Tony Nominee Anita Gillette on The Fitzgerald Family Christmas
By Ellis Nassour
With The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, Edward Burns returns to the working-class, Irish-American roots of his very popular indie The Brothers McMullen. Several of the current cast, including Anita Gillete and Emmy winner Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights, and star of prime time’s country soap Nashville), have worked with Burns before. Gillette portrayed Jennifer Anniston’s mom in She’s the One; Britton co-starred opposite him in McMullen.
Tony nominee Gillette (Neil Simon’s Chapter Two) enjoyed working with Burns so much she’s hoping to be part of a possible sequel. (The end of the film perfects sets one up.
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas (Tribeca Film) is probably Gillette’s most memorable film since her unforgettable turn as mistress Mona in Moonstruck. Fitzgerald, which had a slot in this summer’s Toronto Film Festival and made the festival rounds, just opened with excellent reviews (also available on VOD) — especially for Gillette, who, through the years, has proven to be adept on Broadway in musicals and plays, film, numerous TV appearances, including her recent arc on 30 Rock as Tiny Fey’s mom opposite Buck Henry as Fey’s pop; her master class series "Life In the Business."
Most recently, her one-woman show, After All played three Birdland engagements. It analyzes her 50-year career with humor and candid stories of Broadway and Hollywood names, such as Irving Berlin, Cher, Merman, and Jule Styne. In February, she takes her show to London, then San Francisco.
Onstage, Gillette created roles in Jimmy, opposite Frank Gorshin; Woody Allen‘s Don’t Drink the Water, with Lou Jacobi; as Sarah Brown in a revival of Guys and Dolls; the infamous one-night-only Kelly; opposite Robert Ryan in Berlin’s Mr. President, which led to a lifelong friendship with the composer and his family; and with Mel Brooks, Charles Strouse, and Lee Adams in All-American, starring Ray Bolger. A hard-working trouper who’s never sat waiting for the next original role, she’s stepped into numerous long-running shows.
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas isn’t your typical syrupy holiday film. Gillette, playing Rosie, the mother of Burns and the large Fitzgerald clan, is a gracious, loving, sweet woman except when it comes to welcoming back the husband (Ed Lauter), who walked out 20 years ago and now, diagnosed with cancer, is seeking redemption. Gillette’s not so gullible. Burns has created a screenplay filled with empathy and complicated emotions. Old wounds are opened. It takes a while and a lot of profanity.
Gillette met Burns to discuss her role, "but I wasn’t certain I had it. Eddie cast me days before he shot Rosie’s scenes. It was digital and a true indie. I did my make-up, hair, and wardrobe. There weren’t many mirrors around either, so I trusted (cinematographer) William (Rexer), who was brilliant."
She states Burns didn’t spoil her. "Eddie kept saying, ‘No bounce boards [reflectors to create broader, directional light].’ I kept saying, ‘No bounce boards for the old broad! Don’t I need a little more light under my chin?’ Eddie said, ‘Trust,’ and I did. He’s a remarkable young man and so good with actors. He wasn’t married to his script and encouraged us to ad lib. He didn’t always like what I came up with, but made me understand why.
"The best thing about his direction was how he got the the truth, the real me. We had talks about ‘walking the line,’ being tough, but sympathetic. Eddie wanted a real mother who loved her kids, not the caricature tough Irish broad. He made me know I was Rosie."
Burns and Rexer used one, sometimes two cameras. It was unlike films Gillette had done, "where lots of time is spent with the lighting and getting over-the-shoulder shots, close-ups, and reaction shots. With Eddie, you just do it. One take! It’s incredibly fast. I was only on set five days."
She says it took some getting used to with two cameras rolling simultaneously at times. "What one camera didn’t get, the other one did even when we moved from room to room."
Gillette says she was proud to work with so many talented people. "The younger set were terrific!" she states. "They were so giving and knowledgeable. I grabbed everything I could learn from them. I hope maybe they learned a little from me. I had scenes with a couple of older pros, too – Joyce van Patten and Malachy McCourt."