first heard about the Mustang Ranch and owners Sally and Joe Conforte during my college days back in 1976. I was intrigued by their entire story. The first legal brothel in the United States, the Mustang Ranch was located just outside Reno, Nevada and Sally and Joe were somewhat of a novelty to say the least. Sally, daughter of a prostitute, and Joe, your average wannabe mafioso-type, seemed like the ideal coupling combining brains, brawn and breasts. (Needless to say, Sally was the brains of the business.) Although making a ton of money with the brothel, Joe wanted more. Joe always wanted more and saw himself as a great entrepreneur. So, he ventured into boxing, buying Argentinian heavyweight Oscar Bonavena. A champ who fought the likes of Ali and Frazier, Bonavena was going to put Joe back on the map. What Joe didn’t count on was an alleged affair between Sally and Bonavena. So, in typical mafioso fashion, he shot Bonavena dead at the ranch in 1976.
When I came to Los Angeles one of the first people I met was legendary Western stuntman Neil Summers who became a dear friend. Having spent his life working with the likes of John Wayne, John Ford, Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone and a multitude of other true stars on location all over the West and the world, imagine my joy on hearing him regale personal remembrances of the actual Mustang Ranch. Fast forward 27 years and I get a phone call from Summers a couple years back telling me about this great film he is going to be working on - LOVE RANCH. Starring Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci, directed by Taylor Hackford and written by Mark Jacobson, LOVE RANCH is based on the true story of the Confortes and the Mustang Ranch. All I could wonder was what took so long to bring this fascinating story to the big screen...and how lucky was Summers, in a sense, to return to the scene of his own youthful times.
1976 didn’t start off very well for Grace Bontempo. After a New Year’s eve incident involving a customer at the Love Ranch getting a bit too rough with Samantha, the ranch’s top earner, the next day Grace learns that she’s dying of cancer. Then on leaving her doctor’s office, she gets another bombshell - her husband Charlie has purchased the contract of Argentinian boxer, Armando Bruza. A one time contender, Bruza has been off the map for awhile but Joe assures Grace he is a solid investment and with her as his manager, he’ll be a heavyweight champ again. Grace as his manager? Grace knows nothing about boxing - - only brothels and managing her corral of prostitutes. Disgruntled with yet another stunt of Joe’s, Grace unwillingly steps into her new duties but soon finds she’s gotten more than she bargained for.
Grace has always known that Charlie liked to sample the merchandise at the Ranch. This week a blonde, next week a brunette, and all the while scamming and scheming around town trying to turn himself into the big man on campus. A man with a temper, the smallest thing would whip Charlie into a psychotic violent frenzy, only to have Grace then calm him with platitudes and ass-kissing. But how long can a strong, intelligent and sexy woman like Grace keep going when her emotional tank is running on empty. Beyond her "girls" at the Ranch, Grace has no one in her corner, no one that is until Bruza.
It doesn’t take long for Bruza to see who wears the pants in the Bontempo family and who is the brains of the business. Himself determined to have a better life, he knows where his meal ticket lies - with Grace. Intent on winning her over, Bruza gets more than he bargained for, for as training progresses, Grace and Bruza find they have much in common. Two lost souls each struggling to find themself, they become lightening in a bottle, finding a love that neither counted on, that neither ever felt they deserved but which fills their lives with hope, life and joy. But with such joy, there is generally pain and as the story builds to the climactic fight marking Bruza’s return to the ring, secrets are revealed, tables turn and life changes for everyone concerned.
As Grace Bontempo, Helen Mirren is still as regal as ever. She balances strength and sensitivity with unbridled passion, fury and thick-skinned toughness, turning on an emotional dime at the drop of a hat. Described by Hackford as "a very natural actor", one of her greatest challenges as Grace was adopting a "very flat American accent of the West". According to Hackford, "She really worked on it. I was very tough on her. You have to be this working class woman. The hard thing is that you’ve got this classy broad who played the Queen and Shakespeare." Hackford told her, "You are naturally classy. This character is naturally deep in her soul." As for playing a madam, for Mirren, "what I love most about my job is that it takes me into the most unexpected places that I would never dream that I would ever be. And one of the places that I’ve been taken to is the inside of a brothel in Nevada and be introduced to a pretty extraordinary woman, [madam] Susan Austin - very elegant, very gracious, very smart, very business like. If you met her on the street you would met her on the street you would think she’s a CEO. She was a revelation to me."
I can see no one but Joe Pesci in the role of Charlie Bontempo. Explosive, energetic, volatile, Charlie is a force of nature as is Pesci. For Mirren, it was a joyous experience working with Pesci. "We work in exactly the same way. W e look at the script. We learn the lines. He doesn’t like to rehearse. I’m cool with that because I don’t like to. I’m fine with running the lines but I don’t want to rehearse. Joe above all is a real professional. He is a great actor with a great energy."
