' ' Cinema Romantico: Let's Remember Some Early Paul Giamatti Roles

Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Let's Remember Some Early Paul Giamatti Roles

If the Oscar fortune tellers are to be believed, Cillian Murphy has emerged as the front-runner for Best Actor, meaning that it might well not yet be Paul Giamatti’s “time.” I can’t lie, it breaks my heart a little bit. Then again, if Giamatti does not win, perhaps it’s appropriate. Perhaps this isn’t the way Giamatti was meant to win. After all, twenty-ish years ago, when Giamatti was first blowing up, a New York Times article by the late David Carr wrestling with the actor’s unlikely leading man status, Giamatti said of himself: “I have the mentality of a supporting actor.” Indeed, Giamatti might have graduated from the illustrious Yale School of Drama, but there were no red carpets rolled out for the 56-year-old when he first showed up on the Hollywood. His father Bart might have been the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, but in Hollywood, Paul was no golden boy, no Bryce Harper, no Adley Rutschman, he was just some guy; he was Steve Buechele, he was Tim Teufel, he was Mike LaValliere. 

His first official credit was in the 1991 thriller “Past Midnight,” which was also Quentin Tarantino’s first credit (he got one as producer after rewriting the script), and which I have never watched though the trailer kind of makes me want to? After that, it’s a bunch of itty-bitty bit parts, and then a step or two up from itty-bitty bit parts, and then some smaller supporting roles, even after his break in Howard Stern’s “Private Parts.” “I think those are the hardest,” Giamatti said of his early roles at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Cinema Vanguard Awards. And it’s why even though I wouldn’t mind discussing the actor’s prickly surprise in roles like “Win Win” and “Barney’s Version,” or even going long on his electrifying delivery of exposition in “San Andreas,” in seeking to celebrate Giamatti, I find myself thinking most about his earliest roles, when we didn’t even know it was him.

Singles (1992). “I thought he was literally going to swallow her,” says Campbell Scott to Kyra Sedgwick after their date in Cameron Crowe’s comedy about the credited Kissing Man (Giamatti) slovenly making out with his lady friend across the way. And that’s how Giamatti plays it, committed to the bit, and even getting a one-word line, “What?,” which is not angry, or loud, just genuinely incredulous. Wasn’t everybody publicly making out in coffee shops in early-90s Seattle?

Mighty Aphrodite (1995). If his part in “Singles” was designed to stand out, his part as the Extra Guilds Researcher in Woody Allen’s 1995 comedy was designed as just the opposite. And he does what is asked, nothing more, a team player. If he didn’t turn out to be Paul Giamatti, would you have even remembered he was in it? I didn’t! And I once owned this movie on VHS!

Donnie Brasco (1997). As FBI Technician, Giamatti, and Tim Blake Nelson in one of his earliest roles too, are enlisted as the inherently geekier counterpoints to the cooler undercover Johnny Depp while he is giving his unforgettable monologue about what “forget about it” means. In fact, here Giamatti gets to take his own stab at “forget about it,” as if giving us an orange with none of the juice, and going to show, years before “Spy” (2015), that deep down, every technician wants to get on the field. 

My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997). Released the same year as “Private Parts,” you could make an argument that Giamatti’s walk off role here demonstrated his burgeoning excellence just as much. It’s one scene, but as Richard the Bellman, Giamatti effortlessly transitions from service industry schmo to guardian angel, the way his character shares a cigarette with the one played by Julia Roberts underlining not only how they share the scene but how so many little moments like this one go together to make something big.

Saving Private Ryan (1998). If in “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” Giamatti winningly played off Julia Roberts, in “Saving Private Ryan,” he winningly played off Tom Hanks, or more accurately, winningly portrayed the loser spiritual opposite of Tom Hanks, no small thing. And in doing so, he renders it totally believable that this meathead would pull off his boots in the middle of a skirmish to try and get out a hitchhiker to trigger the sequence’s climax. 

The Truman Show (1998). If Steven Spielberg employed Giamatti as the spiritual opposite of Tom Hanks, then Peter Weir employed Giamatti as the spiritual opposite of Christof (Ed Harris), creator and executive producer of the eponymous reality television show, the schlemiel to Christof’s God. You need the guy who will lose track of “the world’s most recognizable face,” you call Paul Giamatti. 

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