Savoca, Nancy 1959-
SAVOCA, Nancy 1959-
Born 1959, in New York, NY; married Richard Guay (a writer and film producer), 1980; children: two. Education: Attended Queen's College of the City University of New York and New York University Film School.
Agent—United Talent Agency, 9560 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 500, Beverly Hills, CA 90212.
Film writer and director. Directed the films Renata, 1982, Bad Timing, 1982, True Love, 1989, Dogfight, 1991, Household Saints, 1993, The Twenty-four-Hour Woman 1999, Janis, 1999, and Reno: Rebel without a Pause, 2002; television director of special Dark Eyes, 1995, series Murder One, 1995-96, and of first two segments of If These Walls Could Talk (movie), 1996. Has also worked as a production assistant and assistant auditor.
Haig P. Manoogian Award, New York University Student Film Festival, 1984, for overall excellence; Grand Jury Prize for Drama, Sundance Film Festival, and Prize San Sebastian, San Sebastian International Film Festival, both 1989, and Independent Spirit Award nomination for best director, 1990, all for True Love; Independent Spirit Award nomination for best feature (with Richard Guay), 1993, for Household Saints.
(Coauthor) Bad Timing (movie short), World Northal, 1982.
(Coauthor) True Love, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists, 1989.
(Coauthor) Household Saints (based on a novel by Francine Prose), Fine Line Features, 1993.
The Twenty-four-Hour Woman, Artisan Entertainment, 1999.
Janis, Redeemable Features, 1999.
(Coauthor) If These Walls Could Talk (television movie; includes "1952," "1974," and "1996"), HBO, 1996.
Contributor to periodicals, including Vogue, Film-maker, and Interview.
Film director and writer Nancy Savoca began as an amused chronicler of the courtship and wedding rituals of the Italian-American culture of her upbringing. Like her senior male counterparts, Francis Ford Coppola in the "Godfather" saga and Martin Scorsese in Mean Streets, Savoca was inspired by the emotional volatility of such ferociously tight-knit communities. She works, however, on a more intimate cinematic scale, avoiding Coppola's expansive narratives and Scorsese's jittery manner in dramatizing how tribal life shapes, even deforms individual identity.
The social consciousness of Savoca's films extends beyond the confines of Italian-American culture, as Dogfight and her television work demonstrate. "I like to look at people who are looking to follow the rules," she once revealed, "looking desperately to get in." Savoca "is unsentimental, yet tactful in focusing on characters, usually of unexceptional looks, circumstances, and talents, who stand out in some small, but definitive way," according to Maria DiBattista in Women Filmmakers and Their Films. "The Group not only offers her characters a security that eludes them elsewhere, but promises them personal fulfillment in a socially sanctioned destiny—marriage in True Love; military camaraderie in Dogfight. Household Saints works a poignant reversal on this formula by giving us a heroine who takes the strictures of her Catholic upbringing so seriously that she aspires to sainthood, thus baffling the loving mother and tenderhearted, but secular father who want a less eccentric, self-denying life for her. Savoca's films observe a discrepancy between an established social consensus on the 'good life' and the actual experience of men and women hampered in their desire to realize such a life."
This discrepancy is presented with a comedic touch in Savoca's films. But her comedy, like her irony, is gentle, even fragile, and on rare occasions is supplanted by pathos—as in the suicide of Michael, the emotionally dislocated and disabled Italian-American son of Household Saints, hopelessly adrift in the Orientalist fantasies spawned by Madame Butterfly. "Still," according to DiBattista, "Savoca excels in revealing her characters not so much through their solitary moments as in their search for company or a night's diversion. Her films take on an invigorating satiric energy in representing boys on the town or hanging out at their favorite bar, women at a male strip club, or such ritual gatherings as family dinners and, of course, weddings."
True Love has the more contemporary feel than Savoca's other work, although it is set in a community whose traditionalism makes it less susceptible to the convulsive changes that periodically rock American culture. Edvige Giunta, writing in Melus, explained that in True Love, which follows the story of two Italian Americans about to be wed, Savoca "speaks an unusual language and tells an unusual story. The cozy kitchen of this Italian/American family functions as a claustrophobic setting that epitomizes women's entrapment within a pre-existing plot." The writer/director reveals marriage from both the man's and the woman's point of view: The man, Michael, sees it as a potential threat to his masculinity, while for his bride to be, Donna, "marriage represents the female odyssey." Neither side is able to fully appreciate or understand the other's viewpoint, a rift that is further complicated by the "central fictions of Italian/American mythology" of which they are both an inextricable part.
