Even in New Jersey’s Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution, “sharing a cell with 13 other guys and one open toilet,” Buddy Cianci played his customary role, says Cherry Arnold, director of the documentary Buddy, which screens at the MFA in June and July. He was as relentlessly sociable as he was when he barnstormed six or seven events a night as mayor of Providence.
“Just like any other place where you’re with a lot of people for a long time, [prison] is a community,” says Arnold, who grew up three houses away from Cianci. “In one letter, he said he was sad to see some of those guys go. He became really close to them.”
Of course, Cianci also has a darker side, which may have helped him see through his five-year sentence: the same nail-tough virility that cost him his mayoralty in 1984, after pleading no contest to assaulting an old friend — reputedly with a fireplace log and a lit cigarette — whom he suspected of sleeping with his wife. He staged an improbable comeback in 1990, reclaiming the office as an Independent.
Now that Cianci, flawed but indefatigable, is out of jail, what will he do with himself? To judge from Buddy, which portrays him as the consummate survivor, pretty much anything he wants.
Arnold’s film captures Cianci’s infamous duality with sure strokes — showing us a mayor who took the helm of a moldering city, which, like him, “always had an inferiority complex,” and expedited an urban renaissance among the most striking in recent memory. A charmer par excellence who was also a bile-spewing bully; a pol who ran against the Democratic machine as an anti-corruption populist in 1974, but was indicted on racketeering and conspiracy charges in 2001.
“A lot of what drives him, both positively and negatively, are some pretty major insecurities,” Arnold says. “Being an Italian in a very Irish world. Being a Republican in a Democratic state. Going to a very WASP-y school. He was always trying to prove something. And that never really changed.”
One thing sustained Cianci while in prison, says Arnold, who exchanged letters with him regularly. “He always talked about his plans for when he got out, kept his head up high, and persevered.”
Now, having been released to a Huntington Avenue halfway house, it seems the world could soon be Cianci’s oyster.
The plush job he landed at Boston’s XV Beacon Hotel was nixed by the feds last week, but he rebounded immediately with a position at the 903 Residences, a Providence condo complex where he’ll work until his sentence ends on July 28.
Meanwhile, Cianci is keeping a low profile, even though, Arnold says, “he loves the media [and] I’m sure he’s dying to interact with people.” (His nephew, at whose East Greenwich home he may serve out the remainder of his sentence, even took out a no-trespass order to keep the press at bay.)
But by the end of the summer, expect Cianci — who hosted a show on Providence’s drive-time station WHJJ between mayoral terms in the ’80s — to find his voice again in a big way.