Hey Woody Allen haters: if you were hoping his rare sojourn as strictly a hired actor in writer/director/star John Turturro‘s new comedy, Fading Gigolo, would flop due to his latest scandal and controversy you have to be sorely disappointed today. Not only did Gigolo NOT fail, it drew the second highest opening weekend gross for a 2014 indie release and reviews, though mixed for the movie are particularly good for Allen’s turn as a “pimp” for the aging lothario played by Turturro. With nearly $200,000 at just five theaters and a sterling $39,680 per screen average it came in only behind Wes Anderson’s hit, The Grand Budapest Hotel in terms of limited debuts this year. Millennium’s Bill Lee told Deadline Sunday the film was performing even better than they had hoped. It starts expanding next weekend. Now why is this significant?
There’s lots of talk about how personal scandals can affect the box office and reception of a movie. Currently the Bryan Singer controversy is overshadowing the May 23rd release by Fox of his latest directorial achievement, X Men: Days Of Future Past but I doubt it will have any effect on the ultimate success of that film, no matter what happens. You probably can’t drag X Men fans away. You can always speculate on these things. Did bad timing with last week’s highly-publicized vicious bear attack on a Florida woman inadvertently hurt the box office of DisneyNature’s Bears, a terrific new G-rated documentary with cuddly animals that did less than expected business over the weekend? Let the conspiracy theories begin.
But Woody Allen’s visibility might have been another matter. However moviegoers seem more interested in the movie than peripheral issues dancing on the sidelines. The same thing seemingly happened last month with Oscar voters.
As you will recall naysayers had jumped all over Allen after Dylan Farrow, in an open letter published in the New York Times that was released February 1, publicly accused him of sexually molesting her when she was a child. This once again blew up the never-ending battle between Allen and Dylan’s mother Mia Farrow. Those 1993 charges were never pursued and Allen always has stated his innocence. This all broke just hours before I took to the stage at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival to moderate the tribute to Cate Blanchett, star of Allen’s Blue Jasmine. Dylan had openly called out Blanchett , among other actors, for even working with Allen. “What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett?”, she wrote in her open letter. Some pundits immediately began speculating the renewed “scandal” could hurt Blue Jasmine’s chances at the Oscars where Allen was nominated for Original Screenplay and Blanchett was, without question, the front runner and a “lock” to win Best Actress. Allen was never going to win in the writing category, but some speculated this could impact Blanchett’s chances. Obviously it didn’t and she warmly thanked Allen in her Academy Award acceptance speech.
I could never find any evidence of this controversy even remotely affecting the movie or Blanchett among Oscar voters with whom I spoke. In fact I couldn’t find anyone who wasn’t voting for Blanchett and nobody ever mentioned the Farrow stuff. Nevertheless, though Jasmine came through with flying colors at the Oscars, untainted by controversy, there was concern about the impact any of this might have on Fading Gigolo which Millennium had picked up at the Toronto International Film Festival in September (where I first saw it and really liked it) and later scheduled for a Spring release. One source very close to the film told me they were definitely concerned how this would all play out and even had, at one point, discussed a contingency plan to move the film to October 2014 if publicity about Allen’s personal life threatened to overwhelm the marketing . “Obviously that didn’t happen and Woody came out just fine, ” the source told me. And clearly Millennium thought Allen’s name would be a plus in selling the film since he appears just as prominently in all the advertising as Turturro even though it is really a supporting role, albeit a large one.
Gigolo represents that rare straight major acting role for Allen who last had a big role in a major theatrical feature he didn’t direct in Alfonso Arau’s 2000 comedy Picking Up The Pieces which ironically co-starred Gigolo’s Sharon Stone. He appeared briefly as himself in 2012’s French Paris-Manhattan, in a voice role in 1998’s animated Antz and the mid-90’s TV movies Sunshine Boys and Don’t Drink The Water in addition to an uncredited cameo a couple of other times, and in 1991 he was paired with Bette Midler in Paul Mazursky’s Scenes From A Mall, but you would have to go back to Martin Ritt’s 1976 The Front for a flat out starring role in a non-Allen big screen feature.
I also doubt that any lingering adverse publicity about Allen will impact the Tony Award chances for the just-opened Broadway musical version of his Oscar winning film, Bullets Over Broadway for which he also wrote the book. The mixed to negative tone of many of the reviews is more likely to hurt it at the Tonys than anything else (nominations to be announced next Tuesday), but the show is holding its own with the public playing to around 85% capacity so far. And on July 25th, Sony Pictures Classics plans to carry through with its release of Allen’s next writing/directorial movie effort, Magic In The Moonlight starring Colin Firth and obviously have confidence it will perform up to Woody Allen box office standards despite the publicity from earlier in the year.
There’s no question Millennium is happy with the results and the decision to release Fading Gigolo when they did. In a recent interview I did with Bill Block, Founder and CEO of QED which made the film he told me it was a dream relationship working with Allen on it and said it was a real coup to get him to agree to do it. Actually he said Woody and John share the same barber, Sal and one day Turturro mentioned he had a role that would be perfect for Woody. Sal, unbeknownst to Turturro, pitched it to Allen the next time he came in and he liked it. He told Sal he should mention it to Turturro which the barber did and the rest is history. But taking a job as just an actor? “That’s a reflection of his trust and long term relationship with Turturro. When he’s in his wheelhouse like I think he is in this one – what I call his Broadway Danny Rose persona – there’s nobody quite like it and I think John understood that and created it for him,” Block said. Allen doesn’t really think of himself as an actor even though he was once Oscar nominated for his performance in Annie Hall (he’s won four for writing/directing) so it’s the rare project that can lure him in front of cameras that aren’t under his own control but once he’s on board he’s totally invested.
Block says Woody was very involved in honing the role and worked closely with Turturro on it. “He gave tough notes but once the script was set he was a pure actor. His respect for John is such that it’s John’s movie then,” he said adding that he was very present on the set and never even used his trailer. “I said to Woody after he finished a take, ‘aren’t you gonna go back to your trailer?’ He said ‘no’. He just sits there on the set and writes or helps the other actors with their lines so I used his trailer as my office. He was never there,” he laughed.