LORRAINE BRACCO ON LIFE AS A POST-DOC
By David Lefkowitz
Note: Mary Ellen Walsh contributed to this article. This article first appeared in Long Island Woman, Nov. 2009.
Say what you will about the Mafia, it’s done wonders for Lorraine Bracco. No, not the actual hush-hush crime organization but its depiction on big and small screens across America.
A successful model-turned struggling actress, Bracco had made some headway in Hollywood by appearing in the Robert Downey vehicle, “The Pick-Up Artist,” and playing a long-suffering wife in the Ridley Scott thriller, “Someone to Watch Over Me” (though she was disappointed to lose “Working Girl” to Melanie Griffith). The breakthrough came in 1990, when Martin Scorsese tapped her to play Mafia wife Karen Hill in the instant classic, “Goodfellas.” Bracco’s good looks, gravelly voice and tough-yet-vulnerable persona nabbed her an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress.
Success didn’t guarantee a smooth ride, however, and Bracco found herself in such underperforming vehicles as “Hackers,” “Radio Flyer” and “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.” Turning down the lead female role in “My Cousin Vinny” didn’t help, either, though it did give her time to raise two daughters, the first by her ex-husband, French salon owner Daniel Guerard, the second by her tempestuous partner, Harvey Keitel. To say that relationship soured would be like calling the Hindenburg a bumpy flight. A custody fight of epic proportions ensued, with tabloids feeding on the details of Keitel’s erratic behavior and drug use and on Bracco’s adultery.
It all got very ugly and very public for five years. Bracco won the war, but the actress was drained – not just emotionally, but her finances, too, and she was forced to declare bankruptcy. Strangely enough, it was only when things began to turn around and look more optimistic that Bracco realized something else was wrong – in herself. As she recounts in our phone interview, “People would say, `no wonder you were depressed! You had a custody battle, bankruptcy,’ and my daughter being ill for a short time, but I really fell apart when everything was kind of on the upswing. When Stella was better, and I was making money, that’s when it hit and when I said, `something is really wrong here.’ I guess it’s like that in movies. You work really hard for three months, and the minute it’s over, you’re sick. But while it’s happening, your mind and body are geared to get you through it.”
Asked the all-too-obvious question if playing a Jungian psychiatrist on “The Sopranos” had any effect on her recovery from depression, Bracco replies, “Well, I went through my depression and was on medication for about a year, but this was all before I got into Dr. Melfi. People always ask if we’re alike, and I admit that she’s definitely rubbed off on me in some ways. She taught me to be a good listener. A better one. But Carrie’s got a lot of other issues, not just depression. So, really, you can’t compare us at all.”
Financial security aside, Bracco wasn’t initially thrilled to sign on for yet another cosa nostra production. When she received the “Sopranos” pilot script and learned she was being considered for the role of Carmela, Bracco demurred. As she recounts in her 2006 memoir, “On the Couch,” she told her manager, “I don’t think I can handle another script about the mob. I mean, how many Mafia roles can a girl play? If that’s all they think I’m capable of, then shoot me now.”
Her manager held fire, the producers switched roles, and the rest is TV history. Bracco even won an award from the American Psychoanalytic Association. As she told the New York Times, “When they called me, my first words were, `What, are they crazy?’ … [But] most of the time when you see a film with a psychiatrist, the psychiatrist turns into the psycho killer, the sex fiend… [The APA] gave me a nice little plaque for portraying a therapist in a fair way.”
Asked if, now that she’s 55, she’s worried she won’t get the kinds of glamorous roles offered to her in her 30s, Bracco told Long Island Woman, “Part of that’s true, but I just try to search for roles that are about interesting women. A woman who has something to say.”
