Wednesday, July 18, 2012

In Character: Joe Pantoliano

Joe Pantoliano, the king of the whine. No matter what role Pantoliano (or Joey Pants, as he is commonly known) is playing, he always manages to bring his signature bitch-and-moan to the forefront. And with his nasally voice, bald head and small physical presence, who better to pout than him?

Don’t get me wrong, Pantoliano’s characters aren’t all gripe. In fact, he often uses his seemingly innocent demeanor to his advantage by playing psychopaths who either buck at the slightest sign of red, or quietly stab you in the back when you aren’t looking. As my Week of Nolan continues, it only seems appropriate to dedicate today's In Character to a man who never shies from stealing the show.

Five Essential Roles
Bad Boys (1995)
Captain Howard
It’s crazy to admit, but early in his career, Michael Bay directed a movie I love. It’s called Bad Boys, and it is completely bitchin’. As the hysterically stern police captain to Will Smith and Martin Lawrence’s continually troubled Miami cops, Pantoliano plays one of the best dickheads-in-charge I’ve seen in a buddy cop action film.

There’s a great scene midway through the movie in which Pantoliano frustratingly shoots hoops while smoking a cigar.  Pantoliano, with his awful buzz cut and laughable gym attire, bitches out Smith and Lawrence for their mucking of a case. Out of his frustration, Pantoliano launches every shot at the backboard, missing the basket disastrously everytime. Between shots and drags of his stogie, he barks out continual gold, including my personal favorite: “I was like, getting’ ‘em all in before you showed up.”

Granted, there isn’t a whole hell of a lot for Pantoliano to do here, but this is a Michael Bay film after all. Regardless, in Bad Boys, Pantoliano manages to steal every scene he’s in from the likes of much showier actors.

Bound (1996)
In the Wachowskis’ first feature film, Bound, Pantoliano plays a mafia money launder whose girlfriend (Jennifer Tilly) plans to rob him blind with the help of her secret lover (Gina Gershon). Caesar is the embodiment of most of Pantoliano’s best characters: a small-statured pusher who makes up for his diminutive size with overly aggressive enforcement.

Caesar is like Pantoliano’s Ralph from The Sopranos, equipped with (slightly) more restraint. Take, for instance, the understated, thrilling sequence in which Caesar comes across thousands of blood-soaked hundred dollar bills, and proceeds to spend hours washing and drying each individual bill. Caesar makes a living out of calculating, and when he finally gets wind of the plot against him, Pantoliano is able to let the role take off with manic vigor. A truly badass performance.

The Matrix (1999)
“Why oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?”

Cypher is the other side of Pantoliano’s coin: the little weasel eager to do any and everything to get ahead. Willing to turn on his team, namely leader Morpheus, for a comfortable life back in the Matrix, Cypher hesitates not in the slightest to make good on his hustle.

Look, I don’t get as jazzed over The Matrix as most. I really dig it, but I don’t think it’s one of the best films of all time or anything. Regardless, one of my favorite scenes in the film (and of Pantoliano’s career) is when Cypher waxes philosophic about a steak to the remorseless Agent Smith. The way Pantoliano admires the meat before chewing it tenderly, or smells his wine before sipping it slowly – it’s those simple touches that make Pantoliano’s work stick out.

Memento (2001)
Teddy Gammell
Teddy Gammell, is, perhaps, Memento’s greatest enigma. On the surface, he’s a cop who genuinely wants to help the film’s mentally inept lead, Leonard. But look closer.

What does Teddy gain by helping find Leonard’s wife’s murderer? Is he a manipulator who gets an unknowing Leonard to kill Teddy’s competition? Is he a good cop simply trying to do what’s right? It’s impossible to discuss this further without revealing Memento’s best tricks, but by the end (err, beginning), we have a good handle on Teddy’s motives, unless, you know, we don’t.

Like everything surrounding Memento, Teddy is an extremely layered character. We’re never quite sure if he’s on the level, which, in my mind, adds to the film’s delicious complexity. I’ve always been of the school of thought that Teddy is a good guy who is pegged wrong. But hell, how would I know?

Unknown (2006)
Bound Man
Five guys wake up in an abandoned warehouse and have no idea who they are or how they got there. One is tied to a chair, another is shot and handcuffed to a rail, one has a broken nose, while the remaining two have bruises and cuts. It’s an amusing premise for a simple thriller, one that, ultimately, isn’t executed to its full potential. But that certainly isn’t without lack of trying.

