Five Essential Roles
A Touch of Class (1973)
Many of us have a friend like Walter. The casual acquaintance you run into, who can’t take the hint that you just want to be left alone. They hang around, talk too much, annoy you with their optimism. That’s Walter in A Touch of Class. Walter is the good old fella who just keeps appearing. There he is in the airport (yes, of course he’s on the same flight as you). There he is in the same lavish resort as you (yes, of course he’s going to insist you come to dinner), and there he is, sitting with you by the pool, giving you advice on your romantic indiscretions. And there it is, suddenly and without warning, the best scene of A Touch of Class. When the playful friend who can’t take a hint suddenly breaks your life down without judgment. His advice is exactly what you needed. Who knew Walter had it in him?
The Gambler (1974)
Sometimes the scariest thugs in movies are the ones who act the kindest. Hips is a notable bookie, and his pal, Axel (James Caan), is into him for a shitload of money. Axel has a week to pay Hips $44 large, and if he doesn’t, he could very well end up dead at Hips’ hand. But Hips, being the good guy that he is, casually stops by Axel’s apartment, politely asking for the money, his encouragement becoming more panicked with each passing visit. You really believe that Hips doesn’t want to harm Axel. But you know for certain that he won’t hesitate to do so if Axel doesn’t pay. Hips is the guy who will shake your hand on Tuesday, but break your neck on Wednesday. That’s scary.
Sorvino’s physically unrecognizable turn as Henry Kissinger in Nixon is initially a very slow performance. Very labored and patient. There’s a great scene where Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) and his staff discuss the aftermath of the Kent State shooting over dinner on the Presidential Yacht. For most of it, Kissinger sits with his head down, quietly eating, listening to the men of power bicker around him. When he does offer insight, it is concise and prudent. He’s a man who earned attention simply from how he carried himself.
Kissinger has more to do later in the film, especially when he’s implicated by Nixon of being a rat to the press. But it is Sorvino’s early moments of quiet power that I’m most drawn to. I also love that Sorvino has the most telling line in the film. “Can you imagine what this man would have been, had he ever been loved?” he asks of Nixon late in the film. Yeah, can you imagine?
Money Talks (1997)
Okay so look. According to IMDb, Paul Sorvino currently has 152 acting credits to his name. That’s a damn healthy body of work, of which I’ve seen much of. Money Talks isn’t nearly the most prestigious film among that work, but there is simply no end to my amusement in watching Sorvino in this movie. His riffs with Chris Tucker are my favorite scenes Brett Ratner has ever put on film. Sorvino and Tucker bidding on an expensive car at an auto auction is utterly priceless. So seamlessly does Sorvino fit into his role as an insanely wealthy, but humble and charismatic Italian man. Paul Sorvino has never been given enough credit for his humor, but in Money Talks, he absolutely kills it.
The Cooler (2003)
A small role, but one that shows how strong and memorable Sorvino can be with such brief screen time. Buddy Stafford is a washed-up Vegas lounge singer way past his prime. Decades ago, it’s easy to picture Buddy occupying the stage at the hottest hotel on the strip. Now, late in his life, he’s reduced to nightly performances at a dodgy casino in old Vegas. There’s a hint on Buddy’s disappointment as he’s performing, though his showmanship remains strong. But it’s backstage after the show that we fully realize how bad Buddy has it. Begging casino manager Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) for his next punch of heroin, and melting away into a stoned-out has-been once he has fixed. A brief but devastating performance.
The Best of the Best
There’s an economy of movement that makes Paul Cicero immediately important. As Ray Liotta’s narration informs us early in Goodfellas, “Paulie might’ve moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody.” We never see Paulie do anything bad in Goodfellas. He’s never seen giving a beating, whacking a guy, or even knocking over a truck. Instead, he sits in chairs, or cooks over stoves, and quietly gives orders. We see him jovial (“Ohhhhh you broke ya cherry!”), confused (“I know nothing about the restaurant business.”), pissed off (“They’re breakin’ my balls about this bastard.”), and, perhaps most memorably, utterly heartbroken. Watching Paul Sorvino, caked in convincing age-old make-up, tell Ray Liotta “Now I gotta turn my back on ya,” may be the most emotional moment of Sorvino’s career.
Sorvino only occupies 14 and a half of Goodfellas’ 145 minutes, yet it’s a performance of such remarkable weight. Sure, Paul Cicero may not move very much, but when he’s played by a man of such natural power, he sure as hell doesn’t need to.
The Panic in Needle Park (1971)
The Day of the Dolphin (1973)
The Brink’s Job (1978)
Lost and Found (1979)
That Championship Season (1982)
Dick Tracy (1990)
The Rocketeer (1991)
Law & Order (1991-1992)
The Firm (1993)
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Most Wanted (1997)
Mambo Italiano (2003)
Mr 3000 (2004)
Kill the Irishman (2011)