By Dan Buffa, Special for We Are Live Radio
Can I talk to you about John Turturro's performance in HBO's The Night Of?
Get a cup of coffee, get comfortable, and let's talk about the best performance given by a male or female actor on television or film this year. Sorry movie roles, but Turturro's gone for broke lawyer kicked your ass six ways from Sunday, which is where the miniseries concluded this past weekend.
The show may have been about the presumed innocent yet jail bound college student Naz(the superb Riz Ahmed) who may or may not have killed a young woman, but Turturro's Jack Stone is the heart and soul of this show, which is based on a BBC series named Criminal Justice. and adapted by two of Hollywood's best writers in Richard Price(The Color of Money, The Wire, Sea of Love) and Steven Zaillian(Schindler's List, American Gangster, Mission Impossible). A whodunit became a showcase for Turturro Street.
Why is he so good? What sets his work apart from the work from the rest? It's the way Turturro tackles the role head on in a way few actors can without overpowering his audience. His technique is the opposite of flashy. He doesn't rely on gimmicks.
Turturro shows us a measure of a guy who buries himself in his work because the other avenues of his life are too dark to stare at any longer. His feet are covered in rashes. His love life is wrapped up in a few twenty dollar bills. His independent lawyer business is essentially him pleading his cases out. e is in no shape for an extended trial in court. Against those odds, Stone throws himself into the case of Naz, a man he believes in his bones is innocent of the murder charge.
This isn't a knocked over dripping bottle of cinematic syrup here. Stone isn't going to do whatever it takes, but he has a special interest that starts out as opportunity knocking and develops into something personal. He is driven to not only win his first big case in decades but also save himself from a personal life that includes getting rid of a cat he is allergic too and finding a cure for his skin. The result is a masterful piece of work.
It's touching, poignant, badass, and to the point. The actor has portrayed close to 100 different characters over a career that stretches back 40+ year. Jack Stone may be Turturro's best work in 20 years and should be remembered easily come Emmy award time. In fact, let's just send him the award now. Let me rename the award.
"Best Performance by a Seasoned Pro in a dark ass series that may have turned off others if it weren't for this man's work". Sound good? No? Let's try harder.
"Best performance by an actor in a film or TV series this year." I have a knack for these things.
The series takes expected turns and is twisted around multiple corners. It becomes more than a murder mystery drama and extends into darker areas of the human psyche. Why do we do the things we do and how one must face the fact that no matter what choice you make, good or bad, a repercussion will occur.
The best part of the series was the smooth riding finale, which climaxed with Stone's closing argument to a jury of 12 semi angry men and women. Let's talk about that scene that put gold on the ceiling.
You put that monologue, which was brilliantly written by Price and Zaillian, in another actor's hands and it may become an instant ham job. In the 57 year old actor's hands, the scene joins the best courtroom moments of all time.
For five minutes, Turturro and Stone became one guy in front of our eyes. A desperate lawyer taking a case so close to his heart that it may become life threatening. A wet conscience sticking to a dry presumption.
It was no longer a mere job for Stone to save Naz's life, but a necessity. A man beaten to his knees by a life and profession cloaked in loneliness and hollow success. This was Stone's last real shot at truly saving a life. While the story machinations worked overtime to get this character in front of a jury, Turturro's speech cleared those doubts with how he handled the scene.
It wasn't Newman in The Verdict. It wasn't Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird. It was even better because Turturro took a secondary character and made him the headline with this pivotal moment.
Turturro, pulling a page from his tragic Millers Crossing character, basically pleads for the jury to look into their heart. He uses a mix of facts(the mistakes, laws broken, and charges) and reminds them of a man who had NO priors and is presumed innocent beyond a reasonable doubt to get his point across.
The most provocative part coming at the end. "Reasonable doubt doesn't really have a definition. It's what we believe." A great performance doesn't really have a clear definition either. As an audience, we just know it when we see it. We believe in the person and wonder if he really exists somewhere in the world.
It was the kind of scene that makes you wonder after the director said "CUT", did the rest of the cast and extras on set turn to each other and say, "Holy Shit"? I bet they did. If not, they should have. It was a perfectly rendered scene made all the more powerful by the real emotion on Turturro's face as he sat back down after the speech and was on the verge of tears.
The Night Of was outstanding, and a huge part of that success goes to John Turturro. He played a flawed man with a good heart who was walking on easy street until he met Nasir "Naz" Khan. Sometimes in life an unlikely soul is required to spark something new in our life. It may be dangerous and overpowering, but the lasting effect is easy to notice.
Give Turturro all the damn awards for his work as Jack Stone. Watch the series and find out for yourself.