Television’s emergence in the mid-20th century coincided with the career peaks of New York cultural impresarios like composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein and choreographer George Balanchine. That good, and unlikely, collision resulted, for a few bright years, in the mainstream exposure of high art to the masses via the boob tube. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have much of the grainy but gripping performance footage of the ballet dancer featured in Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq. Still, even with this full-length documentary, her life and career remain something of a footnote — one most likely to be enjoyed by balletophiles and connoisseurs of especially cruel twists of fortune.
All legs and angles, Le Clercq, known to everyone as “Tanny,” was the physical antithesis to the smaller, round fireplugs typical to ballet corps of the time. Instead of making her an outcast, these attributes transformed her into a muse. The womanizing Balanchine — figurehead of the American School of Ballet where she studied as a teen — and bisexual dancer-choreographer Jerome Robbins, whose fame would come more from Broadway than ballet stages, loved her in intense, different ways. Balanchine, a quarter century her senior, married her. (She was his fourth wife.)
In 1956, on a European tour when she was only 27, Tanny contracted polio that left her paralyzed for the rest of her life. That’s not a spoiler; it’s history. That pivotal event happens halfway through Nancy Buirski’s film. So what does the second half cover? Le Clercq’s slow then spirited acceptance of her destroyed career and, ultimately, the damage it inflicted on her marriage to Balanchine. The documentary is decently paced, respectful, and probably just a little dull and for anyone not fascinated by the mid-20th century American ballet scene.
While we’re on the topic of nostalgia, anyone who wants to recall the lovely era of indy filmmaking in the late ’80s and 1990s might get a tingle from Fading Gigolo. It’s not a good movie. But it’s a bittersweet reminder of that time when not-very-good movies were made often, cheaply and were always worth talking about with your date over sushi or pasta, or whatever the latest dining trend was.
Better known as an actor in Spike Lee and the Coen Brothers’ repertory, John Turturro has written and directed six films now. None of them is really any good. He seems like a nice guy, though; you want to cut him some slack. And his costar here is that even greater stalwart of American indy film, Woody Allen. Gigolo can make longtime movie lovers feel very gray-haired indeed.
Turturro plays a middle-aged New York florist and general handyman, strapped for cash and grabbing whatever work he can find. Allen is one of his part-time employers, who, unfortunately, is shuttering his rare books store. It’s Allen who mentions that his dermatologist happened to comment (why?) that she and a girlfriend are interested in having a three-way with a paid escort. And Allen (why?) thinks that Turturro would be the right guy for the job.
If I tell you that the dermatologist and the gal pal are played by the still-gorgeous Sharon Stone and Sofía Vergara, you will realize the movie has launched past the “why?” state and into the rarefied stratum of WTF. So be it. There are even sillier things to come, mainly embodied by Johnny Depp’s ex, Vanessa Paradis, as a sad Hasidic widow who reawakens to life on meeting Turturro’s sad-eyed hooker-man.
Dramatically and emotionally, the movie makes zero sense from start to finish. (When the stunning Vergara struts around and proclaims, “A woman is meant to be looked at, or else she’ll just fade away,” you’re reminded that the script is definitely written by a man.) But Fading Gigolo is sweet-natured and oddly watchable — in its sincere, terrible way.
Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq. A documentary by Nancy Buirski. Unrated. 91 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Fading Gigolo. With John Turturro, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sofía Vergara, Vanessa Paradis. Written and directed by Turturro. Rated R. 90 minutes. At Lefont Sandy Springs and Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.