How do you portray the seething, bi-polar head of a household, when your own family memories are loving and happy?
There was that killing he witnessed as a boy in the Bronx, the one involving a parking space. And some rather nasty fellows appeared in his semi-autobiographical 1993 movie, A Bronx Tale.
“I’ve played some real despicable characters in my career,” Chazz acknowledged to subscribers at the New York Film Critics screening. “But I always try to find a way to make the audience, if they can’t like me, they understand me. If they understand me, then I’m okay with that.”
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Set in the mid-1970s, Mighty Fine is the story of Joe Fine, the Brooklyn-born owner of a southern garment factory. Chasing the good life, he moves his wife and two daughters to New Orleans. As the garment industry unravels, so does he. This also is an autobiography–by writer/director Debbie Goodstein. Her father struggled with anger issues that left deep emotional scars, she said.
Chazz commended Debbie for shining light on a dark problem.
“Rage is like a never-ending curse. . . You have to stop it,” said the actor, who turned 60 on Tuesday.
‘OVER THE TOP’
Glimmers of a caring family man flash throughout Chazz’ performance. An audience member remarked that “Joe Fi’s” eyes convey an omnipresent sadness despite the anger.
That was intentional, Chazz said, sharing something he learned at Lee Strasberg’s famed Actors Studio.
“I remember we would talk as actors, and Lee Strasberg would say, ‘Sometimes you say something, but your emotion is the opposite of what you’re saying. And that’s what makes an actor interesting.'”
A former bouncer, Calogero Lorenzo Palminteri is best known for a Bronx Tale, The Usual Suspects and his Oscar- nominated portrayal of a playwriting gangster in Woody Allen’s comedy Bullets Over Broadway. He has a recurring role in the TV comedy Modern Family, and will play the late mobster Paul Castellano in a biography of John Gotti.
In a Q & A session at Morristown’s Clearview Cinemas moderated by Caryn James, film critic for Indiewire, Chazz said he enjoys working with fledgling directors–Mighty Fine is only Debbie’s second feature-length film–because of their willingness to experiment and take risks.
Portraying Debbie’s father gave him some artistic leeway, he added, because the subject is not famous.
“It’s a blank canvas, I can put my own spin on it… I can use my emotions that I have inside of me as an actor. Sometimes you have to go over the top to know where the top is, so you can come back a little.”
Although he is menacing onscreen, Chazz proved easy to work with, Debbie said.
“He was a gift. . . one of the greatest gifts of my life.”
If only everything else were so easy. The 16 ½-day shoot in New Orleans was plagued by hurricane-season weather, vandals who siphoned gas from production trucks, and hazardous black mold discovered inside the mansion that served as the primary shooting location.
Andie MacDowell co-stars as Joe Fine’s timid wife Stella, an enabler who learned submission as a Holocaust survivor. One of their daughters is played by Andie’s real-life daughter, Rainey Qualley, a beauty who is impressive in her feature film debut as a teenager who clashes with her troubled father. Janeane Garofalo (The West Wing, 24), a Newton native and onetime Madison resident, narrates the story.
In Mighty Fine, Chazz resists seeking psychiatric help. Asked who he interviewed to research the role, he cracked a grin and replied: “My own shrink. I spoke to him!”
He also talked to people with “bipolar issues” at a psychiatric facility four or five times, he said.
“And then I just knew in my heart I had him, I knew where to go with this. I just felt comfortable,” Chazz said.
Although the script borrows heavily from Debbie’s childhood, she said her parents so far have seen only snippets of Mighty Fine. Debbie and Chazz agreed that the roiling Joe Fine would not cross the line into violence.
“This is about emotional abuse more than physical abuse,” Debbie said. “Particularly in affluent families and middle class society, we draw the line at physical abuse but we kind of excuse emotional abuse. And emotional abuse can be equally harmful.”
The movie was inspired by her discovery of a poem she had written about her family travails at age 12. Onscreen she is played by 17-year-old Canadian actress Jodelle Ferland, who gives a powerful reading of the poem.
Debbie said she thinks the movie’s topic is timely, given the tough economy that has stressed many people to their limits. She made Mighty Fine for her two sons, as a means of dealing with her family history of rage.
“You want to put an end to it,” she said. “And the best way to do that is to bring it out for discussion.”
Chazz does a good job of starting that conversation in Mighty Fine. Yet he may have to go way over the top to outdo a prior guest at the New York Film Critics Series.
“Chazz is really frightening,” an audience member said during the Q & A, “although not as frightening as Kathleen Turner.”
Next week concludes the spring season of the New York Film Critics Series in Morristown. Mark and Ira Ehrenkranz are signing up subscribers for the eight-week fall series. Read more about the series.
Trailer for ‘Mighty Fine’