Friday, October 5, 2012

In Character: Stanley Tucci

Despite his consistent appearance and demeanor, that of a bald, soft-spoken, kind, trusting middle aged man, there simply is no role Stanley Tucci cannot play. And play effectively. Wall Street whistler blower, conniving adulterer, serial narcissist, Holocaust architect, psychopathic killer, flamboyant art director – damn near every role Tucci steps into is executed with utter conviction. His amount of outstanding performances is certainly greater than the number I’m about to highlight here, but all told, these are the ones that have stayed with me most.

Five Essential Roles
Conspiracy (2001)
Adolf Eichmann
There’s something horrifying about watching an actor play a horrible man doing horrible things, but with uncommon restraint. Adolf Eichmann was one of the pioneers of the Holocaust, and to watch him and a handful of other German leaders sit around a very large table and coolly orchestrate an ordeal that would ultimately murder millions is simple mortifying.

Hardly any of the Nazis in Conspiracy talk above their normal speaking voices, and it is the simplicity and ease in which they dictate the terms of the Holocaust that proves to be the film’s most haunting aspect. Tucci is here to play lapdog to Kenneth Branagh’s cold and calculating Reinhard Heydrich, and he plays it extraordinarily well. Are the men depicted in Conspiracy villains? Of course. Do the actors play them as such? Not at all. Haunting.

Sidewalks of New York (2001)
Edward Burns’ Sidewalks of New York is filled with desperate romantics doing desperate things. Some lie, some love, some cheat, some steal. I find all of the film’s many stories entertaining, but there’s something about Griffin’s slimy philanderer that amuses me to no end.

Griffin is a successful dentist sleeping with a woman half his age. And, because he has already lived through one failed marriage, he can’t bring himself to tell his wife that he’s stepping out on her with a college-aged coed. There’s a scene where Griffin’s wife, Annie (played viciously by Heather Graham), finally confronts Griffin and asks him to explain. Explain the late-night gym trips, the showers, the perfume – explain it all. The result is one of Tucci’s best scenes: scrambling to wiggle his way out of the mess he’s in. Like a rat in a maze.

The Terminal (2004)
Frank Dixon
There’s just something about Frank Dixon that I love to hate. He’s a kind of harmless, middle aged codger who has done what he’s done for so long, it’s as if he’s blinded by false purpose. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the job of the head of Customs and Border Protection at one of America’s largest airports isn’t an important gig, but it’s the sense of entitlement in which Tucci gives the character that makes the role as pleasing as it is.

In trying to keep harmless Viktor Navorski off American soil, Dixon humorously (and rather pointlessly) stops at nothing to make an innocent man’s life a living hell. Whether he’s stalking Viktor with a security camera, intimidating him with a bag of potato chips, or chasing after him with his diffident little shuffle, everything Dixon does is perfectly dialed in. It’s hard to explain, but simply put, Tucci is Dixon.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
The Devil Wears Prada ain’t my kind of movie. Sure, it’s one of the better contemporary romantic comedies I’ve seen, but that’s rather faint praise. A few things help make it worthy in my mind. One is Meryl Streep’s deservedly lauded performance, the other is Tucci’s perfectly flamboyant magazine art director, Nigel.

A pillar of style, class, and elegance, Tucci’s work here can be summed up by just one scene. After he warmly introduces his boss at a swanky, Parisian dinner, he sits giddily in high anticipation for the promotion he’s about to receive. When grade A bitch Miranda Priestly publicly announces that someone else is getting the job, Tucci’s face melts in devastating acceptance. It’s like watching the hopeless expression that comes over an actors face when they lose the Oscar to someone else. Yeah, like that. But times 10.

The Lovely Bones (2009)
George Harvey
I didn’t like Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. At all. I was quite taken with the source material it was based on, but I found the movie to be… ah, well, shit, let’s try to be nice. What I mean to arrive at is that although the film did next to nothing for me, Stanley Tucci’s role as killer George Harvey made the movie worth it.

While reading Alice Sebold’s book, I painted a very clear vision of George Harvey in my head, and I can’t explain how thrilling it is to witness the character on screen damn near exactly how I pictured him. Many are to thank for this, certainly, but beyond mere looks, it’s the way in which Tucci played Harvey that made him so effective. He’s the perfect Ted Bundy – that kind man who, while helping you down a flight of stairs, may or may not put a cloth laced with chloroform over your mouth. His balding blonde hair, his cowardly voice, his beady little eyes: Tucci’s performance here is a fine example of an actor making a bad movie beyond bearable.

The Best of the Best
Big Night (1996)
Big Night is a simple but no less endearing movie about two Italian brothers running an authentic restaurant in New Jersey. Tucci plays Secondo, a boisterous businessman desperately trying to keep his establishment afloat with his brilliant chef brother, Abruzzo (Tony Shalhoub). Abruzzo prefers to let his food do the talking, so most of the rat-a-tat verbal musings in the film are brought on by Tucci, who turns an honest man trying to make good on a hustle into a perfectly humorous, thrilling, and ultimately heartbreaking character.

