' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Paul Herman

Thursday, April 07, 2022

In Memoriam: Paul Herman

2 That Guys & Jacki Weaver

At several points in David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,”  Shea Whigham and Paul Herman share the screen together. Whigham, of course, is one of our most distinguished That Guys - as in, you see him pop up in a small role in some movie, like as Captain Ted in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and say aloud to yourself “Hey! That guy!” More than merely illustrating his onscreen prevalence, however, this is suggestive of how Whigham always leaves a mark, prompting you to remember him the next time, no matter how small the part. That is the That Guy quality. 

Herman is one of Whigham’s That Guy forefathers. (In a way, his name, appropriately, is as close as we will get to a Bizarro Paul Newman.) He’s That Guy in seminal films and in films by seminal filmmakers and in seminal films by seminal filmmakers, often with exquisitely appropriate That Guy monikers. He is Maitre d’ in “Bullets Over Broadway”; he is Dealer in “Goodfellas”; he is Gambler in Phone Booth in “Casino”; he is Schizo in “Big”; he is E-Z Rent-A-Car Clerk in “In the Soup.” True, he was Phillip the Apostle in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” but even then he was very much playing second fiddle to, like, you know, Jesus f***ing Christ. His preeminent That Guy role, however, is undoubtedly “Goodfellas.” (We should note Paul Herman perhaps transcended his cinematic That Guy status through a role on “The Sopranos.” But having never watched it, I cannot comment.)

You will remember that in “Goodfellas”, as Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) becomes more addled by drugs and more paranoid and less reliable, he begins dealing on a regular basis with what he frequently deems his Pittsburgh Connection. Remember during the Busy Day denouement when Henry tries selling Jimmy (Robert DeNiro) the paper bag of shoddy guns? “What fucking good are these things?” Jimmy demands like Henry is some hapless door-to-door salesman. “I’m not paying for this shit.” Ah, but do you know who will pay for this shit? The Pittsburgh Connection, that’s who, which tells you all you need to know about how the Pittsburgh Connection rolls. And when Grandmaster Marty needed to cast someone to embody this Pittsburgh Connection, who was he gonna call? That guy. Because Paul Herman capture such Steel City sleaze in just a breath. 

Even so, when I read that Paul Herman died on Tuesday March 29th at the age of 76, I thought of “Silver Linings Playbook.” His character there is friend to Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro), rabid Philadelphia Eagles fan. Randy, on the other hand, is a Dallas Cowboys fan, America’s Team, no doubt a deliberate choice, sort of the Yankees of NFL fandom, personifying king of the hill American sports fan arrogance. They are friends, but adversaries in a way too, as sports fans tend to be, and the movie’s climax turns on a complicated parlay bet between the two men involving, first, a Christmas Eve football game in which Randy’s Cowboys are heavily favored over Pat Sr.’s Eagles and, second, a dance contest featuring Pat Sr.’s son (Bradley Cooper) and his lady friend Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence).

The two events essentially happening at once, the football game concluding right as the dance begins, with Pat Sr. and his other son Jake (Whigham) and Randy and Pat Jr.’s pal Danny (Chris Tucker) all gathered together just outside the dance hall to watch, the dueling reactions of DeNiro and Herman becoming a kind of cinematic diptych.

The Eagles’ unexpected victory is conveyed in this image, one evoking sports fandom as religion, your team’s triumph as a benediction. 

And that image gives way to its disbelieving inverse, comically edifying in the “Oh my God, what have I done” nature of Herman’s agape mouth. That guy, that guy right up there, that is what happens when sports betting breaks your brain.

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