Secondo: “He lives in a world above you. What he has, and what he is …is rare. You are nothing.”
Pascal: “I’m a businessman. I’m anything I need to be, at any time. Tell me, what exactly are you?”
I hadn’t seen “Big Night” (1996) since the time it came out. I remember warmly being under its spell – in particular because the two immigrant brothers hail from Calabria where my grandfather was born. It’s also mostly remembered as one of the best movies about food ever made, and that fact is true. The cooking and eating of an Italian feast is the climax of the movie – and it’s a scrumptious multi-course meal. I had had a big dinner last night prior to seeing the film, and my mouth was salivating. The other themes that it covers are elating – from the immigrant angle of the American dream to artistic vision being compromised by business demands and commercialism. Most heartwarming is the celebration of the conviviality of sharing a meal with a big group of people – of relaxing in an inviting room and feeling alive; for I’ve always felt that nothing brings people closer together than experiencing art and food together. That’s something we’ve lacked since last March – and this movie filled that emptiness.
“Big Night,” directed by actors Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, starts with Cristiano yearningly staring onto the Atlantic Ocean from the seaside resort town of Keyport, New Jersey. He’s a character who remains predominantly silent and in the background for most of the movie. It’s the 1950s, and he is working under the table for the two Italian brothers who run the small authentic Italian restaurant significantly named “Paradise.” Primo (which in Italian means the first) is the chef. He is an artist – a perfectionist who takes his work very seriously. Secondo is the maître d’ and the one who tries to bring practicality to the business. He is infatuated with the idea of making it in America. Not many customers frequent the place, and when they do, they question that the food takes a long time and the dishes are esoteric. “It’s not what I expected,” one lady says about the seafood risotto. When she asks for a side of spaghetti and meatballs, Primo is enraged, “Who are these people in America. She’s a criminal!”
Secondo desirously sees the action at the restaurant across the street – “Pascal’s Italian Grotto.” In an unbroken shot, the camera will follow him and take you in to experience it. In red lighting – the place is packed – serving big portions of Americanized Italian food. You will circle the place a couple of times. There’s live music, glamour and merriment. In the back of the place, holding court – is Pascal – who is wildly successful for he’s given the masses what they want. “It is never too much; it is only not enough! Bite your teeth into the ass of life and drag it to you,” he exalts to Secondo who’s come to see him for a loan. In a week, if the brothers don’t make a payment, the bank will foreclose on them. Pascal will not give him the money but promises to do something better. He will call Louis Prima – the famous Italian-American singer – and tell him to come over with his band tomorrow night for a big supper at Paradise– and a photographer will document his arrival. Parenthetically, the choice of Prima as the “Godot” figure is perfection. At a time that musicians suppressed their ethnic roots – the singer emphasized his Sicilian background paving the way for other artists.
Primo and Secondo passionately go about planning the biggest meal they’ve ever served.
The food will be extraordinary, and photographed in such an adoring way that you can almost taste it. But it’s the people that sit around the table that are brought to life with so much careful detail. There’s Phyllis (Minnie Driver)– Secondo’s girlfriend who doesn’t understand why he won’t propose to her nor share with her what’s troubling him. “I understand money,” she tells him. “I work in a bank.” Ann (Allison Janney) is the flower shop owner who prepares the arrangements for the restaurant – and Primo is shy all around. The sensual Gabriella (a stunning Isabella Rosellini) lives with Pascal but her sights may be somewhere else. And the car salesman (Campbell Scott) whose Cadillacs become a symbol of accomplishment. The actors are all so at ease interacting with each other confidently. Iam Holm delivers his best performance as the energetic and untrustworthy Pascal. Marc Anthony as Cristiano is soulful. Tony Shalhoub as Primo and Stanley Tucci as Secondo show the complexity of the brothers’ relationship by the way they share the space. Watching them cook silently side by side is beautiful.
The cinematography is something you should pay attention to. The camera moves – lovingly commenting on the action. Watch as it lingers in the last scene as Secondo expertly makes an omelette and shares it with Cristiano and then his brother. As they eat it, arms reach for each other’s shoulders. It’s lovely.
