Beautiful Loser

Another in my series of loving profiles of character actors: Paul Giamatti, in this case. The peg of this piece was Cinderella Man, an old-fashioned, Cagney-style boxing weepie that was pretty good but tanked. Paul is one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet.

 

The feel-good cine-story of 2004: Sideways, a low-budget road movie about two male buddies’ calamitous trek through California wine country, triumphantly closes out the New York Film Festival in October. There’s praise not only for the writer-director, Alexander Payne, a mensch outsider for whom a crit-love drumbeat has been building for years, but also for the film’s unlikely cast, which includes two veterans of the Hollywood grind who were thought to be past their sell-by dates, Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen, and an Asian Canadian actress, Sandra Oh, who is playing neither a geisha nor a ninja but a straight-up American broad. But the most effusive gush is reserved for the cast’s de facto leader, Paul Giamatti. Giamatti’s been scrapping around for ages, endlessly, tirelessly—Sideways is his twenty-ninth movie in twelve years—and only recently has he begun to register in the public consciousness. A year earlier he was extraordinary in the lead role of American Splendor, a mesmerizingly odd film about the schlubby underground-comix author Harvey Pekar, and now this new picture is cementing his status as one of our acting treasures. The physical descriptions of Giamatti are never kind—“paunchy,” “schlumpy,” “chinless,” “balding,” “stooped”—but the critics kvell over his acting chops, calling him a revelation, a virtuosic line reader, a master of nuance and body language. His role is thankless—a depressive, divorced failed novelist and wine snob who steals cash from his mother—but Giamatti, restive and resourceful, turns in an electric performance that transcends the film’s drab, indie-sludge trappings.

As the weeks progress, the whole Sideways thing just keeps snowballing: This modest picture is suddenly being touted as an Oscar contender, up there with Martin Scorsese’s megabucks epic The Aviator, and Giamatti is considered a shoo-in for a best-actor nomination. He’s enlisted to host Saturday Night Live (with musical guest Ludacris!) and invited to partake in a Newsweek cover-story roundtable discussion with A-listers Jamie Foxx, Hilary Swank, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Annette Bening. Meanwhile, the movie’s wine-country theme begets its own phenomenon, a veritable oeno-porn explosion, with restaurants nearly selling out their stock of the boutique wines mentioned in the movie, with fetishistic fans re-creating the characters’ tours through the vineyards of California’s Central Coast, with sales of Pinot Noir upticking dramatically thanks to the Giamatti character’s praise of the grape.

And then, in January, the Academy Award nominations come out. Sideways is nominated for five Oscars, including best picture, best director, best supporting actor (Church), and best supporting actress (Madsen)…but Giamatti is not among the anointed. Well, isn’t this just too damned perfect! That they can’t acknowledge the work of the paunchy, schlumpy, chinless, balding, stooped guy who holds the whole picture together, because the ossified geezers of the Academy have to pay obeisance to the creaking Rushmore majesty of Clint Eastwood! The Giamatti faithful of the chat rooms are outraged, mystified, indignant. There are murmurings that perhaps Giamatti, a New Yorker, won’t even show his face in Los Angeles on Oscar weekend—and really, could you blame him?

Well, it turns out that he does make the trip, but mainly for the purpose of attending the Independent Spirit Awards, where he is up for best actor. The Independent Spirit Awards ceremony is a casual affair that takes place the day before the Oscars. I’ve arranged to meet Giamatti that day, in the morning.

He is hunched in a booth at a Los Feliz breakfast joint, reading a giveaway L.A. paper, when I introduce myself. Gingerly, fearing that he’ll take offense, I say, “Well, I suppose it’s best to just get right on with it and acknowledge the elephant in the room.”

“Uh…which elephant?” he says, smiling nervously, spreading his palms across the table. “I mean, there are a lot of elephants.”

“Um, that…you…weren’t…nominatedforanOscarandstuff.”

Giamatti immediately relaxes. “Look, man,” he says, in that familiar confiding-cabbie voice of his. (The very sound of it evokes tweed caps and lumbar rolls.) “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and those things have never seemed like a particularly real thing to me—they’ve seemed like a different profession, almost. I mean, you sit there going, ‘Boy, it’d be great if that happened.’ But I wasn’t disappointed, and I wasn’t surprised. I also think, frankly, and I’m not being Mr. über-Modest, that I don’t really deserve a nomination anyway. I mean, the hardest part of this, honestly, has been the soft hand on the shoulder I get from a lot of people—that pursed-lipped, stick-with-it-pal kind of thing.”

He’s a better-looking man in real life, without the humiliations the wardrobe and makeup departments have inflicted upon him—the hair fuller, the face thinner. He looks his actual age, 38, instead of the cirrhotic 41-to-55 he appears to be on-screen. “The camera, they say, puts ten pounds on you,” he notes. “It puts about twenty-five on me.” But even cleaned up, with the beard trimmed and a pair of Libeskind-chic eyeglasses on, Giamatti still reflexively refers to himself as the “fat guy with glasses” or the “funny fat guy.” He tells me he was genuinely befuddled by the Newsweek experience and the photo shoot with the likes of Swank, Winslet, and DiCaprio: “I mean, what’s wrong with this picture? Who doesn’t quite fit in here?” Even to the indie crowd, he says, he was an outcast until recently, since a lot of his small parts came in big-budget movies like Saving Private Ryan, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Planet of the Apes. “I was more of a Hollywood-cheese guy to them,” he says. “Couldn’t get arrested for an independent film. Wasn’t cool enough.”