Pantoliano is the man bound to the chair, and soon after everyone wakes up, they make the decision to leave him as such. If he was tied down to begin with, they all agree, then he clearly isn’t on their side. Despite the physical limitations of the role, Pantoliano makes his Bound Man sing. Few actors can berate, bitch, and moan as amusingly as Joey Pants. Hell, the poor bastard has to spend a majority of the film’s breezy 85 minute running time face down on the ground. I imagine that pissed the actor off a little bit, and, well, it shows rather vividly.

The Best of the Best
The Sopranos (2001-2004)
Ralph Cifaretto
Okay, I know this is an admitted cheat, given that Pantoliano guest starred in 23 episodes of The Sopranos. Really, how is it fair to call a performance an actor’s best when he had 23 hours to fully develop the character, as opposed to the two supplied in a feature film? Well, it isn’t, so here’s what we’re gonna do. Take Pantoliano’s work in just two episodes of The Sopranos – season three’s University, and season four’s Whoever Did This? – and stand them on their own.

VoilĂ .

Much of University is spent in the VIP room of the Bada Bing, where Ralph, among other things, sexually abuses women and beats his friends senseless with whatever items happen to be lying around. But it’s toward the end of the episode, when Ralph gruesomely beats his girlfriend, Tracee, to death that we (finally) realize how perfect Pantoliano is for this part. There’s so much desperation in this pathetic man, and Pantoliano plays it expertly.

Whoever Did This? was Pantoliano’s Emmy show. He submitted his work on that episode for the award and dutifully won (watch his emotional speech here). If you’re a Sopranos fan, I don’t even need to describe what happens in the episode for you to know which one I’m talking about. It’s that one. Ralph’s indiscretions finally come to a head, and it is fascinating to watch it unfold.

Other Notable Roles
In Risky Business
Risky Business (1983)
The Goonies (1985)
La Bamba (1987)
Empire of the Sun (1987)
Midnight Run (1988)
The Fugitive (1993)
Calendar Girl (1993)
U.S. Marshals (1998)

Previous installments of In Character include:
John Cazale
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
William Fichtner
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
Philip Baker Hall
John Hawkes
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
William H. Macy
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Danny Trejo
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright

Next on the Week of Nolan:
Thursday July 19
The Polarization of The Prestige

Friday July 20
My Favorite Scene: Insomnia

Saturday July 21
Review of The Dark Knight Rises

Sunday July 22
Why You Need to Follow Following


  1. Ralphie in The Sopranos is my favorite Pantoliano performance.

    Plus, Bad Boys is still my favorite Michael Bay film with The Rock a close second. Everything else after that... ew!!!!

    1. Yes! Another Bad Boys fan... that's awesome. I also agree that The Rock is a solid action film, and everything that followed was garbage. Glad we enjoy the brutality of Ralphie equally!

  2. I've only seen Memento but he did such a great unnerving character whose motives you never knew. I may check some of these out. Hey I’m sorry to sound like a douche, but I just started a blog today. I made a similar list with My 5 Favorite Joseph Gordon-Levitt performances. Would you mind checking out my blog? And on top of that if you remotely like it would you mind adding me to your blogroll? Sorry for the wording that the most awkward way possible. Anyways another great post in The Week of Nolan.

    1. Ha, it's all good man. I'm actually reading your JGL piece as we speak, great stuff here. I've got TONS of blogs to add to my blogroll. Gonna go through all them in the next week or so!

      And thanks for your comments throughout this week, I'm glad your digging my Nolan love.

    2. Just read and commented. Because I "caught you early" to the blogging game, please please please disable the CAPTCHA settings for leaving a comment on your blog. It makes leaving a comment on someone's blog so very difficult. I promise your spam filters will catch the bad stuff!

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. When I got to Memento, I was literally like, "Oh! That guy!"

    1. He really is one of the best Thaaaat guy's out there. Love his Memento work.

  4. So glad you chose The Sopranos as his best. He was one of the best antagonists in the show, if not the best. the whole situation with Tracee was just heartbreaking and I loved the way Tony beat him up for it and than of course episodes later "She was innocent, beautiful creature!". That scene in the restaurant in Matrix is probably one of the most memorable in the movie, precicesly because of those little things - the way he enjoys fake world, though he is well aware it is fake.

