THE LAST RITES OF JOE MAY: DENNIS FARINA BRINGS A PRIZEFIGHTER’S TITLE-WINNING PERFORMANCE HOME TO CHICAGO
Story and photos by Dwight Casimere
1. Dennis Farina (Joe May) with Dwight Casimere
2. Jamie Anne Allman is Jenny
3. Gary Cole is Lenny
4. Director Joe Maggio delivers Joe May's signature 'rap on the bar'
5. A scene from The Last Rites of Joe May/Courtesy Tribeca Films
CHICAGO—Dennis Farina has played everything from an Irish mob boss in You Kill Me to a police detective in NBC’s Law and Order, which wasn’t too much of a stretch, since he actually was simultaneously a Chicago cop during the early days of his acting career.
He must have felt like a prizefighter parading his title-winning belt before more than 1,200 adoring fans as he strode the Red Carpet into the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance at Millennium Park for the Chicago Premiere of his most recent film, The Last Rites of Joy May at the Opening Night of the 47th Chicago International Film Festival along with his co-stars Jamie Anne Allman, Ian Barford, Gary Cole and Chelcie Rose, writer/director Joe Maggio and the film’s producers.
For Farina, this was a victory lap of sorts for a Chicago-born actor who fought, and won a decision to bring the film project to his home town and create what many are calling a career-defining character performance as the down-and-out hustler seeking redemption, Joe May. “It was originally set in New York,” Farina confided in the heady afterglow of the film’s premiere night. “I brought Joe Maggio, our writer/director here, and persuaded him to shoot it in Chicago.”
The Last Rites of Joe May has writer Nelson Algren written all over it, or scenes from the 1949 Nicholas Ray Film, Knock on Any Door, which starred Humphrey Bogart and was based on the best-selling first novel of the same name by African American author Willard Motley. It is an elegiac, atmospheric look at the underbelly of society, only so much more. This is living Hell!
“We have our wonderful cinematographer Jay Silver (Persona Au Gratin-2011, War Against the Weak (documentary), 2009) to thank for that,” said co-star Gary Cole, who played the part of Lenny, the two-bit mob boss who sets the defeated Joe May on a wild goose chase that accelerates his downward spiral. “You can almost smell the garbage in those back alleys and taste the raw meat of the packing houses. We wanted to show that this is no place to be. In fact, its downright dangerous!”
In addition to the Ivan Albright-like frames of Jay Silver's evocative cinematography, there's the seamless editing of Seth Anderson which provides the legato pacing that adds to the film's gravitas.
About his character, Joe May, Farina says his upbringing in Chicago and his experience as a Chicago cop had a great deal to do with the background information that informs his character.
“We shot the film around my old neighborhood,” Farina emphasized. “So I was familiar with some of those streets and back alleys. It was mostly shot around West Grand Avenue-on May Street, Racine. All the streets I grew up on. And those characters. The guys who sit in the taverns all day long and in the back rooms of local diners and make deals. They remind of people, not just from my police days; they’re people I ran across my whole life!”
Joe May is a low life hustler who comes out after months of confinement in the hospital due to a serious illness. He undergoes a Shawshank-like experience. Substitute the infirmary for prison. May gets a rude awakening when he finds that, in his absence, everything in his life has dramatically changed. Strangers now occupy his apartment. All of his belongings have been tossed into the trash and his car has been towed away and sold. Not exactly a heroes’ welcome.
All that is precious and dear in Joe May's life is seemingly destroyed, save for two things, which will later become key elements in the unfolding of the plot. His valued collection of old opera recordings of the great Enrico Caruso and Carlo Bergonzi singing the great operas of Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini were squirreled away in a closed by the new tenant of his apartment. "I thought you might want them," she says off-handedly. Touched, but still wounded, Joe exclaims, "A hell of a lot of good they are without my record player!" The records and a worn family photo he finds inside one of the record jackets are reminders of happier times. At night, their discovery evokes memories, sadness, and tears.
The other element is his rooftop pigeon coop, his haven away from the rigors of the mean streets. A neighbor has stolen his trained pigeons and the coop is a mess but, "just put some new grass in for them to nest and some feed and they'll come back home!" Slowly, and with great psychic pain, he begins to rebuild the shattered shards of his life.
May starts to get his footing when he’s invited back to his old quarters to share them with the new tenants, a single mother named Jenny, (“Rapp, like the music, she says smarmily”, his retort, “mine’s May, like the month.”), who has a world-weary 10 year old, Angelina, played by Meredith Droeger, a newbie who is the younger sister of actress Abigail Droeger. Jamie Anne Allman (Six Feet Under, The Practice. The Shield), is Jenny.