He calls his two-picture-strong run as a terrific leading man a “fluke,” and when I ask him in a later conversation what sort of tasty part he’d love to land, expecting some rumination about playing Willy Loman on Broadway or doing his own Mr. Holland’s Opus, he mentions the roles played by Dann Florek and S. Epatha Merkerson on Law & Order: “The angry-lieutenant guy,” he says. “You know, you get to say, ‘Bring ’em in for questioning!’ or ‘You got twenty-four hours—don’t blow it!’ You get to have choice scenes of outrage, but it isn’t so much to do. Which would be fine with me.

This is a man for whom unassuming might be too forceful an adjective. Indeed, Giamatti has made a career of playing ordinary men. Not Everymen, those idealized American archetypes embodied by Tom Hanks and Gary Cooper at their most populist, but mere scufflers, guys who exist on the fringes of the camera frame—dudes who spend their time in betting parlors and back offices, eating Fritos and thinking about what’s on Fox tonight. Giamatti has played scores of these guys, in roles tiny, medium, and, recently, large, and the trick he’s pulled is never to repeat himself, never to fall into a stock-character performance, even when it’s all the script demands. This is partly by design: “The one thing I’ve successfully tried to avoid,” he says, “is the script where I have to sit down at a terminal and be Geeky Computer Guy, doing this [mimes furious keystroking] and tracking the hero as he’s fighting terrorists: ‘Get outta there, Spike!’ ”

But Giamatti is also remarkably chameleonic, transmogrifying from harried nebbish to sleazy confidence man to loyal best friend to orangutan (in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes) like a career criminal perpetually on the lam. Ron Howard had already cast Giamatti in his latest film, Cinderella Man, an old-fashioned boxing yarn that opens this month, before the director realized that this was the same actor he’d loved six years earlier as Howard Stern’s apoplectic nemesis, NBC radio programming executive Kenny “Pig Vomit” Rushton, in Private Parts. “I sort of backtracked to Pig Vomit after the fact,” Howard says. “I saw Paul in American Splendor when I was casting Cinderella Man and thought he was perfect for the Joe Gould part. But I hadn’t linked Harvey Pekar to Pig Vomit in my mind.”

As Joe Gould, the ringside sage who engineers the unlikely 1934 comeback of Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe), a real-life heavyweight contender from New Jersey who was reduced to working on the docks when the Great Depression hit, Giamatti is more dapper than usual—his hair slicked with Brylcreem, his body draped in bespoke woolens and gabardines—but his performance is pure Boy-jess Meredith, all salt and snarl. (When Braddock gets entangled in the ring with the heavyweight champ, Max Baer [Craig Bierko], Giamatti-as-Gould shouts, “Hey, Maxela! You gonna punch him or pork him?”) It’s funny just to see Giamatti opposite Crowe, who is at his most stoic as Braddock—like watching a hummingbird flit spasmodically around a sequoia. Gould may be the sophisticate to Braddock’s rube, but it’s still another case of Giamatti as a mere mortal, watching from the sidelines, cockeyed and pear-shaped, as the chiseled hero has his date with destiny.

 

The twist on this premise is that Giamatti’s life has been anything but ordinary. He grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, as the youngest son of A. Bartlett Giamatti, the beloved Yale English professor who became the university’s youngest-ever president in 1978 and served in that position until 1986, when he left to become the president of baseball’s National League and, subsequently, commissioner of the entire league. Bart Giamatti died on September 1, 1989, just 154 days into his tenure as the big league’s top man and just eight days after he famously banished Pete Rose from baseball for betting on games. “I don’t have an opinion on Pete Rose, which people find hard to believe,” Giamatti says. “All that event means to me in my mind is, it’s when my father died, so it’s just depressing.”

Giamatti’s education was heavy-duty—Choate, followed by Yale undergrad, followed by the Yale School of Drama—and he spent his childhood in the company of some of America’s greatest public intellectuals, who just happened to be his dad’s colleagues and buddies: the literary critic Harold Bloom, the architecture critic Vincent Scully, the art historian Robert Farris Thompson. I put it to Giamatti that his performance as Harvey Pekar, my favorite, must have been influenced by knowing Bloom. I’ve seen the latter shufflng around the campus of New York University, where Bloom also teaches, and I thought I detected echoes of the great Western Canon man in Giamatti-as-Pekar’s dyspeptic facial expressions and extreme posture—the head slung low and forward, almost perpendicular to the shoulders. “Probably, unconsciously, I did think of Harold Bloom,” he says. “I mean, there’s definitely a turtle-out-of-its-shell kind of quality, the super-world-weary thing, that they both have. You know, when I did Planet of the Apes, I actually think I do remember consciously thinking of Harold Bloom a couple of times, ’cause I had that sort of big orangutan sac-goiter thing around my neck. So if you want to see any Harold Bloom in any of my performances…”