    1. Ralphie just treated poor Tracee like dogshit, didn't he? Really hard to watch, but definitely fantastic acting all around. The Matrix has several badass, game changing action sequences, but I do think that scene I mentioned is my favorite from the film. Pantoliano is such a classic goon.

  5. It'd be great to see Pantoliano reteam with Nolan. I haven't watched The Sopranos yet (I know, I know), so I'd cite Memento and The Matrix as his best performances. And why have I not seen Bound? Must do so.

    1. Dude, I know I am in the VAST minority here, but Bound is by far my favorite Wachowski film. It's smart, fun, sexy and very intriguing.

      I'd also really like to see Pantoliano reteam with Nolan, perhaps in Nolan's scaled back thriller that I really want him to make haha.

    2. Bound is probably my 2nd favorite Wachowski film after The Matrix. Gershon and Tilly turn in great performances. So, so great...

      REALLY great. Okay, sorry I'm done.

    3. Ha, well, they're...uh, inspiring to say the least.

  6. So weird - I was thinking of the Cypher/Agent Smith restaurant scene earlier today. I believe Pants says "Ignorance is bliss," and it cuts and there's a run on the harp playing in the background. Love that scene.

    Great In Character!

    1. Thanks man! That cut is brilliant, it just works so perfectly. Love that scene.

  7. Out of this list, I've only seen Memento and The Matrix -- I love both movies. I've seen Risky Business, but I was in high school, and you don't even want to know how long ago that was, so I've forgotten most of it. :) I did enjoy seeing the photo of a much younger Pantoliano. I also enjoyed his performance -- in a very different role -- in a movie titled Canvas.

    1. Whoa, Canvas sounds intense, and different. Worth checking out?

      Ha, you make yourself sound so old! I don't care how old or young a movie buff is... you clearly know your movies, and that's all that matters to me!

    2. I don't care about age either ... I learn so much from bloggers of all ages. ;-) Canvas is not necessarily a movie people watch for the film-making per se. It's a fairly straightforward drama about mental illness and its impact on a family -- if anything on such a difficult topic could be called "straightforward." It kind of had the feel of a made-for-T.V. special. Strong performances by Pantoliano and Marcia Gay Harden, in my opinion -- I do think it's worth watching. And it was fun to see Pantoliano play a family man for a change. :)

    3. Ha, and what a rarity that is. I'm definitely going to be checking it out soon!

  8. Man, his work in The Sopranos is incredible. Totally agree with that being the "best of the best". I recently watched Risky Business for the first time, and I had to do a double-take when I realized that was Pantoliano. So young!

    Awesome post, Alex!

    1. Thanks buddy! Ralphie is just such a son of a bitch, isn't he? I mean... damn.

      Sooo young in Risky Business. Love watching him in that.

  9. Superb post on Joey Pants, and I'm in full agreement that Ralphie is his best work. Bonus points for singling out his Bound performance. LOVED that flick!

    Wish there was a little more love towards his roles in The Goonies and The Fugitive, but I understand. You may not be in love with those films as much as I am.

    1. Another Joey Pants fan... I dig. I was really close to adding his Cosmo character from The Fugitive/U.S. Marshalls, but a few of the others just barely outweighed it. Either way, great actor here.

  10. I actually just watched Risky Business for the first time and was surprised to see a young Joe Pantoliano playing basically the same part he usually does. I can't argue with his role in The Sopranos, which is perfect for him. He's put together a pretty impressive career.

    1. He has indeed. Funny thing though, when I was writing this up, I realized he hasn't had a really good role in a number of years. Maybe his life problems finally caught up with him...? Hope to see him back out there soon.

  11. I finally got round to watching Empire of the Sun last night (manly tears were obviously shed) and it was nice to see Pantoliano (and surprisingly Ben Stiller) pop up as John Malkovich's cronies. Also how good is Christian Bale in it?! For me it's up there with American Psycho and the Machinist as one of the best performances of his career.

    1. Dude, Bale is so damn impressive in that flick. A child actor who is perfectly in touch with what he's doing. Very remarkable, rare performance for such a young kid. Love him in that!