this in their lives because they have some emptiness, even though you see they are powerful and beautiful and successful. When you do something like this it’s because you’re lacking something.”
“When you’re laughing and having a good time you can actually slip things in that can be really moving or really delicate or really tender. It doesn’t have to be a greeting card sentimentality,” added Turturro.
The second half of the film, a side more sensually treated, involves another female client, this time a reluctant Chasidic Jewish women named Avigal (Vannessa Paradis). Murray encourages her to meet with Fioravante, who provokes in her an untapped inner pleasure she has resisted since her husband’s death. Comically, lamentably chasing after their escapades is Liev Schreiber, a law enforcer donning payots in his Chasidic Brooklyn community who has had a crush on Avigal since childhood.
The multi-cultural casting- including an African-American family Murray supports- was central to the diverse neighborhood and city.
“You want to have people who have something in common, but who are different enough so there’s a big variety. I tried to have a variety in a multi-cultural city,” Turturro commented about his actors.
Brooklyn, of course, becomes its own character in Fading Gigolo and Turturro is quite aware of its boundaries and capabilities, especially by acting in Spike Lee classics like Do The Right Thing! and Jungle Fever. But his 2014 vision is a special blend of new and old, painted crisply and nostalgically as though it were at times a fairytale setting. It even begins with footage from an old film reel that must have inspired Turturro to anachronistically shoot the whole film using celluloid.
“We chose to shoot the movie on film, and tested it in a few ways, and found film was a softer medium on everybody’s skin. And I think that really helps in a way,” he said.
His particular cinematic vision came from a handful of artistic sensibilities.
“I used different photographs, paintings and inspirations,” he said. “I looked at a lot of Saul Leiter photographs and looked at Moravian paintings of still lifes, and they were just helpful for the visual palette. We tried to have all of the characters balance each other; lots of reds and blacks, and so inch by inch you create a visual palette and then we all work together on it and you have something cohesive and almost like a storybook.”
And it wouldn’t be wrong to approach the film as though it were a storybook. Much of the film’s pleasures come in characters describing their own bedroom stories, whether its Parker relaying her experience over the phone to Selima, or Murray questioning and bumbling about Fiorvanate’s nights out.
“Sometimes when people have sex, the best part is sharing it with your friends,” Turturro said. “Then you see your friend live vicariously through you and you’re like, ‘Oh my God’ this is better than what happened!”
Fading Gigolo hits select theaters today