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Paul Giamatti – Cinema’s Greatest Actor?

In the early 80s’, the New York Times ran a feature story on character actor Robert Duvall proclaiming him the “American Olivier” which I thought was nonsense as he was so much finer an actor than Olivier but the piece was written by a critic who revered the British actor. Olivier’s acting was forced, false, and never truthful. Having seen every single one of his films through the course of my career, and some were downright painful, only once can I say truly he was terrific, as Dr. Szell in the thriller Marathon Man (1976), in everything else, even his Shakespearean works, his work is far too forced, thought out, and “acted”.

Duvall was a natural, and at that point in his career, making the move from supporting actor to leading man. Through the seventies he was best known for his superb performances in The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1979), Network (1976), and The Seven Per Cent Solution (1976), but it was as Kilgore in Apocalypse Now (1979) that audiences sat up and took notice. As bombs exploded around him, bullets whizzed past, he never flinched, not once as he uttered the famous words, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”. As brilliant as a film as Apocalypse Now (1979) is, and it is a masterpiece, it never quite recovers from Duvall’s exit, never achieves the genius it has in his moments on screen. For the balance of his career he would easily back and forth between leading roles that captured the genius of his talents, and supporting roles in which he usually stole the movie from under the noses of the stars. In The Great Santini (1980), True Confessions (1981), and Tender Mercies (1983) for which he won the academy Award as Best Actor, he was superb, establishing himself as perhaps the finest American actor working in film.

The great acting teacher Sanford Meisner once said, “there are two great actors in America, the first is Brando, whose best work is behind him, the other is Robert Duvall”. He said that around 1966, after Duvall had broken through with his haunting performance in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) yet before his work in the seventies. His greatest work might be Lonesome Dove (1989) a breathtaking mini-series on TV that saw the actor portray the role he loves best, former Texas Ranger Gus McCrae, though a few years later he should shine onscreen in The Apostle (1997), his finest film performance and arguably one of the greatest performances ever captured on film.

Paul Giamatti seems to be following a career path similar to that of Duvall, comfortable in supporting roles, but also more than ready, and capable of stepping into the lead and dazzling us with his gifts.

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I first noticed Giamatti in his small part in Saving Private Ryan (1998) for director Steven Spielberg, and the following year in Man in the Moon (1999), Milos Formans‘ superb biography of Andy Kaufmann. He and Tim Roth were the best things in Planet of the Apes (2001), each sinking deep into character as the apes they were portraying in a film that can be described as a mess, and one year later he jumped out in Big Fat Liar (2002) a kids’ film that featured Giamatti as a lying, thieving studio executive who steals the idea of a young boy who sets out to prove him wrong. The performance is a masterpiece of comic timing, slow burn, slap stick and barely contained fury. Over and over I watched the film with my daughter, until she actually got tired of it and placed the DVD on my shelf, where it sits to this day.
Giamatti stunned audiences and critics in the next two years with extraordinary performances in American Splendor (2003) as cartoonist Harvey Pekar, and better yet as Miles in the masterful comedy Sideways (2004) a film that won the actor the New York Film Critics Award as Best Actor. Giamatti is perfection as Miles, a man defined by the wine he prefers, who is angry at the world for the hurt he suffers, for the things that have not gone his way. He looks in the mirror and sees nothing he likes, until he meets Maya, a woman who might be the key to his happiness. AN astounding performance, Giamatti earned the best reviews of his career, the respect of his peers, receiving a shout out from no less than Sean Penn while accepting his Oscar for Best Actor, and the admiration of directors around the globe, who sought him out to cast him in their films.

Ron Howard gave him a dynamite role in Cinderella Man (2005) that earned him his first Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor, portraying Joe Gould, who believed in and trained the over the hill boxer of the title, Jimmy Braddock. M. Night Shymalan trusted Giamatti enough to cast him in his would be blockbuster The Lady in the Water (2006) and though the actor gave the film his best, bringing to the part heart and real tragedy, the picture flopped, which did not hurt Giamatti, but impacted the director.

Giamatti was given a true challenge from HBO and producer Tom Hanks when asked to portray the second President of the United States in John Adams (2008) a mini-series based on David McCollough‘s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of one of the nations founding fathers. Giamatti responded with an astonishing performance that suggested he was not acting the role but channeling the spirit of the former President through his soul and onto the screen. While it is often difficult for a modern day actor to look at home in a time two hundred years before his birth, Giamatti slipped under the skin of the character and delivered one of his finest performances, bringing Adams to life before our eyes. As fine a piece of acting as Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln (2012) the performance won the actor the Emmy for Best Actor, the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actor and the Golden Globe for Best Actor. In fact, John Adams, with thirteen Emmy wins, is the most honoured mini-series in the history of television. However, rather than sit on his laurels, Giamatti moved forward, looking for something different, something challenging, which he found in an odd place.

“Canada is the most incredible place”, he told me during an interview in 2010, “I just love it here. You know I was here for Cinderella Man, but we were so busy I did not see much of Toronto, and I have been there, as you know for that wonderful film festival. You and I spoke then, a few times I think? We shot Barney’s Version in Montreal, which is a magnificent city full of culture, history and beauty. How do we Americans not know about this?”

As Barney Panaofsky in Barney’s Version (2010) he portrayed the title character in Mordecai Richler’s beloved novel brought to the screen with affection and care by director Richard Lewis and a cast which included Dustin Hoffman and Minnie Driver. It is Giamatti who anchors the film however and gives that miraculous performance that had critics in awe. As he descends into old age, his mind torn apart by Alzheimer’s his character becomes tragic, yet his foolish actions when he was of sound mind, have already made him a tragic to the audience. He won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a comedy for his superb performance, which was highly praised during the films premiere at TIFF and its release in the fall of that year.

He has since followed that great performance with fine work in Win, Win (2011), as insidious and brilliant campaign manager in The Ides of March (2011) for director George Clooney, and was superb in the HBO film Too Big to Fail (2011) a detailed study of the financial crash during the Bush presidency. The man’s talent knows no boundaries and like Sean Penn he seems to be limitless in what he can on screen!
This year we will see him in Steve McQueen‘s slave drama 12 Years a Slave, in Saving Mr. Banks, the making of the Disney classic Mary Poppins with Tom Hanks as Walt himself, and most exciting of all, in Parkland. In that indie drama he will portray Abraham Zapruder who shot some of the most important images of the 20th century when he filmed on 8mm the assassination of President John Kennedy in Dallas, on November 22, 1963.

Never would I insult the actor by calling him the “new Duvall” because each man is their own person.

Paul GIamatti might be the best actor in movies right now.

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John Foote

John Foote