It's a tantalizing combination of words — Woody Allen is a pimp — that seems custom-made for tabloid fodder. And while cheeky headline writers may still be inclined to exploit the phrase, actor and filmmaker John Turturro had more artistic intentions when he decided to cast the controversial comedian as an aging procurer in his "Fading Gigolo."
Opening Friday in limited release, Turturro's film — he wrote, directed and stars opposite Allen — is one of the season's more unusual amalgams. A religious sex comedy? A sociable meditation on loneliness? An exploration of a Hasidic Jewish enclave? "Fading Gigolo" is all of those things. Plus Allen acting in a non-Woody Allen movie for the first time in more than a decade.
Turturro, who previously directed "Mac" and "Romance & Cigarettes" among other films, said some of his earliest ideas about the independently financed film were rooted in his memories of 1975's "Shampoo," starring Warren Beatty as George, a Beverly Hills hairdresser as adept at tressing locks as he is undressing women. For all of George's sexual couplings, Turturro said, he's ultimately emotionally untethered. What if the story were updated and set in the world of sex workers, with Turturro playing a gigolo?
That's when the idea of collaborating with Allen took root. The 57-year-old actor said he had always wanted to work with the 78-year-old director. (All this of course before the recent flare-up about old, unproven charges of sexual molestation brought up by estranged daughter Dylan Farrow that turned into an ugly public spectacle.)
"I thought that maybe we would be interesting together," said Turturro, who acts opposite the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in May 9's "God's Pocket." "Maybe we would have some good chemistry. I've always kind of liked him."
So he took a page out of "Shampoo" and used their mutual hairdresser as an intermediary. Could the barber ask Allen, Turturro wondered, if he would be interested in playing a pimp in a movie? The barber passed along the suggestion to Allen, and by the time Turturro was ready for another haircut the answer was yes.
"I was kind of fooling around," Turturro said. "But he took it seriously."
Allen last had a lead role in a film he didn't direct 14 years ago, in 2000's Alfonso Arau comedy "Picking Up the Pieces." But he wasn't joining "Fading Gigolo" just as a performer. He wanted to help shape the story, and Turturro was happy to welcome Allen as a collaborator.
The finished film is more serious and less coarse than Turturro initially intended. "The initial drafts were much bawdier," he said. "It was much more overt."
But as he started researching the sex industry, he started to see prostitutes and sex surrogates in a different light. "Most people concentrate on their being the victim, being exploited and drug-addicted, and some of these things are true," Turturro said. "But they don't think about what they give to their clients. There is a transaction that does go on, but sometimes it's an emotional one."
At the start of the film, Turturro's quiet florist, Fioravante, is working with Allen's Murray in the latter's rare and used book store. Fioravante's checking account balance stands at $652.84, and his mounting liabilities are a lot more than that.
When Murray's dermatologist (Sharon Stone) reveals that she is interested in a ménage à trois, the bookseller suggests to his younger assistant that he take the job. "I am not a beautiful man," Fioravante complains. "Is Mick Jagger a beautiful man?" Murray replies.
In no time at all, Fioravante is pocketing $1,000 plus tips for his services (Murray negotiates a 40% commission), and the pair are off on their new enterprise.
But where a broad comedy like "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo" would mine the situation for lowbrow laughs, "Fading Gigolo" makes a turn for the serious. One of Allen's suggestions was that Turturro expand the role of Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a repressed widow of a Hasidic rabbi with six children. Fioravante slowly and patiently brings Avigal alive, which ultimately lands Murray — who is now calling his pimp self "Dan Bongo" — in front of a Hasidic tribunal. It's a setup that seems lifted from an early Allen short story, but the scene turns into an exploration of orthodox patriarchy and a woman's need for intimacy.
Murray may remind some people of Allen's character in "Broadway Danny Rose" — he is the same kind of hustling talent agent but now several decades older.
Early reviews for the film have been mostly positive but often polarized, with some critics saying that Allen's persona and recent debate over Farrow's accusations are more liabilities than assets. Turturro disagrees.
"People are happy to see him in the performance," Turturro says of Allen's prominent role. "He's serious. He's funny. And a lot of people don't realize what a wonderful actor he really is."