Fading Gigolo tells the story of Fioravante (John Turturro), a self-assured florist who gets recruited by his older friend Murray (Woody Allen) to work as, of all things, a gigolo. Fioravante isn’t overly thrilled with the prospect, but the money’s good, and the clients are happy with his work. Things get complicated when he encounters Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), the lonely widow of an ultra-orthodox rabbi.
John Turturro: Did you get to see the movie in a screening?
Matthew Lickona: Alas, it was a screener DVD. But it was fairly gorgeous.
JT: It’s more so on a big screen. Hopefully, maybe, you’ll see it there someday.
ML: Tell me about the story’s origins.
JT: I’ve always been interested in that subject matter, maybe because I’ve seen so many films about it, and read so many books about it. There was a movie years ago, Shampoo, about a hairdresser, this guy who served all these women. Vanessa’s wig looks very much like Julie Christie’s hair in that movie. I found that wig and fell in love with it, and I was thinking, “Why do I love this wig so much?” Because it was like Julie Christie’s hair. When I put it on Vanessa’s head a couple of weeks later and it fit, I was so happy. Shampoo is the kind of movie that says a lot of things about relationships.
So I was thinking about doing something with me and Woody together, and I thought about the people I know who are around his age. I have a friend who is the same age as Woody, and he lost his rare bookstore, and I was thinking, “Wow, what is he going to do to make a living?” And this kind of popped into my head. Woody really liked the idea, and he encouraged me to develop it in a sophisticated way. We did these plays together on Broadway, which I directed, and over the course of it, he would give me lots of what he calls “merciless criticism” on the drafts I would show him. I was able to withstand that, and actually enjoy it. So by the time we actually shot the movie, I think you are seeing a little bit of our relationship.
ML: Why call it Fading Gigolo?
JT: I could have called it The Reluctant Gigolo. But I just liked the idea of a fading photograph — little establishments fading and disappearing, and people having to reinvent themselves. I think it’s happening throughout the world; the world is changing in that way. I liked the title, and Woody liked it, and I stuck with it, even though there was lots of discussion about it.
ML: That mention of change leads into the fact that part of this film is exploring a community that is very much set against any kind of change, these ultra-orthodox Jews.
JT: Yes, that’s part of it. I thought that if you’re going to make a picture about sex, even if it’s a comedy, you certainly have to include religion. Because they’re interconnected. And so many religions have to deal with the control of women, whether it’s a headdress or a hat or a scarf or a wig or clothing or whatever. That’s something that interests me, because I do think it’s a big part of the world — this kind of fear of what a woman would do if left to her own devices. I think it’s a big problem in some ways, and so it interests me.
ML: It’s a fine line you walk. There’s certainly comedy in the confrontation between the Jewish judges and the more secular Murray, but I didn’t pick up on an element of contempt for or dismissal of those judges.
JT: Good. I do think that if you’re going to engage something, you have to see its strengths as well as its weaknesses — what it really does offer to people.
ML: Because it doesn’t seem like Avigal hates her situation, as difficult as it is.
JT: Well, she’s got six kids, and that’s the world she knows. If she was younger without any kids...I’ve met people who have left [those communities] because they didn’t have a whole family in that situation. If you do have a family, you’re affecting a lot of people’s lives. When she goes and defends herself before the judges, it’s very courageous, because she’s still part of that community. But she’s never been courted. She’s never really been seen, in a way. She’s never been able to be herself completely.
ML: What strengths would you say that her world has?
JT: A lot of times, when you are part of a community, you’re part of a tradition. You have a whole network of people. And when you’re not part of a community, you’re devoid of that. And there are people who are happy when they’re given the answers, the solutions to things. How to live. A lot of us are just making it up as we go along — I’m one of those people. And as you go along, you think, “Wow, I came from this, but I don’t really practice it. Where do I fit in?” Especially when you marry someone from a different background.
ML: I was struck by how low-key you kept the tone, even as you dealt with extremes of sexuality — from the extreme containment of Avigal to these women who want to pay for a threesome. The humanity of everyone involved comes through. But there’s still a moral element — there’s a bit of tension in Murray’s repeated refrain that a guy’s gotta make a living.
JT: Sure, I think you’re dealing with morality and immorality. That’s the whole idea of the film — Murray saying, “Hey, you’re a lover; you should get paid for it.” There’s a capitalist approach. I’m not exploring the dark, dark side of it; I was more exploring the cost of intimacy and people’s hunger for it — hopefully, in an entertaining way. As for the tone, we were certainly going for something that would be human, and it’s easy to tip the balance and have something be too much. Certainly, I was aware of that when we were shooting the scenes with the women. I could see very quickly that for this movie, the more delicate the approach, the more potent it would be. I think having Vanessa was really a kind of compass; she could just embody it — she has this innate, beautiful delicacy and gracefulness.
ML: I was able to get a pretty good read on every character except the main one, Fioravante. He seemed to switch gears so easily between all these different sorts of relationships, to pitch himself perfectly to everybody in order to connect with them.
JT: Well, you have to perform. He’s a guy who’s been with a lot of different women. I would say that he likes women, and he’s probably used to adjusting himself to them. But when he meets Avigal, he’s affected in a different way: here’s a woman that he could really be with. I thought of him as a guy who expressed himself more with this body, with what he could do. Almost like a cowboy — kind of an isolated figure, but comfortable with women. I’ve known men who are like that. I didn’t want to explain it too much. Sometimes, with a quiet person, you can project things onto them, especially if they’re a good listener.
Gene Ammons 01 "Hittin' the Jug"
ML: Tell me about selecting the soundtrack. I don’t know if I’ll ever hear Gene Ammons’ Boss Tenor again without thinking of this movie.
Dalida & Alain Delon: Paroles, paroles
JT: I grew up with that album, and I wrote a lot of this movie to that album. Also to a CD by a famous European singer, Dalida. Those really became part of the DNA of the movie; they were a big part of my creating it. I wanted it to be inviting the viewer into the story, and not to dictate the emotion.