Savoca's second film, Dogfight, set in November 1963, ambitiously presents its story of a soldier on leave before being shipped off to Vietnam as an allegory of an America about to change its ways in the decade ahead. This film initially concerns a group of young soldiers who dub themselves "the four Bs," brought together primarily by the proximity of their names on the military rolls. On their last night Stateside, they stage a "dogfight," a party to which each soldier brings the ugliest girl—or dog—he can find, the winner to be determined by a panel of "judges" who rate the dogs as they take to the dance floor. It is a cruel game, but finally one that only boys, especially those uncertain about their future, would play with such stupid intensity. "Savoca seems to understand this," commented DiBattista, "so while not excusing the game, she shows that a woman can be appreciative as Fellini of unsightly females." The "dogs" she rounds up for the competition are not freaks, however, but plain young women unused to male attention, so that when it comes their way, they are too grateful or surprised to question its sincerity.
Spiritedly playing, then renouncing the game is Eddie Birdlace, played by River Phoenix, who settles on Rose. The second half of the film sweetly pursues the emotional adventures of this odd couple as they enjoy a "second" night on the town, having dinner at a restaurant they cannot afford, wandering through the romantic San Francisco streets until returning to her home to make awkward but fervent love. The film has two endings, both ambiguous. In the first Birdlace tears up Rose's address as he, reunited with his buddies, decides that his fate, if not his heart, is cast with the buddies on whom his life may one day depend. The second shows the war-scarred Vietnam vet, returning four years later to a transformed city and a transformed, but still recognizable Rose, who welcomes him back in a quiet embrace.
Household Saints, based on Francine Prose's novel of the same name, genially takes its tone from those entertaining family legends recounted with droll solemnity after a hearty meal—in this instance, the story of how "it happened by the grace of God, that Joseph Santangelo won his wife in a pinochle game." It took a perfect hand to win her, the first of many surreal occurrences that Savoca presents as co-existing imperturbably with commonplace happenings of everyday life. Tracey Ullman and Vincent D'Onofrio play the magically matched couple. Lili Taylor brings her talent for conveying spiritual insensitivity to the role as their daughter, whose religious ardor, denied any worldly outlet, surfaces as anorexia and culminates in a vision of a blond Christ who looks like a rock star and talks the King's English. Savoca never settles the question of whether Rose has suffered a mental breakdown—the official diagnosis—or has in fact been elected into a community of saints.
With The Twenty-four-Hour Woman Savoca puts the modern problem of balancing motherhood and work under the microscope as she simultaneously skewers the television industry in a story about a talk show producer named Grace who has a baby with her husband—the show's host. The event makes her a media darling, while it is also used to boost ratings and kick-start her husband Eddie's acting career. Grace soon finds all the attention from fans making her life impossible, and her husband, who is mostly absent as he pursues his career, is no help in easing her stress. Despite its well-meaning message, though, several critics were unimpressed by The Twenty-four-Hour Woman, saying that it is not particularly enlightening. Variety critic Dennis Harvey also complained about the movie's conclusion, which "culminates with a ridiculous face-off in which Grace—experiencing that only-in-the-movies type of lovably wacky nervous breakdown—chases Eddie …around the TV studio with a gun, ranting her domestic/career woes to a national audience." People contributor Marianne Jean-Baptiste further concluded, "One wants to like and keeps trying to like The Twenty-four-Hour Woman …, but the film never makes it easy. By the time [it] …comes to its limp, seemingly tacked-on ending, you've given up even trying. Although well-intentioned, the movie is a mess."
If These Walls Could Talk displays an unadorned, even harrowing realism that was only vaguely hinted at in Savoca's earlier work. Her direction of the segment set in 1952, featuring Demi Moore as a widow desperately seeking an abortionist, is unrelenting in showing us how a trained nurse might go about aborting herself. Nor does Savoca spare audiences the details of how an abortionist, making a house call with his seedy wares in hand, plies his trade on the kitchen table. The camera only pulls away in the final shot of Moore hemorrhaging and calling for help. Savoca does not pretend her audience can identify with such horror as easily as all that. "Whether the matter before her be comic or grave," asserted DiBattista, "Savoca never slips into condescension or sanctimonious irony. Her gift is for understatement, trusting as she does to the surfaces of life to indicate the depths in which her characters are in danger of losing their footing, perhaps even drowning." "Although Savoca may not be regarded as an avant-garde film director," concluded Giunta, "her work does raise questions about what makes a feminist film."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 25, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Women Filmmakers and Their Films, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Entertainment Weekly, October 11, 1996, Lisa Schwarzbaum, review of If These Walls Could Talk, p. 77.
Melus, summer, 1997, Edvige Giunta, "The Quest for True Love: Ethnicity in Nancy Savoca's Domestic Film Comedy," p. 75.
New York Times, December 28, 1997, Jennifer Steinhauer, "A Director Who Films What She Knows Best."
People, February 8, 1999, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, "Screen," p. 31.
Rolling Stone, September 21, 1989, Peter Travers, "Women on the Verge: Four Women Attempt to Infiltrate a Male Stronghold: The Director's Chair."
Time, March 1, 1999, Richard Corliss, review of The Twenty-four-Hour Woman, p. 81.
Variety, January 25, 1999, Dennis Harvey, review of The Twenty-four-Hour Woman, p. 75.*