In Praise of the King of Pathos ‹ Literary Hub

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I find myself lately thinking of different variants of the opening line of The Odyssey.

“Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices,” begins A.T. Murray’s 1919 translation. This is the line that, in 1990, Allen Mandelbaum interpreted as “Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles,” the same line that, in 1996, Robert Fagles interpreted as “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns,” the same line that, in 2017, Emily Wilson interpreted simply as “Tell me about a complicated man.”

But if I am to invoke the Muse (in Homeric terms) at the start of this article, I would borrow the words of Robert Fitzgerald, who appealed, in 1961, “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end.” I’m drawn to this version, in which the speaker asks the Muse to animate his own telling of the tale rather than impart it to him, and I find it a fitting entreaty for the purposes of this article, which is to give an account of a wonderful story I already know: that of the venerable and varied career of Paul Giamatti, the battered, wayfaring, under-sung hero of modern cinema, an actor who takes the portrayal of the everyman to extraordinary and in fact epic heights.

If there’s another reason to begin this piece Homerically, it’s to nod towards Giamatti’s most recent performance, in Alexander Payne’s excellent new film The Holdovers, a period piece set in New England in 1970. Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, a cantankerous Ancient Civilizations teacher at Barton Academy, an elite all-boys boarding school. Hunham, who winds up assigned to watch over the few students left at the school during winter break, is defined as much by his great love for the material he teaches as his frothing irritation at the entitlement of most of the students there, many of whom are destined for Ivy League schools and powerful careers regardless of effort or merit. But, that winter, he meets his match in one of the students in his care, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a mouthy, clever, and depressed eleventh grader hurting after being left behind by his family at Christmas.

Giamatti’s performance is wonderful, bringing to life a character who is sure to live in cultural memory for a long time. In less capable hands (than Giamatti’s or Payne’s), the film’s well-balanced script (written by David Hemingson) could be executed as too treacly, too maudlin, or, in the opposite respect, too much of a screwball bildungsroman. Instead, it is a careful, well-paced film, slowly unfurling its characters’ complexities as it moves, restraining itself before it ever gives too much at any given time. This kind of balance is Payne’s tonal specialty, and Giamatti, an actor of profound passion who can turn his emotions up and down on a dime, demonstrates in this film just how much he is Payne’s compeer.

Giamatti usually has a sarcastic, caustic crust to his voice, which makes his moments of unvarnished sincerity all the more powerful. His manner of speaking is unique: he has a rolling, mellifluous cadence that, at its lowest tone, can scrape the guttural, and at its highest, can erupt into a striking yelp. It’s this sudden, turn-on-its-heel yell that allows Giamatti to… sonically italicize moments of his dialogue. Think of “I am not drinking any fucking merlot” from Sideways or “son of a bitch, that’s another detention” from The Holdovers. He understands the power of meter, rhythm, syllables like no other actor out there; he can allow a single word (or half a word) to take on tremendous meaning, to convey fathoms of emotion, to communicate a great deal about the character saying that thing. He animates his lines as tightly as if he’s speaking along to a piece of eighteenth-century sheet music, with adagios and allegros and arpeggios neatly knitted in, yet he makes it all sound effortless, spontaneous, and natural.

He animates his lines as tightly as if he’s speaking along to a piece of eighteenth-century sheet music, with adagios and allegros and arpeggios neatly knitted in, yet he makes it all sound effortless, spontaneous, and natural.

Giamatti’s performance in The Holdovers is a profoundly psychological one. Hunham is a pathetic figure (in the Greek sense, as in emotional), a complicated man, a man of twists and turns. Hemingson’s script (one of the best pieces of film writing I’ve come across), presents him first more from a student’s perspective. He is, after all, a teacher, and teachers are universally mysterious. They are highly performative and demandingly inscrutable, and yet oddly porous at times—occasionally offering glimmers beyond surface personality and protocols towards who they truly are and the forces that made them that way. Teachers are our first celebrities, sometimes our first nemeses, sometimes our first crushes. They are the first “real” adults we encounter in our lives. Family doesn’t count. Hemingson’s script and Payne’s canny direction initially offer us a students’ takeaway of Hunham, even while grounding him as our main character. Throughout the film, Payne’s direction and Giamatti’s performance knead something a little gentler to the forefront of Hunham’s prickly persona. In other words, as Angus gets to know him more, we get to know him more too.

