He never liked playing bit-part ”goombah” gangsters who sent their victims to sleep with the fishes. So next week, Stanley Tucci makes his leading-man debut as an Italian who just serves seafood. In Big Night, he’s Secondo Pilaggi, an immigrant running a failing restaurant with his elder brother, Primo (Wings’ Tony Shalhoub).
”The movie’s a metaphor,” says Tucci, who seems younger than 35 once your gaze travels from his hairline to his animated eyes. ”It’s about this brilliant chef [Shalhoub] who can’t agree that it’s more important to get customers than to cook well. But it’s also about any art form that has to coexist as a business.”
While Tucci plays the money-minded brother on screen, he’s been the obstinate purist as the driving force behind Big Night — and his insistence on making the $4 million movie his way has paid off in terms of critical recognition. The Big Night script, cowritten by Tucci and his cousin Joseph Tropiano, an ex-TV publicist, won the Sundance Film Festival’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award back in January. The sure-handed direction, which Tucci shared with his pal of two decades, Campbell Scott (who also appears in the film as a Cadillac salesman), has won praise from reviewers — especially for the way it favors performances over plot. Tucci, best known for his Emmy-nominated turn on ABC’s Murder One as slimy billionaire Richard Cross, was especially keen to showcase Ian Holm, who buries his British accent as Pascal, a rival Corsican restaurateur, and Isabella Rossellini, who matches her bona fide heritage to an actual Italian role as Gabriella, Pascal’s mistress.
But how many customers will this well-acted tale entice with a release by Goldwyn Entertainment, a firm that hasn’t had a marketing chief since October and was $77 million in debt when it was taken over by Metromedia last July?
”We had our chance to distribute with a…with a major studio,” Tucci says diplomatically. When pressed, he confirms what Hollywood’s trade papers reported in the post-Sundance feeding frenzy for Big Night: The studio was MGM/UA. By all accounts, execs there loved the movie. In late February, they approached Rysher Entertainment, which had financed the film, and proposed opening it wide in 500 or so theaters (Goldwyn is initially targeting only 25 markets).
By mid-March, with the studio’s The Birdcage poised to rule the box office roost, MGM/UA had walked away.
What happened? Simple, says Tucci: The suits said they adored the dish he’d assembled, but the first thing they wanted to do was change the recipe. A California test screening had yielded conflicting responses. ”People would say, ‘What I liked most was the European feel,”’ recalls Scott. ”Then they’d say, ‘What I disliked most was the European feel.”’
According to Tropiano, MGM/UA proposed trimming the languorous opening, in which Tucci’s character poignantly readies the eatery for another low-turnout evening, and inserting a ”more upbeat” voice-over for the ending, which involves a delicate truce between the brothers. ”We debated for maybe 15 minutes about trying it,” says Tropiano. ”But then we said, How can we do this? Making things palatable to a mass audience goes against the whole point of the movie. The idea was to be leisurely, like a great Italian meal, and ambiguous, like a great Italian movie.”