Primo: “To eat good food is to be close to god.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime, Pluto TV and Kanopy and to rent on Google Play, Apple TV, YouTube, iTunes, FandangoNOW, Vudu, Microsoft, Redbox and Amazon.
Written by Stanley Tucci and Joseph Tropiano
Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci
Starring Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Minnie Driver, Ian Holm, Isabella Rossellini and Allison Janney
Co-Director Campbell Scott on Directing Actors
“Oh, I’m a complete tyrant (laughs.) Having said that…actually it’s kind of funny because, you know Stanley and I, we were getting ready to do ‘Big Night.’ We, you know, we’d talk about it for a long time and say “this is going to be so great, you know, we’re finally gonna be able to create the atmosphere that we really want on the set and we’re going to treat everyone like colleagues and equals and speak to the actors as they should be spoken to, like artists and, you know, people who are creating along with us the whole time, and it’ll be so great.” Within a week, we were, like (dictatorially) “turn your head to the left, don’t do that. laugh on this take, get of, get off screen!” You know, we got hysterical. But there is a point to that actually, I think the reason we eventually got to doing that sometimes is there was a great amount of trust. A lot of the people in the film were our friends already. Isabella Rossellini and Tony Shalhoub. These are people that we already knew . So there’s already a love and a trust there. And so of course you really can cut right through it and say whatever you want and that’s the way I prefer it. I think all directors, you need to have a strong hand without a doubt. The best directors in the world, I think, are the ones who are able to … are balancers. They’re able to maintain quite an extraordinary and definitive vision. Even if they don’t really know what they want, which nobody does until they see it before them but at the same time be incredibly encouraging and flexible to all of the people around you, you know. That’s a tall order but that’s the struggle that should be attempted.” (Fresh Air Interview)
The Impact of “Big Night” on the Culinary Industry
…”Big Night” helped kick off a revolution in American food culture. It wasn’t just that restaurants were changing, with “authenticity” the new watchword. How we looked at and thought about food shifted, in both minor (the band Cibo Matto released its first album, featuring food-mad tunes like “Know Your Chicken” and “White Pepper Ice Cream”) and major ways. In 1996, the Food Network gave shows to Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, and Emeril Lagasse, quickly establishing its dominance over the nascent world of food porn. While it’s impossible to say if Big Night is fundamentally responsible for these innovations, it did encapsulate them – and in some ways predicted the future of the business. “It was a cultural milestone for me,” said Batali, who says he’s watched it roughly 40 times since it came out, most recently over Christmas vacation. At the time of the movie’s release, Batali was making a name for himself as the chef at Pó (where Tucci was a regular), shooting Molto Mario, the Food Network show on which he demonstrated his encyclopedic knowledge of Italian regional cooking – and proving, as Big Night did as well, that there was more to the cuisine than red sauce. “The idea that the Italians had broken the meal into distinct antipasto, pasta, and farinaceous products, followed by a main course, was still news to Americans back in the 1990s,” Batali said – this despite the efforts of restaurateurs like Lidia Bastianich, who’d spent years gradually introducing notions of regionality, authenticity, and meal structure into her New York restaurants. The movie, however, “served that home”, as Batali put it, in a way no single restaurant could. (It didn’t hurt, he added, “that Isabella Rossellini was so hot”.)
