If you’ve been panting to see Joe Pesci and Dame Helen Mirren get it on, hustle over to Love Ranch. Director Taylor Hackford (Ray, An Officer and a Gentleman), who happens to be Mirren’s husband, lights a fire under this movie by casting Pesci as Charlie Bontempo, a hustler who helped get prostitution legalized in Nevada during the 1970s. Mirren plays Charlie’s wife, Grace, the madam who runs the Love Ranch brothel with a keen eye on the bottom line, the damaged girls in her charge and the husband who keeps sampling the goods.
The plot heats up when fight fan Charlie buys a piece of young Argentine boxer Armando Bruza (Madrid-born Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and brings him to the ranch to train. All kinds of flesh is peddled, but no one figures that Grace and Bruza will find something together that goes deeper than sex. Threats are made, a gun is fired and everything changes.
Any resemblance between these characters and Joe and Sally Conforte, who ran the Mustang Ranch, and Oscar Bonavena, the heavyweight boxer who took up with Sally and ended up shot, is not coincidental (a 1972 Rolling Stone cover story detailed the doings of the Confortes). Screenwriter Mark Jacobson fictionalized the characters in the name of poetic license.
Whether or not you agree with the liberties taken, or the film’s detours into melodrama, it’s unlikely you’ll forget the performances. GoodFellas Oscar winner Pesci, who hasn’t appeared onscreen in a major role since 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4, is a dynamo of conflicting emotions. And Mirren, bawdy in ways that erase all memory of her award-winning role as Elizabeth II in The Queen, is magnificent. As Grace finds love with Bruza, Mirren brings out a fragile romantic longing that pierces the heart. She’s the last thing you expect to find in a brothel: a class act.