In her search for a strong offstage role, Bracco did take on an entrepreneurial job three years ago – as an importer of Italian wines. She’d visit vineyards and was directly involved in selecting the choices for Bracco Wines. Since she’d spent her 20s living in France, wine and food were a basic part of her lifestyle – she even named daughter Margaux after Chateaux Margaux. As she told Wine Spectator in 2006, “When you live in a country like France and eat and drink in restaurants with friends who know all about wine and food, [it’s] a great lesson…”
Unfortunately, business offers its own lessons, and after just three years, the actress severed her ties with the vino biz. “My partners became very difficult, and we just let it go,” she confesses, “though I did love the experience. It suited me.”
What also suits Bracco is living on Long Island, in the Hamptons. “I’ve had my house for about five years now,” she says. “I do love it here, and my kids love it here. We’ve created a really nice space and we enjoy it.” An Island girl at heart, Bracco has fond memories of the area before she jetted to Europe. “My parents moved from Brooklyn to Westbury when I was eight, and it was a fantastic experience. I loved Mid-Island Plaza [now Broadway Mall]. And Hicksville Junior High and High School. I made great friends – some I still have.” Though not active in East End politics, the actress does help fundraise for The Retreat, a service and residency for battered women. Asked if living on the East Coast hampers her Hollywood career, Bracco laughs and counters that, “FedEx makes things very easy.”
Just to prove you can take the girl out of Hicksville but not vice versa, Bracco even did a TV pilot called, “Long Island Confidential.” “The show didn’t get picked up,” she admits. “I don’t really remember much, but it was mainly about my daughter (Allison Elliott), who’s a detective. And it was shot in Canada, which I hate, because it was supposed to be Long Island.”
Asked if she’d try live theater again, following her 2004 Broadway debut as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, Bracco allowed for the possibility. “It’s hard work, but it was great. I’d always been on film and television, with no real-live audience – and that was a big part of doing Broadway. A thrilling part of it. And a great character.”
More recently, Bracco wrapped shooting on the Yaniv Raz film, “Son of Mourning,” and is rumored for the upcoming indie drama, “Walks.” She also hasn’t been shy in hoping for a big-screen “Sopranos” reunion. She recently told MyFoxNY that nearly every cast member has been in discussion with series creator David Chase, and that delays on that project have mainly been about “trying to get the right script. Without the right script, it’s really not worth doing.” That said, Bracco added that she certainly wouldn’t mind if “The Sopranos” became its own ongoing franchise, like “Sex and the City” or “The Bourne Identity.”
Regarding her no-longer-tumultuous love life (she lives with Syracuse University basketball star-turned-teamster driver, Jason Cipolla, whom she met on the set of “The Sopranos”), Bracco says there’s something to be said for dating someone who isn’t in the same crazy business. “He’s got his work, I’ve got my work, and we make it work. I’m knocking on wood as we say this; over seven years, we’ve had ups and downs like everybody else. But things are good, and the kids are good.”
The actress stops short, however, of projecting something permanent. “I don’t have any big desire to get married again,” she says. “The first time, I fell in love and got married, and I thought it would be forever, but it wasn’t. It was five years when I lived in France. But Margaux did come out of that.” A second marriage to Edward James Olmos – the “other” man in the Keitel/Bracco triangle – couldn’t withstand their working separations. And as for Keitel? “I do say some good things about Harvey in my book,” Bracco says, “but I don’t know about a resolution. I don’t have any hatred towards him. We have a daughter together, and he’s always welcome into my home.”
Favorite role – besides Dr. Melfi?
“Someone to Watch Over Me” and “The Basketball Diaries” , where I played Leo DeCaprio’s mother. It was a really great character.
Diet and exercise regimen?
Nothing special, but I try to pay attention to what I eat.
Last book you read?
Pat Moffett’s “Ice Cream in the Cupboard.” It’s about how he deals with his wife and children when she gets very early onset Alzheimer’s.
Not one song comes into my head, but I love Michael Buble, U2, Lady Gaga – a lot of eclectic things.
I could give you a favorite Top 50, but I could never give you just one.
Ten years from now, your hopes…?
I hope I’m a grandmother.
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