By Saul Austerlitz | February 3, 2002

John Turturro wins. It’s a close call, the competition was pretty stiff, but he’s definitely the winner. What am I talking about? Well, it seems that an unofficial contest has broken out recently over who can do the best imitation of the inimitable broadcaster Howard Cosell, with two movies featuring Cosell in a major role within the last month. First, Michæl Mann’s Ali, which dedicates a significant portion of its running time to the relationship between Muhammad Ali (Will Smith) and Cosell, played by Jon Voight. Now comes “Monday Night Mayhem”, a TNT film about the early years of “Monday Night Football”, and specifically the tangled relationship between Cosell, his fellow broadcasters Don Meredith and Frank Gifford, and producer Roone Arledge. Cosell is played, in the latter film, by John Turturro, who is fast replacing the late Anthony Quinn as Hollywood’s official ethnic actor. Here he plays the “Jew from Brooklyn” (as he describes himself numerous times in the film), who by equal measures of tenacity and audacity achieved unprecedented success in the world of sports broadcasting. In contrast to Voight’s Cosell, who achieves an astonishing resemblance, where one could not be blamed for assuming that the man with the voracious appetite for self-promotion had risen from the dead to play himself, Turturro’s performance is more focused on capturing the cadences of Cosell’s speech. He looks like a Roy Lichtenstein caricature of Cosell, where Voight is like a photograph of the man. However, Turturro’s hard work paid off with a voice, accent, and intonation astonishingly similar to Cosell’s, able to replicate his nasal, sweetly annoying way of speaking. Turturro is astonishing at duplicating Cosell’s brand of game-calling, and subtly calibrates his voice to indicate the difference between Cosell’s onscreen and offscreen voices (not much).
“Monday Night Mayhem” on the whole mostly lets Turturro do his thing, and stands out of his way as he does. John Heard, as Arledge, gives a solid performance as well, treading a fine line between admiration and distaste in his interactions with Cosell. The remainder of the characters are left relatively sketchy, including Nicholas Turturro (John’s cousin) as producer Chet Forte, and Patti LuPone as Cosell’s wife . The film begins in 1970, as ABC executives give the go-ahead for a weekly prime-time show dedicated to pro football, and continues through Cosell’s ouster after the 1982 season. “Monday Night Mayhem” does a good job of portraying some of the machinations of network television politics, including the endless backbiting between executives, producers, and talent, as well as the poaching of top talent by other networks, as NBC does in the film. The film, a breezy 2 hours (with commercials), gives a quick run-through of Monday Night Football’s greatest hits, covering major events like the show’s surge toward monster-hit status, and Cosell and Co.’s coverage, however brief, of galvanizing events like the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, and John Lennon’s murder in 1980. In the film’s viewpoint, Cosell is denied the stage he always craved, that of escaping sports and becoming a cultural-political commentator at large. “Monday Night Mayhem”, however, allows Turturro, as Cosell, to have a brief, shining moment of , informing the MNF audience of Lennon’s death, and paying him a beautifully heartfelt tribute.
Which returns us to Turturro. He owns this film, as he does so many of the films he acts in, and in scenes like the aforementioned, and his final meeting with Arledge at a White House party, he reveals the depth of his understanding of the character of Cosell, and his comfort in inhabiting his skin. While Turturro has had his share of terrific roles, like the titular character in the Coen brothers’ “Barton Fink”, “Monday Night Mayhem” will serve as, if nothing else, a reminder of what an astonishingly gifted actor we have had in our midst.

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