In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Primo flips out when a customer, having ordered risotto, asks for a side order of spaghetti and meatballs. “Who are these people in America?” the mustachioed chef fumes, calling the customer a “bitch”, a “criminal”, a “philistine”. “How can she want? They both are starch. Maybe I should make mashed potato for another side.” Secondo, meanwhile, pleads with his brother: “Make the pasta. Make it. Make it. Make the pasta!” This concept that “the kitchen was, versus the dining room, often at intellectual and physical odds” was a new one as well, Batali said. American diners “were always used to the idea that the front-of-the-house guy ran the whole store, and then they started realizing that the cook had an opinion”. And maybe not only had an opinion but was, like Primo, an artist, a heretofore-unheralded visionary. No matter how much you might sympathize with Secondo, when Primo rhapsodizes, “To eat good food is to be close to God,” you are virtually required by movie logic to side with the chef in all matters culinary. That widespread epiphany clearly benefited chefs like Batali, who became such superstars in the decade and a half following the film’s release that it’s almost hard for diners under 40 to imagine a food world dominated by maître d’s. For a long time, and surely in part thanks to “Big Night,” the Primos have been prevailing, not just in the form of authentic cuisine but with lengthy tasting menus and an overall sense that diners should submit themselves to a chef’s vision, rather than requiring a kitchen to live up to their own tastes and expectations. (theguardian.com)
About Actor Ian Holm
Holm was born in 1931 in Essex, where his father was superintendent of the West Ham Corporation psychiatric hospital; he later described his childhood there as “a pretty idyllic existence”. Falling in love with acting at an early age, he went from Rada in London to the Shakespeare Memorial theatre in Stratford, staying on to become part of the Royal Shakespeare Company on its foundation in 1960. Holm became a leading figure at the RSC, winning an Evening Standard best actor award for “Henry V” in 1965, part of the seminal “Wars of the Roses” cycle put together by Peter Hall and John Barton. He also earned plaudits for his work with Pinter, playing Lenny in the premiere production of “The Homecoming” (which won him a Tony award after its transfer to Broadway) and then in the 1973 film version, directed by Hall. Not least of all from Pinter himself, who is reported to have said of Holm: “He puts on my shoe, and it fits!” Holm underwent severe stage fright, which he described as “a sort of breakdown” during a performance of “The Iceman Cometh” in 1976, which he described as “a scar on my memory that will never go away”. Having abandoned the theatre, Holm developed his screen-acting career, which had hitherto largely been confined to regular but sporadic parts in British films such as “The Bofors Gun,” “Oh! What a Lovely War” and “Young Winston.” Seen as a safe pair of hands, his casting as the android Ash in the Ridley Scott-directed “Alien” gave him hitherto undreamed-of international exposure. This role was followed up by his turn as Mussabini, the ostracised running coach of sprinter Harold Abrahams in “Chariots of Fire.”
After his best supporting actor nomination for “Chariots of Fire” in 1982 (which he lost to John Giegud for Arthur), Holm was now a bona fide acting grandee, though one whose eccentric-seeming, pugnacious qualities were best suited for memorable supporting parts. He played Napoleon in Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits,” and hapless Mr Kurtzmann in the same director’s “Brazil;” other highlights included Lewis Carroll in the Dennis Potter-scripted “Alice fantasy Dreamchild,” Dr Willis in “The Madness of King George,” and Father Cornelius in Luc Besson’s sci-fi epic “The Fifth Element.” However, he did find a leading role in Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of Russell Banks’s “The Sweet Hereafter,” released in 1997, playing the smooth-talking lawyer who persuades grieving parents to launch a class-action suit after several children are killed in a bus crash. Holm returned to Shakespeare in 1997, in the Richard Eyre-directed “King Lear” at the National Theatre in London, and was knighted a year later for “services to drama”. Having played Frodo Baggins in a 1981 radio adaptation of “Lord of the Rings,” Holm was cast as Bilbo in Peter Jackson’s mammoth three-part screen adaptation, with filming on “The Fellowship of the Ring” beginning in 1999. Bilbo did not appear in “The Two Towers,” but Holm returned for the final part, “The Return of the King,” as well as the first and third instalments of the Hobbit trilogy, which were released in 2012 and 2014 respectively. In between the two sets of Tolkien adaptations, Holm developed an unexpected reputation as a lothario, after the publication of his autobiography in 2004…He is survived by his fourth wife, de Stempel, and five children from previous relationships, as well as his third wife, the actor Penelope Wilton. (theguardian.com)
About Actor, Writer and Co-Director, Stanley Tucci
Academy Award nominee Stanley Tucci has appeared in over 50 films and countless television shows. He has appeared in more than a dozen plays, on and off Broadway, and has been behind the camera working as a writer, director, and producer. Tucci reached his widest audience yet in the role of ‘Caesar Flickerman’ in “The Hunger Games” franchise. Tucci was…seen in Oscar-nominated, “Spotlight,” directed by Tom McCarthy, alongside Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Billy Crudup. Tucci can also be seen in the television show “Fortitude” alongside Richard Dormer, Christopher Eccleston and Sofie Grabol. Tucci was nominated for an Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, BAFTA Award, SAG Award and received a Broadcast Film Critics nomination for his performance in Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones.” Furthermore, Tucci won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his role in the TV movie “Winchell”…”Winchell,” directed by Paul Mazursky, provided Stanley with one of the juiciest roles of his diverse career. He received a Golden Globe for his role in HBO’s “Conspiracy.”…Tucci is also a writer, director and producer. He is the Producer for “The Canal;” Executive Producer for the…TV/movie drama “Behind the Sun;” and Director/Writer for “Final Portrait.” He premiered the film “Blind Date” at The Sundance Film Festival — directing, starring, and co-writing this Van Gogh remake. Another directorial endeavor was USA Films’ Joe Gould’s “Secret,” which starred Tucci as ‘Joseph Mitchell,’ the famed writer for The New Yorker.