Of his upbringing among the all-stars of academe, Giamatti protests that he can’t view his youth as having been anything but normal, since it was all he knew. “These were just guys my dad worked with,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s not special. The place, physically, to grow up in, was amazing. I can remember playing with Robert Thompson’s kid, sneaking into the Kline Bio Tower and stuff. But it was just my dad’s job.” Giamatti likewise downplays his time at the Yale School of Drama, incubator of such talents as Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, and Sigourney Weaver. “I was the old-man actor,” he says. “If there had to be somebody in a Chekhov play, you know, in a wheelchair with a blanket over his legs and a Panama hat on, that was me.”

But to hear it from others, Giamatti was not the nonentity he makes himself out to be. Ron Howard says that a former executive at his production company, Imagine Entertainment, was a classmate of Giamatti’s at Yale and told Howard that “the whole student body went to the theater when they heard that Paul Giamatti was in a play.” And Robert Thompson recalls being struck by Giamatti’s performing gifts at an early age. “Once, when he was a kid, I gave him a French-language phrase booklet,” says Thompson, “and he instantly turned it into this hilarious performance: ‘I need a hospital! I need an ambulance! I have a fever! I need a car! I need gas!’ Later on, he took my course The Black Atlantic Visual Tradition, and he sat way in the back, in the hip row, where Jodie Foster also sat, and I called on him when I needed a pithy response, something that had some humor. I think that with Sideways, the inevitable happened. Eventually, he will play Tom Cruise roles. Mark my words.”

Thompson doesn’t see it as a stretch to liken Paul, the sleepy-eyed homunculus who plays losers and says frickin’ a lot, to Bart, the Renaissance man who “spoke the baccalaureate in this resonant tone.” Bart, for all his magnetism and intellect, was a rumpled eccentric—a smoker who would fish a half-spent butt out of the pocket of his suit jacket before launching into a discourse on Carl Yastrzemski—and Paul has inherited his appealing combo of smarts and unpretentiousness. “The genes are the closest we get to immortality,” Thompson says, a palpable longing for his late friend in his voice, “and when I watch Paul in movies, I see and hear Bart.”

Giamatti lost his mother, Toni, last September, on the eve of Sideways-mania. “My sister and I are constantly saying the irony is that the person who would have most enjoyed all the hoopla would have been my mom,” he says. “In a funny way, that might have contributed to my feelings about the Academy Award stuff,” he continues. “I’d had something much worse happen to me, very recently. So I was kind of like, ‘On the list of the worst things that have happened to me, [the snub] is pretty low.’ ”

 

So where does the hoopla lead? I express my concern to Giamatti that he might go Hollywood on us and suddenly get buff like Michael (The Shield) Chiklis—“Man, he’s seriously streamlined!” Giamatti interjects—or renounce his King Schlump status, much as Renée Zellweger seems to contract immediately into thinness after finishing a Bridget Jones, wearing size 0 couture as if to say “Only kidding!”

“The short answer to that is no, I won’t be doing that anytime soon,” he says. “There’s a part of me that feels like I actually have a mission to look like crap on film. In a way, I’m glad I look the way I look. I’m not ashamed of it—you read some things and would think that I look like a wild boar or something. But if there was a viable reason in the script to lose weight—’cause I’ve been starving in the desert for years—I would do it.”

I bemoan to Giamatti the oppressive fitness of movie stars, even comic actors. “Ben Stiller is really buff,” I say, “and he has no business being buff.”

“I know!” he says. “And then when you see him in a movie, you’re kind of like, ‘Now it’s not funny anymore.’ It really happens with women. They get all hard and muscly and sunken cheeked, with those broad James Caan shoulders. But the pressure on them is a thousand times worse. I’m lucky. I get to just look like crap.”

Giamatti being Giamatti, he hasn’t spent much of the capital, monetary or professional, that his recent success has brought. His sole extravagance, if it can be called that, is the Brooklyn Heights apartment he now lives in with his wife and young son after years on the Lower East Side. And rather than use his newfound leverage to work with, say, Steven Soderbergh to signify his arrival at the cinematic vanguard, he has chosen to follow up Sideways with a small film set in Vienna called The Illusionist, directed by a little-known filmmaker named Neil Burger, in which he takes second billing to Edward Norton.

Should Giamatti choose to go flagrantly commercial, however, there is the still unsubsided Sideways phenomenon. These gastro- and oeno-porn things have legs, I tell him, as the Toujours Provence and Babette’s Feast legions can attest. “Somebody did say to me the other day, ‘Dude, you should get on that bandwagon. You should be Orson Welles. Go up and make appearances at wineries,’ ” he replies. “At this point, I am not choosing to milk that. But I suppose, if times get lean for me, I could. For, like, ten years, I bet, I could ride that out.” He chuckles and shakes his head. “How sad would that be?”

September 4, 2006  Link  GQ  Share/Bookmark

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