An actor ahead of his time

Second Take

W hatever happened to character-actor Paul Giamatti?

 He was one of those few in Hollywood, along with Philip Seymour Hoffman, to have gone from playing supporting roles to lead roles; which is to say, he was captivating enough as a character actor to bag leading roles. Like Hoffman, he had his own audience: fans and critics who felt his gifts, his style of acting; his screen presence was more engaging and authentic than the work of Hollywood stars. These days you do see a lot of Giamatti but playing only small roles — what we call here ‘side roles’; the kind of small character parts he first played before he became a minor Hollywood star. 

Are there no more major roles for an actor with his looks? That is, an actor with average looks? Or, are there just not enough interesting starring roles in Hollywood anymore for actors of his intensity and brilliance? Or, has he been, quite possibly, simply overexposed? 

It was just after American Splendour and Sideways that Paul Giamatti leaped off the margins of playing supporting roles to becoming a modest Hollywood star. He had been appearing in little parts here and there until he was cast as the underground graphic artist Harvey Pekar in American Splendour. The performance was at once widely noticed, and Sideways, a more mainstream film, followed. After this, Giamatti was seen often in Hollywood productions — perhaps too often. If there was an interesting, unusual or complex character in the story, you could bet that Giamatti would be playing it.

Sideways is special for looking honestly and comically at a rare item in cinema: failure. I was drawn to the film for two reasons: the character Giamatti plays and the way he lives the role of the failed writer, and for its lovely subplot about wines and wine tasting that becomes a subtle, unobtrusive metaphor for the lives of the characters in the film. I wasn’t interested in the Thomas Haden Church character but he is Giamatti’s foil, and is essential to this moving, wryly comic drama about friendship. 

Directed by Alexander Payne and adapted by Payne and Jim Taylor from a slim but accomplished novel by Rex Pickett, Sideways spends a week with two friends with different sensibilities. Church, an actor down on his luck, and Giamatti, a school teacher aspiring to be a novelist, are on the road, tasting wine at vineyards, when they hook up with two women. Giamatti and Virginia Madsen, two shy, sensitive and bright divorcees are drawn to each other and talk poignantly and poetically about why wine is a passion with them. 

Giamatti speaks of why he prefers Pinot to the other grapes — they are delicate, only grow in certain climates, and need nurturing and care if they are to peak. Virginia informs us that the unique thing about wine, the beautiful thing about them is that they are constantly evolving. A bottle of good wine opened today would not be the same wine when opened tomorrow. Meanwhile, Church is having a torrid affair, drowning his anxieties about marriage, and Giamatti is worried sick if his novel will ever find a publisher. 

The reason to cherish Sideways is Giamatti: an unassuming but wonderful looking character actor who gives an indelible, lived-in performance. This is one of the best things he’s done, for emotional force and passion, it even tops his terrific performance as the dour, downbeat graphic novel character, Harvey Pekar in American Splendour. But my favourite Giamatti movie continues to be Cold Souls where he plays an actor called Paul Giamatti! (That’s how iconic he had become in cinema — an actor’s actor).  

When Cold Souls begins, he’s struggling with playing the role of Uncle Vanya, the classic failure, on stage. Then he spots an advertisement in the New Yorker: you can extract your soul and put it in cold storage. The benefits of not having to carry a soul around is advertised as being huge. Paul, for a fee, has that done. And he feels lighter, less weighed down, and plays Uncle Vanya as an optimist! This is only the beginning of a series of tragicomic events: someone steals his soul and sells it on the black market in Russia as the soul of the great actor Al Pacino; in turn, he buys the soul of a Russian poet, except it doesn’t go well because the poet committed suicide — a troubled soul. 

Written and directed by Sophie Barthes, Cold Souls is literate, witty, droll, and has the best performance ever from the wonderful Giamatti. Just a couple of weeks ago, he was seen once again in a supporting role in the new 2014 film version of Madame Bovary starring Mia Wasikowska at the Toronto International Film Festival. This also happens to be director Sophie Barthes’s new film, the filmmaker of Cold Souls. The film has received mixed reviews, but I am still just as curious and eager to see what Giamatti will do with his role.

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