By Tammy Scileppi
If you were lucky enough to catch the screening of “Romance & Cigarettes” and meet with actor and filmmaker John Turturro at Long Island City’s Socrates Sculpture Park last week at dusk, you hopefully came away with an autograph, as well as a strong opinion about a very special, unapologetically bawdy film. Offering hefty doses of humor and pathos, and featuring a stellar cast of famous actors, the R-rated, down-and-dirty 2005 musical was written and directed by the highly talented Turturro, best known for his roles in such films as “Do the Right Thing” and “The Big Lebowski.” He most recently won praise for his portrayal of public defender John Stone in the gripping HBO series “The Night Of.”
This year the park’s most anticipated program, Outdoor Cinema, featured eight weeks of movies in the five-acre waterfront location on Wednesday evenings (July 5 through Aug. 23). A cornucopia of international films transported viewers across the globe, from Timbuktu to Sweden to Caracas. As a nod to the Queens community, Greek culture was celebrated with the critically acclaimed comedy “Chevalier,” and in Turturro’s film, viewers watched Christopher Walken dance across local streets in Jamaica (150th Street) and Jackson Heights, as well as in Bensonhurst and Red Hook in Brooklyn.
After premiering at the Venice and Toronto Film festivals in 2005 and enjoying solid reviews, “Romance and Cigarettes” sat in limbo due to a legal mess between Sony and MGM over rights. Turturro decided to use his own money to distribute the film and it endured a limited U.S. release in 2007.
Described as “energetic in its profanity,” Romance & Cigarettes stars a beloved actor that Turturro was very close to — the late, great James Gandolfini, of “The Sopranos” fame. As anti-hero Nick Murder, Gandolfini plays a chain-smoking Queens construction worker and family man who cheats on his long-suffering wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon). Encircled by their hilarious family, the couple never miss a chance to throw stinging verbal insults at each other; she calls him a whoremaster after discovering a risqué poem he wrote to his trashy English mistress Tula (Kate Winslet), who works in a sex lingerie boutique.
Surprisingly, Nick deals with his stressful marriage by leaving the house and dancing up a storm across neighborhood streets, as a singing chorus of neighbors, garbagemen, and others join along. If it sounds surreal, it is. But that’s what makes this film so unique.
While Kitty’s “army” consists of her three young adult daughters (Mary-Louise Parker, Mandy Moore, and Turturro’s cousin Aida Turturro, who played Gandolfini’s sister in “The Sopranos”), as well as Elvis-wannabe Cousin Bo (Christopher Walken), Nick’s clan includes his work buddy Angelo (Steve Buscemi) and his mom (Elaine Stritch). Eddie Izzard plays the church choir director.
The film surprises with entertaining intervals of popular soundtrack songs by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin, James Brown, Cyndi Lauper and Elvis Presley sprinkled throughout. The music seems to enhance the characters’ foul language and emotional outbursts. As the title suggests, there is a lot of smoking.
Prior to the screening of “Romance & Cigarettes” at Socrates, Executive Director John Hatfield said: “More than a decade after coming to Queens to create a wild musical in our neighborhood’s streets, John Turturro returns to the borough to watch his film outdoors with Queens residents.”
A Brooklyn native, Turturro moved to the Rosedale section of Queens with his family, when he was six. “His parents gave him the greatest gift of all: a childhood in Queens. He came back to introduce his film, which takes place in his boyhood borough,” said Queens Tourism Council Director Rob MacKay.
In a 2007 interview about “Romance & Cigarettes” with Filmmaker Magazine, Turturro talked about how close to his heart the work was for him.
“To me, the film is very much me. [laughs] It’s probably more me than anything I’ve ever done,” Turturro said. “There’s a real nakedness to it, and I promised myself I’d be uninhibited as much as I possibly could be, and try to get everyone else to do that. There are things in life that you witness that can be painful or harsh, but when you digest them you say, ‘Wow, there’s something universal there.’ My idea was to put that into a form that was entertaining. I think if you’re laughing at something, you’re open, and you could also be very moved.”
If you’ve seen Turturro’s work, you know him as the guy who usually has that uneasy, anxious demeanor and the oftentimes annoying onscreen mannerisms of his characters, as in “The Night Of.”
Turturro, 59, is a favorite of the Coen Brothers and has appeared in more of Lee’s films (nine) than any other actor.
Back in 2007, Roger Ebert said “Romance & Cigarettes” was worthy of “four stars and both of my thumbs way up!” He described it as “the real thing, a film that breaks out of Hollywood jail with audacious originality, startling sexuality, heartfelt emotions and an anarchic liberty. The actors toss their heads and run their mouths like prisoners let loose to race free.”
Once described as being both a director’s actor and an actor’s director who adds depth and humanity to the characters he inhabits, Turturro made his theatrical debut when he created the title role of 1983’s “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.” Since then, he has performed in a variety of stage productions, including “Waiting for Godot,” “The Bald Soprano,” and “Souls of Naples,” for which he was nominated for a Drama Desk Award. He was nominated twice for a SAG Award® for his portrayal of Howard Cosell in “Monday Night Mayhem,” and for “The Bronx is Burning.” He won an Emmy® Award for his guest appearance on the TV series “Monk.” Other films as director/writer include “Illuminata, Passione: a Musical Adventure,” “Fading Gigolo,” and a segment in the upcoming anthology film, “Rio, I Love You.”
In 1992, he made his directorial debut with “Mac,” about three Italian American brothers who band together to start a construction firm inspired by Turturro’s own father’s experiences as a carpenter.
In one interview, Turturro — who grew up in an Italian-American family, with a jazz singer mother and a construction worker and WWII veteran father, who had PTSD — recalled that his little house was bursting with music. But when recounting other parts of his real-life story on The Moth in January, he said family life was volatile at times.
Turturro joined “Here’s the Thing” host Alec Baldwin live in conversation at The Greene Space at WNYC (October 2016). They talked about his career and the relationships that have influenced his work over the years.
“I don’t take my opportunity lightly,” Turturro said. “I’m very thankful when I get a really good opportunity because I know how hard it is. There’s a part of you. … You feel like you’re good when you’re doing it and then when it’s over you’re like: Did I really do that? Did I do okay? And then it’s kinda gone. You’re still in the process of learning. … I think as an actor we can improve, actually, we’re not done when we’re 30.”