“I was really glad that the director just let me and the character just sit and live in the moment. There were whole scenes that could have been just edited and cut short, but Joe (Maggio) allowed that character to live in that moment and allowed the audience to really feel her emotion. The movie raised the whole issue of the battered wife and I think the film really allowed the audience to feel what its like to live that. It also talks about inter-generational living, which a lot of people are living with now, especially with this economy. There are lots of people who suddenly find an elderly relative on their doorstep with nowhere to go or a friend who just lost their job who has no place to live. I didn’t really think about that until I’d seen the film a couple of times, but those issues are really there as part of the sub-plot.”
One of the criticisms of the movie is that it moves too slowly. That there’s not enough action. “I think it’s a matter of taste,” Allman said. “”If their taste isn’t toward sitting with someone for a while in a situation, then they’re not going to like it at all. They’re going to want the film to move on and get to the next situation. It’s not going to be to their taste.
“In a lot of movies, there’s explosions and things that might get your attention. It’s all for the eye. But this film is more meat for the soul (pardon the pun!).” She was referring to a scene where Joe is given a 50lb leg of lamb to boost as a backhanded tribute from mob boss Lenny. Frustrated that he’s unable to sell the meat, he finally discards it to a stray alley dog. “I’ve seen the film twice,” Allman said,” and each time I say to myself ‘why didn’t he just take that meat home and put it in the freezer. I’m sure Jenny and her kid would have liked to eat it. That 50 pounds of meat could have lasted them for months!”
The relationship between Joe May and the little girl, Angelina, are cemented as the two fly trained pigeons from Joe’s rooftop coop. “Racing pigeons is just like life,” he counsels in the film. “You’re flyin’ high one minute, and down in the crapper the next.”
Farina explained the odd couple relationship between his character and the girl this way; “We wanted Joe to talk to the little girl, just as if she were another adult, another 65 year old, because he really doesn’t know any other way. But Angelina, like a lot of kids like her today, grows up to be old very early. The kid sleeps with a knife under her bed, after all. It’s really sad.”
The film is rife with symbolism and metaphor. In addition to the life-lesson symbolized by the pigeons, there’s scenes at the very beginning and at the very end where Joe ceremoniously shaves and dresses himself. They occur first, as he’s leaving the hospital, and again as he prepares for his final reckoning.
It’s a conceit that’s often used by directors to telegraph the denouement of the plot. It was used most eloquently in the 1986 Claude Berri film Jean de Florette, in which the character played by Yves Montand prepares to atone for his complicity in the events that led to the titled character of the film’s demise. It was used most recently in the 2008 American film drama Gran Torino, in which the Clint Eastwood character, Korean veteran Walt Kowalski, prepares to exact revenge against the gang bullies who have been pressuring his young Hmong neighbor, to whom he has entrusted his prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino.
There’s another ‘character’ in the Joe May film, which plays a pivotal, if not vital role- a rap of the knuckles on a mahogany tavern bar. “That knock on the bar was the director, Joe’s idea,” Farina explained. “I don’t want to give too much away about the film, but Joe said that was a thing his grandfather used to do. It meant that everything was ‘on the arm.’ Things were straight.”
Farina credits his old comrades at Steppenwolf Theatre with the success of the film. “It all really came together when Steppenwolf Films got involved. They brought a lot to the table with their people and their expertise. They let us borrow some of their actors and once they brought Gary (Cole) on board, it all coalesced.”
The Last Rites of Joe May is a film that demands your full attention. In fact, I recommend seeing it more than once, because there’s a lot that goes on that seems insignificant upon first viewing, that turns out to be vital to the plot’s development. The solitary piano in Lindsay Marcus’s sparse, but highly emotive score evokes the loneliness and isolation felt by Joe May. Even the opera arias selected for the film aren’t just there to impress. Sung mostly by the great Enrico Caruso, the words from Verdi’s Otello and Il Trovatore and Puccini’s La Boheme, tell the story concurrently with Silver’s stark images and Maggio’s poignant script. Case in point, the aria Ah Si Ben Mio, sung by Caruso in the opera Il Trovatore. It’s sung during the final scenes in which May prepares to face his destiny. It’s eerily reminiscent of the setup to the score-settling at the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, only the blood-letting here is on a much smaller scale.
Tribeca Film has acquired The Last Rites of Joe May for distribution in the U.S. and Canada. Produced in association with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Films, it will be released nationwide October 28 on Video On Demand. It opens theatrically in New York November 4 at Quad Cinema and in Chicago November 25th at the Gene Siskel Film Center near State & Lake, across from the Chicago Theatre. I suggest ordering your tickets now and setting aside some time for discussion over dinner or cocktails afterward. This is a thought-provoking film that takes on a lot of hot-button issues such as battered women, homelessness, multi-generational living and the general disregard we have for our aging population. This is a film that will live in your conscience long after the final credits have rolled.