The students in his classes see him as nasty, bitter, hard-to-please. They note his physical differences (his lazy eye and his body odor). Most of the students, it’s clear, are not capable of truly understanding him; they are the very students who miss the effort of his teaching, the gift of knowledge he is trying to impart to them. Angus understands Hunham, though he doesn’t realize this at first. The five students who hold over during break learn more about him, encounter his alcoholism, witness his capacities for genuine anger and sympathy—especially regarding his friend Mary (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), Barton’s cafeteria manager who has just lost her nineteen-year-old son in Vietnam. But only Angus gets to see the real man for who, or what, he is: which is to say, someone who once was a boy with his whole life ahead of him, just as Angus is now.

Giamatti has been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the film, included among a coterie of actors who similarly deserve recognition for their excellent performances and markers of their tremendous careers, especially the great Jeffrey Wright, nominated for American Fiction. Other nominees who are finally getting their due are Colman Domingo for Rustin, Cillian Murphy for Oppenheimer. And Bradley Cooper is nominated for his portrayal of Leonard Bernstein in Maestro, a film that he reportedly worked very, very hard to make and put his whole heart into making.

Oscars should be won for performances, not as career acknowledgements. And out of all the deserving nominees in this category, I hope Giamatti wins the Oscar, and I confess, it’s as much for his performance in this film as it is for his career. Rather, I think Giamatti’s nuanced, subtle-yet-Herculean performance in The Holdovers reminds audiences of the thing he has been doing for his whole career: acting with his very soul, and never missing a mark.

Truly, I don’t think there is an actor working today who puts everything he’s got into every single performance, the way Giamatti does. I’ve seen a lot of his movies, a lot of his TV shows, a lot of the other random things he’s done, and I’ve never once seen him phone in a performance, half-ass even the slightest appearance. He seems to be guided equally by enthusiasm and hard work, and the results are always exciting.

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Giamatti, a veteran character actor, has worked in the field since the early 90s. He graduated with his M.F.A. from the Yale Drama School in 1994, though IMDb lists credits (as background characters like “heckler #2” and “kissing man” in movies) as far back as 1990. He came up towards the end of the decade, first with a flurry of small parts (a Larrabee house staff member in Sabrina (1995), a comforting bellman in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), the control room operator in The Truman Show (1998)) before a memorable turn as an NBC executive in Private Parts (1997) and a Sergeant in Saving Private Ryan (1998). Afterwards, he played bit parts and provided voiceovers for TV shows, acted as villains in several kids’ movies, donned comprehensive prosthetics to play an orangutan in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001). He also played Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clifton co-creator in Man on the Moon (1999), Andre Braugher’s karaoke partner in Duets (2000), and Harvey Pekar in the docu-comedy American Splendor (2003).

This is all before 2004, mind you, when he starred in Alexander Payne’s wine-country road-trip black comedy Sideways, a performance which cemented him in the public eye as a charismatic and formidable performer. The following year he received a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for Cinderella Man (2005), in which he plays the fast-talking, supportive manager to Russell Crowe’s underdog boxer James J. Braddock. Mainstream appreciation brought him many more prestigious roles, like the eponymous statesman in HBO’s miniseries John Adams (2008), and yet something about his filmography feels more personal than that. There are curious things in there, movie-experiments like Cold Souls (2009), Sophie Barthes’s nesting-doll of a movie in which Giamatti plays a version of himself tortured by a production of Uncle Vanya so dramatically that he puts his own soul in cold storage to deal with it, and then borrows the soul of a Russian poet. His repertoire includes leading parts and supporting roles and also random cameo appearances, like the time he sat in a covered dumpster for a 2016 episode of The Chris Gethard Show while Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas and various callers guessed what could be in there for 20 minutes. Everyone was surprised to find that the thing in the dumpster was “Paul Giamatti.”

Truly, I don’t think there is an actor working today who puts everything he’s got into every single performance, the way Giamatti does.

