Saturday Night Spotlight #20: Nancy Savoca

Bronx-born director Nancy Savoca (b. 1959) has cut her own path through the independent film world for the last couple of decades. After attending Queens College and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Savoca directed her first full-length film, the romantic comedy True Love, in 1989. Telling the story of a wedding taking place in the Bronx, the film stars Annabella Sciorra and Ron Eldard, is written by Savoca and husband Richard Guay and has cinematography by Lisa Rinzler. True Love was the recipient of the Grand Prize for Best Feature at the Sundance Film Festival and it got three nominations for Best Feature, Best Director and Best Female Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards, establishing Savoca’s career. She continued to make her mark with three films in the 1990s, three more films made between 2002 and 2011, directorial work done on TV shows (“Murder One,” “Third Watch,” “The Mind of the Married Man”) and, perhaps her greatest success, two of the three segments in the 1996 made-for-TV movie If These Walls Could Talk (the other segment being directed by Cher), ultimately nominated for three Emmys including Outstanding Made for Television Movie. Savoca’s film and TV work has tackled women’s issues and told stories from the unique perspectives of feminists of every age and background. Her next project is for the Lifetime (“Television for Women”) network, If There Be Thorns, the third installment of the popular series starring Ellen Burstyn and Heather Graham, based on novels by V.C. Andrews (following Flowers in the Attic and Petals on the Wind).

Dogfight (1991) – The golden gem of Savoca’s résumé, I first saw Dogfight (written by Bob Comfort) at some point during high school, thanks to Netflix, instantly falling in love with the film; I then saw the first third of it again in a film class taken last year, reminding of just how good a director Savoca is. I finally saw the film in its entirety again last night at the Museum of Modern Art, the final screening in a series called “Carte Blanche: Women’s Film Preservation Fund—Women Writing the Language of Cinema.” (Savoca was actually scheduled to introduce the film but when I got to MoMA there was a sign saying that she would not be there, I’m guessing maybe because of the extremely cold weather and impending weekend snow.) Dogfight was even better than I remembered, telling the wonderfully romantic and bittersweet tale of a Marine about to ship out to Vietnam (River Phoenix in one of his most nuanced performances) and Lili Taylor as the shy, folk music-loving waitress (a highlight of her long career as “Queen of the Independent Cinema”). Phoenix and Taylor start off on the wrong foot when he makes the cruel mistake of inviting her to his buddies’ “dogfight” (a party where the Marine with the ugliest girl date “wins”), but they eventually move past the incident and get to know one another as the night progresses. Phoenix’s Marine pals are played by Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark and Mitchell Whitfield, while Elizabeth “E.G.” Daily has a couple of great scenes as the toothless prostitute whom Panebianco hires for the party and folk-singer-songwriter Holly Near has a small role playing Lili Taylor’s mother. The soundtrack is indeed rich with folk songs – Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, John Fahey and others are all heard.

Household Saints (1993) – One of Savoca’s best-known films, this dramedy based on the novel of the same name by Francine Prose (adapted for the screen by Savoca and Richard Guay) tells the saga of multiple generations of Italian-American women – like Savoca’s own ethnic history – in the Falconetti and Santangelo families, some of whom are played by Tracey Ullman, Lili Taylor, Judith Malina, Illeana Douglas and Elizabeth Bracco. Impressive male actors appear too, including Vincent D’Onofrio, Michael Rispoli, Victor Argo, Michael Imperioli and Leonardo Cimino. Again I emphasize Savoca’s collaborations with women behind the scenes, including film editor Elizabeth Kling, production designer Kalina Ivanov, set decorator Karin Wiesel, costume designer Eugenie Bafaloukos, production supervisor Shell Hecht, second assistant director Mary-Jane April and second “second assistant director” Sheila Waldron. At the 1994 Independent Spirit Awards, Lili Taylor won for Best Supporting Female; Vincent D’Onofrio was nominated for Best Male Lead and the team of Savoca and Guay received a nod for Best Screenplay.

The 24 Hour Woman (1999) – Rosie Perez stars as a woman attempting to balance the duties and challenges of being both a mother and a TV producer in this comedy written by Savoca and Richard Guay. The cast includes many strong actresses of various races and ethnicities: Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Patti LuPone, Karen Duffy, Melissa Leo, Aida Turturro (who had made her film debut in Savoca’s True Love ten years earlier), Rosanna DeSoto and Reno (a New York comedienne whom Savoca would later document in Reno: Rebel Without a Pause in 2002). Technical work on the film includes cinematography by Teresa Medina, editing by Camilla Toniolo, casting by Sheila Jaffe and Georgianne Walken, art direction by Sarah Frank, set decoration by Caroline Ghertler, costume design by Kathleen Mobley, production manager Debra Kent and second assistant director Alison C. Rosa. Savoca’s direction and Rosie Perez’s performance were both nominated by the ALMA Awards, which recognize achievements in American Latino representation on film and in other media.

Union Square (2011) – Savoca’s most recent theatrical release is a drama telling a story about Bronx-born sisters: Lucy, played by Mira Sorvino, and Jenny, played by Tammy Blanchard. The cast also includes Patti LuPone, Michael Rispoli, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Mike Doyle and Christopher Backus (the real-life husband of Mira Sorvino). With a screenplay by Savoca and Mary Tobler, cinematography by Lisa Leone (who had previously shot Savoca’s film Dirt in 2003), editing by Jennifer Lee, production design by Sarah Frank, costume design by Liz Prince and hair/makeup by Shannon Dollison, the film is very much the product of a female point of view.


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