“Big Night,” Tucci’s first effort as co-director, co-screenwriter, and actor on the same film, earned him numerous accolades, including the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, a recognition of Excellence by the National Board of Review, an Independent Spirit Award, The Critics Prize at the 1996 Deauville Film Festival, and honors from the New York Film Critics and the Boston Society of Film Critics. His second project, “The Imposters,” a film which he wrote, directed, co-produced, and starred in, was an Official Selection at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival and was acquired by Fox Searchlight Pictures later that year. His work on television includes “Bull,” “Equal Justice,” “Wiseguy,” “The Equalizer,” “thirtysomething,” and “The Street.” Tucci received Emmy nominations for his work in “Murder One” and “ER,” and an Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for “Monk.” Stanley’s theater work includes “Frankie & Johnny in the Claire de Lune,” “Execution of Hope,” “The Iceman Cometh,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “The Misanthrope.” He has also performed in a number of off-Broadway plays, at Yale Repertory Theater and SUNY Purchase, where he first studied acting. Tucci made his directorial debut on Broadway with a revival of Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor” starring Tony Shalhoub. The production received a Tony Award nomination for Best Revival of a Play. Tucci’s additional film credits include “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Jack the Giant Kill,” “Burlesque,” “Julie & Julia,” “Easy A” and “The Terminal.” The Tucci Cookbook was released in October of 2012 where it reached the New York Times bestsellers list. Stanley released his second cookbook, “The Tucci Table: Cooking With Family and Friends,” on October 28, 2014. The family-focused cookbook includes recipes from Tucci’s traditional Italian roots as well as those of his British wife, Felicity Blunt’s. Stanley serves on the Board of Directors of The Food Bank for New York City. Tucci resides in London. (www.caa.com)
About Co-Director Campbell Scott
Campbell Scott will next be seen starring in Netflix’s…series “Soundtrack” from executive producer Joshua Safran… (broadway.com) A few of Scott’s recent projects include episodes of “Adult Ed.” (2019), the film “The 11th Green” and he is currently in production on “Jurassic World: Dominion.” (imdb.com)…Scott was also seen as a series regular on Netflix’s flagship series “House of Cards.” Previously, he starred on Broadway in the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of “Noises Off.” Scott’s film career began with the highly praised “Longtime Companion” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Sheltering Sky.” More recent film credits include: “Dead Again,” “Dying Young,” “Singles,” “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” “Big Night,” “The Daytrippers,” “Hi-Life,” “Spring Forward,” “Lush,” “Roger Dodger,” “Loverboy,” “Duma,” “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” “The Dying Gaul,” “Music and Lyrics” and “The Amazing Spiderman” reboots. Numerous television credits include “Dietland,” “Lore,” “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” “Royal Pains,” “Damages,” “Six Degrees and The American Experience.” Mr. Scott starred in, co-directed and produced “Hamlet” for the Odyssey Network. He also starred in “The Kennedys of Massachusetts” as Joseph Kennedy, Jr, and in “Sweeney Todd” for Showtime. On Broadway Campbell starred in “Long Day’s Journey into Night” with Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, “Ah! Wilderness,” and “Hay Fever.” Off-Broadway, Campbell appeared in “The Atheist” (Drama Desk Nomination), “Measure for Measure,” “A Man for All Seasons” and “On the Bum.” (broadway.com)