Actors have to pay the bills, and this can often account for a zigzag of quality across an artist’s repertoire; the presence of a Marvel movie alongside a moving indie, things like that. But Giamatti’s oeuvre reflects more than a need to keep working, but a love of working. Indeed, Giamatti is one of those actors who always seems to pop into things, and this suggests something about Giamatti’s keenness about participating in projects he finds interesting or fun, no matter how prestigious or not. I remember turning on a 30 Rock episode to find him playing an obnoxious video editor with a stringy ponytail, an Islanders obsession, and a penchant for Civil War reenactments. Is that Paul Giamatti sitting down to eat fish cooked by Amy Sedaris on her truTV homemaking show? Is that Paul Giamatti in an extremely long Season Four episode of Downton Abbey, playing Elizabeth McGovern’s American brother who is hiding out in England, licking his wounds after the Teapot Dome Scandal? Anyway, it’s always a pleasure to watch an actor who wants to be acting, who wants to participate in projects they admire and enjoy.

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I think, like many in my age group, the first time I saw Giamatti was in Big Fat Liar, a 2002 Nickelodeon Studios comedy starring Frankie Muniz and Amanda Bynes. Big Fat Liar, directed by Shawn Levy, is the exemplar of the big-box-office studio comedy for kids that they don’t make anymore, a phantasmagoric mash-up of “no-parents hijinks” and sophisticated, meta-cinema references. Muniz plays a fourteen-year-old named Jason Shepherd, a compulsive liar who winds up in trouble after fibbing to get out of handing in a school paper. Given a brief extension by his teacher (Sandra Oh), he writes a short story about a compulsive liar, which he calls “Big Fat Liar,” but never gets to deliver it. Why? Because, as he’s biking to the meeting place to hand it into his teacher, he’s hit by a limousine, the passenger of which, a Hollywood producer named Marty Wolf (Giamatti), begrudgingly agrees to give him a ride the rest of the way. But Jason’s backpack spills and the story falls out without him knowing, meaning he shows up to meet his teacher empty-handed and is sentenced to summer school. It’s only when he’s at the movies with his friend Kaylee (Bynes) does he see a teaser trailer for a movie with the same plot and title as his paper, causing him to realize that Wolf had stolen his story and has begun adapting it into a big feature, next summer’s hotly-anticipated blockbuster. Alas, no one will believe Jason about what happened, so he and Kaylee run away to Los Angeles to corner Wolf at his studio and get him to admit that he plagiarized his next big feature film.

It’s a fun premise, but the movie might have been easily forgotten (except by nostalgic millennials) were it not for Giamatti’s performance. As Wolf, a hyperactive, insult-spewing boor with a lying compulsion of his own, Giamatti gives it his all. He is virtuosic, transcendent. He is far more committed to his role than anyone in this genre of movie need be and, as a result, he makes the whole thing gel. He is a joy to watch, both as he wages his reign of terror at his production company staff, and, later in the film, as he gets what’s coming to him, in the form of a series of vengeful pranks by Jason, Kaylee, and the army of Wolf-haters they have amassed.

Marty Wolf is an unprincipled megalomaniac, a prolific asshole, a man that Paul Hunham would despise to his very core. He is, to use some of Hunham’s own choice insults, an “entitled degenerate,” a “genuine troglodyte,” a “rancid philistine.” But he’s also magnetic and hysterical, a showstopping villain. He’s never so vile that he’s unwatchable; in fact, the deeper Giamatti burrows into his unpleasantness, the more compelling he becomes. The intensity of performance is not merely funny, but it’s correct for a character who is both incorrigible and relentless.

Giamatti told GQ in an interview in December 2023 that he enjoyed the opportunity to do the “crazy physical stuff” that the role of Marty Wolf required. “I’ve always been physically comfortable doing stuff like that in front of people. I mean, there’s obviously an exhibitionist element to actors… he just was letting me do so much ridiculous stuff and I enjoy being big like that. It’s really fun, you know? You don’t get the opportunity so much to just go over the top like that. And [Shawn] knew I could.”

