Tuesday, January 23, 2007

In Praise of Paul Giamatti

January 23, 2007

I’m not kidding with that title; this is a post in praise of Paul Giamatti.

It takes a lot for character actors to get the attention they deserve, because they are simply in the business of convincing the audience that they are not really acting at all, they are truly that guy (or woman) in that street, part of this particular story. They are best when they look slightly familiar, like someone you would know, and when they subtly take over the film or play by being so very real. Never mind that that is the job description of every actor – it is often not the job done by leading men, leading ladies, or ingenues, because their primary goal is usually to achieve what is known as stardom, and it is important (to them) that their own personas outshine the roles they play.

It’s especially difficult for young character actors, who seldom get romantic leads, and find it difficult enough just to get parts. Giamatti has been working steadily, it would seem, for years, yet did not get a lead in a movie or the name recognition it entails until the offbeat little movie called Sideways a couple of years back. He was extraordinary in that, sympathetic, inept, gentle and emotionally moving. As if to point up the imprecision and caprice of the awards system, he was passed over for the Oscar nomination, while his partner in the film, Thomas Haden Church, was nominated for the statuette for his performance.

The next year brought Cinderella Man, to me an entirely forgettable movie but for the extraordinary performance of Paul Giamatti. He did win a nomination for an Oscar for that one, but lost out to George Clooney in Syriana. I have a pet peeve about Oscars (actually I have several, but let me stick with this one for now). I think it's bizarre that a person gets snubbed for the nomination, and then gets nominated the next year, and it is assumed the second nomination was given in compensation for not getting the first. In this case, he did a spectacular job of acting in both movies, but especially in Cinderella Man, and should have won an Oscar if an Oscar were the sign of a brilliant performance. (It's not, and that's one of my other pet peeves about the award itself. Maybe on Oscar night I'll post about all my other negatives about that particular statuette.)

I rented a recent film, The Illusionist, and watched it the other night, to be moved once more by this ordinary-looking, balding man, who seems to fit into another century quite as easily as his own. (That is one mark of a great character actor.) Giamatti dominates the film by being at ease in it, and by persuading us that he is a somewhat frightened apparatchik heading a police department in times of political turmoil, enchanted by magic but quite willing to suspend scruples for the sake of job security. He compels us to be interested in his mystery.

Giamatti is the son of the late baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti. I confess, not being an avid baseball fan, I found this tidbit of biography quite intriguing. The young Giamatti has a great education resume, and yet he decided, with all odds against him, to become a movie star. And he has made it, enriching the world of cinema with a character actor for the next generation. I look forward to seeing his next work, and the movie after that, and so on, for years to come.

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