Sergio Peris-Mencheta makes his American debut as Armando Bruza and all I can say is, "wow." Where has he been hiding and why haven’t we seen him before? Going beyond his hunky good looks, Mencheta is a perfectionist. With minimal command of the English language when filming started, he not only learned English, but insisted on learning Argentinian so he would have a perfect accent as Bruza. With the most physically demanding role, Mencheta trained for 4 months, 5 hours a day in Brooklyn before filming, under the guiding eye of legendary trainer Jimmy Glenn. He also had to spar with real boxers. "At the beginning they were polite with me, but after a while when I knew some things to do and I tried to hook and other stuff, then WOW. They were thinking [he can fight.] After the fight then they tried to respect my face." From Mirren’s perspective, "this is real courage." However, according to Mencheta, the love scenes with Helen were by far the most difficult part of this process. "In shooting it’s not so difficult by the end. But when you don’t know the other person. The first day I met Helen Mirren. Two days after we were doing a reading where we had to kiss each other and touch other, for me it was more difficult. After awhile, you know though, she’s not Dame Mirren, she’s Helen and I can touch her."
The casting of the Ranch girls is diverse and entertaining. According to Bai Ling, the experience as top flight prostitute Samanatha "is fun. We show off, seduce men, torture them. It’s a part of being a woman. It’s easy to do. My character has such attitude. She has an ‘own this place’ kind of feeling." Taryn Manning achieved the look of the 70's and her character Mallory, looking no further than her own mom who was a showgirl and dancer in the 70's. Calling on old hairstyles and costumes of her mom, Manning even went a step further adopting hygiene and grooming habits of the 70's when there was no body waxing or tanning salons. Elise Neal found the entire process of character transformation and costuming to be "so much fun. I came in with 100 pictures saying ‘Let’s try that, Let’s try this.’ I’d say not even 10% of the crazy costumes I came up with got in the movie." And for Scout Taylor Compton, who turned 19 during filming, as Christina she shows us a whole new side of her talents and skills.
For writer Mark Jacobson, it was his many years as a journalist that led him to this story and script. "As a journalist, there are certain stories that you miss and don’t get a chance to do. I always thought this was a great journalism story and I always remembered it but I never got to write it. One day, I felt like writing a script. I had done this story about prostitution in New York and I learned a lot about how these things work so this story bubbled up from that experience." What enthralled Taylor Hackford was that Jacobson "made the woman the central character. Sally Conforte in the original story hadn’t really struck me. But Mark focused on her." Using that female perspective, Jacobson creates interesting characters and situations employing tacit strength and raw emotion as storytelling tools. The relationships and primary triangle of Grace, Charlie and Bruza are natural and believable, undoubtedly because they are rooted in reality and because of exemplary performances. Key to creating this world of Love Ranch is also the meld of prostitution and boxing with a wonderful level of sentimentality set against the brutality of boxing and the gritty shadow of prostitution. One of things for which Jacobson is most appreciative is that "Taylor’s a good guy to work with about the script. He can be a hard guy but he really does respect the writer. He didn’t change much without asking which is really unusual."
It’s been 25 years since Taylor Hackford and Helen Mirren have worked together and LOVE RANCH shows it has clearly been worth the wait. "I had been looking for something for us to do together since we met but I didn’t know what it was going to be. Mark [Jacobson] called me and said ‘I’ve written a script. Will you take a look and let me know if it’s any good.’ I knew the subject. When I was a journalist in the mid-70's I knew this story." When Hackford read the script, "I thought that could be a great role for Helen and I mentioned it to her. After her first blush of ‘you want to make me a madam in a brothel’, she said, ‘yes.’"
When talking about Hackford, one thing the cast is in agreement on is that he is "the kind of director that knows exactly what he wants and will get exactly what he wants from his actors. He’s very laid back but very stern." Elise Neal opines further that "I think that’s why we got along so well." As for Hackford and Mirren working together, "totally professional."
Shooting on 10 locations in New Mexico, as well as Reno, Donner Pass and the Mustang Ranch itself, filming lasted two months, however, one of the key sequences, the climactic fight scene, took 3 days of actual lensing. Hackford and Jacobson have delivered one of the finest fight scenes on film. With fight choreography by the renowned Jimmy Nickerson, Hackford employed 5 cameras, cranes and high speed cameras for slow-motion. Authenticity and detail were mandates of boxing aficionados Hackford and Jacobson. According to Jacobson, "It was all scripted. We argued about how the fight was going to go, but it was all in the script."
With Kieran McGuigan’s sharp cinematography, part of the fun of LOVE RANCH is its step back in time, albeit only to the disco days of the 70's, as costumes and decor are period perfect. Thanks to production designed Bruno Rubeo, the set of the Ranch itself and the interior of the facility is the embodiment of the day while the individual costumes are not only appropriate, but often entertaining. Crisp, clean editing adds to the overall feel of the story.
For Jacobson, it’s important that the audience have a good time with LOVE RANCH. It’s also important that you realize that "in an anonymous world like this, the idea that all those people have actual stories to tell and they might not all be the same, is interesting. That, and it’s okay to do a drama and be kind of sentimental."
LOVE RANCH is more than brothels, brains, breasts and boxing. It is rooted in heart, sentimentality and love. Not to mention the fact that the Ranch is run by everyone’s favorite madam. In the words of Charlie Bontempo, "Who do you think you are? The queen of f***in' England?!" How about the Queen of LOVE RANCH?
Grace Bontempo - Helen Mirren
Charlie Bontempo - Joe Pesci
Armanda Bruza - Sergio Peris-Mencheta
Directed by Taylor Hackford. Written by Mark Jacobson.