Practically, Marty is a combination of vocal mayhem and madcap physicality. A perfect example is the scene when the obnoxious Marty wakes up one morning in his ostentatious Los Angeles mansion and dances his way to his pool, stepping in time to his self-chosen (diegetic) anthem “Hungry Like the Wolf,” without realizing that Jason and Kaylee have put blue dye in his pool, orange dye in his shampoo, and wet superglue in his phone earpiece. In the course of a single two-minute scene, we see the extremes of Marty’s existence: a narcissistic tyrant at the height of his power and an angry jackass who realizes he’s been taken down a few pegs. But this only gets him ready to fight back harder.

Levy was a college friend of Giamatti’s and apparently hounded him to take the part. Honestly, what cognizance, what foresight, what vision. I’m sure that, out of everything in Giamatti’s robust oeuvre, Big Fat Liar isn’t what he’d prefer to be recognized for the most, but believe me when I say it’s a tour-de-force. My own father will stop flipping through channels every time he passes Big Fat Liar, and watch it through to the end. My family knows when he’s watching it because his laughter echoes through the house.

There is almost no reason to be as good as he is in a kids’ movie of this ilk, except for the rare performer who commits wholeheartedly to every project. Giamatti is the epitome of the “no small parts” actor, a stalwart creative force for whom any role is a playground.

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Although he excels at the outlandish, Giamatti has found a career niche playing varieties of a specific archetype, the everyman-with-an-edge. Many of his performances are poetic versions of one another, different emotional translations of this same general figure: a man full of exasperation, exhaustion, and/or ennui, a man grappling with the state of his life and his choices, a man whose sense of obligation is not stymied by his internal furnace of anger but is sort of fueled by it until the day he begins screaming into the wind. Lots of performers have made names for themselves playing “normal guys who might go postal” (including one of my absolute favorite performers, Charles Grodin). Giamatti’s take on this persona is a little wilder, a little bitterer. He doesn’t merely play a “put-upon man” but a “put-upon man shooting life the stink-eye.”

These roles allow him to make use of his gifts for physical sardonicism—the undulations and arches of his malleable eyebrows, the piercing beams of his thousand-yard-glare, his ability to set his jaw and curl his lip and deliver the perfect sneer. This parade of cynical, visual hallmarks make his moments of softness, tenderness, kindness all the more arresting, all the more affecting.

My favorite of all Giamatti’s everymen is Mike Flaherty, the enervated protagonist of Tom McCarthy’s 2011 comedy Win Win. Mike is a lawyer in his local New Jersey town, not particularly successful but hanging on. He lives a normal life, but he’s a glass-half-empty kind of guy. He and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) have two young girls, his millionaire best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale) is going through a divorce, the high school wrestling team he coaches is on a fairly consistent losing streak. His life feels like a problem more than it actually is. To make some extra money, he volunteers to become the guardian of one of his older clients, Leo (Burt Young), before stashing him in a nursing home against his wishes. But when Leo’s teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), a runaway, comes to town looking for his grandfather, Mike doesn’t expect that he’ll be taking the boy in, just as much that he isn’t prepared for Kyle’s prodigious wrestling skills.

Giamatti’s performance is so effortless and delicate that it doesn’t seem like the highwire act that it is until you stop and think about it. Mike spends the film wrestling with his own hang-ups and insecurities, taking all of the lovely things in his life for granted—after, of course, committing some light elder abuse and lying about it. No one feels more sorry for themselves than he does, and yet it’s impossible not to root for him to turn things around and step up for his family and friends. Giamatti’s chemistry with Ryan is authentic and tangible, just as everything in the film is authentic and tangible. It’s a film about ordinary people who trap themselves in their worst patterns, avoiding doing the hard work to break out and be better selves. Whenever Mike is less than the man we know he can be, it stings like a punch to the gut.

Win Win is an under-seen gem in Giamatti’s collected works. But his is a sundry cinematic corpus, full of surprises and treasures and the like. It isn’t enough to call Giamatti one of the best actors in Hollywood today, because that might suggest he skates on his natural talent or pauses to rest on his laurels. Giamatti constantly exerts himself, pushes himself, appears to force his whole soul into every character he takes on. He is a roving, laboring, persevering presence, a man of many devices and wiles, driving himself from story to story without allowing his spirit to wear away in the process. And in this way, he is more than a king of his craft; he is a hero of it.

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