Honestly, Tucci deserves mention based solely on this film’s final scene, which is as moving and modest a scene of mutual understanding as I can recall. It works for a number of reasons. Tucci’s tight script and reserved direction certainly helps, but on screen, the man is a beacon of subtle intimacy. It is truly marvelous to watch the moment play out.

Other Essential Roles
In Margin Call
Beethoven (1992)
It Could Happen to You (1994)
Kiss of Death (1995)
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
The Imposters (1998)
Winchell (1998)
Road to Perdition (2002)
The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004)
Lucky Number Slevin (2006)
The Hoax (2006)
ER (2007-2008)
What Just Happened (2008)
Julie & Julia (2009)
Easy A (2010)
Margin Call (2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The Hunger Games (2012)

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


  1. Tucci is always reliable, but I've only seen half of these performances. Thrilled that you included his performance in The Terminal. It's one of my favorites of his, but I'd also put Easy A and Julie & Julia in the top 5.

    1. Oh I loved him in Easy A. He killed it there. Julie & Julia... man, I almost had to turn that movie off. Could not stand it. I mean he was good, I guess. But yikes.

  2. I always forget that he's in Road to Perdition. Don't really know why. (Then again, with actors like Hanks, Newman, Law and Craig in one film, it's easy to forget.)

    1. Oh no doubt. Great great cast there. Brief but very effective role for Tucci in that flick.

  3. Great pick, Alex. Tucci is just so fantastic! There are a few here I haven't seen yet but I definitely should. I'm still curious about The Lovely Bones, if not just for Tucci's and Saiorse's performance. Oooh, that Big Night one looks interesting, I mean him + Tony Shalhoub? Awesome!

    Btw, he's good even as a creep, i.e. It Could Happen To You which I quite enjoyed... oh and you're forgetting Julie & Julia, he's wonderful as Meryl Streep's husband in it.

    1. Thanks Ruth! I actually gave It Could Happen... and Julie & Julia moderate shout outs at the end of the article, but yeah, when I'm forced to choose six performances from a dude this good, some excellent work is bound to be unmentioned.

      Big Night is Fan.Tas.Tic.

    2. Ooops sorry I missed it, my mistake. Awesome post, Alex, as ever!

  4. I love Stanley Tucci. He's so much fun to watch. His performance in The Devil Wears Prada is such a joy to watch. Yet, I think my favorite performance of his is in The Imposters. It's not the moments of him overacting but also getting to do a lot such as pretend to be British and talk with Alfred Molina who is happy that a British is in the ship among a sea of Americans as Molina says, "They're all colonials, you know."

    1. Awesome, glad to hear you like him. You know, I honestly haven't seen The Imposters in forever. And if I had watched it again recently, it might've made the cut here. Either way, tremendous actor through and through.

  5. Great piece, although it reminds me how few of his performances I've seen. I'd also like to take a moment to rave about his performance in a TV Series called 'Murder One'. He's in the first season of it and is simply brilliant. I know you've said that you don't watch much TV, but try and get season one of 'Murder One', if just for Tucci's performance. You won't be disappointed.

    1. Nice, thanks for the recco. Joe was telling me about it on Twitter earlier and it sounds right up my alley. Definitely have to get ahold of that one.

      Glad you like Tucci. He's the man!

  6. Oh I love Stanley Tucci! He is the sweetest guy in romantic comedies - loved his work in Shall we Dance, which would probably be on my list of his top 5, The Devil Wears Prada - completely agree about that look of devastation, he was amazing there - and Easy A where he is probably the coolest dad ever.

    I loved his performance in the Terminal, the whole movie is adorable, but he adds something extra to it - he is so effortless in playing this part.

    1. He IS just so perfectly effortless in The Terminal. He plays such a fantastic asshole when he needs to. Tucci's the type of actor that, although he's been in some crap films, I'm not sure I've ever seen him dish out a bad performance. He always believes in what he's doing.

  7. I am in complete agreement on The Lovely Bones. My daughter and I loved the novel, largely for its lyrical language, but the movie was basically dog crap. However, Tucci's performance was disturbingly great. Not at all the way I envisioned him in the novel, but a damn good performance.

    1. Oh see that's really interesting that you envisioned George Harvey differently. Either way, glad we agree that it's a good book turned bad movie. Tucci rocks it though.

  8. You have no idea how happy you made me by writing this In Character piece- I love Stanley Tucci, he is one of my favorites and I always felt he is underrated. Thank you!

    1. Thank YOU for reading! I had no idea you were such a Tucci admirer. Favorite performance?

  9. This is yet another case of the underrated actor. Stanley Tucci has had quite a solid career and to think he's hardly been recognized for most of his work.
    I couldn't agree more with what you say about his role in The Lovely Bones, which could have been a much better film. As for the rest, I'm going to have to watch Big Night.
    Good post!

    1. Thanks! Cannot recommend The Big Night highly enough, seriously delightful film. I'm digging all of this love for ol' Tucci!

  10. Big Night is what I would have picked, too. I would have had Margin Call on my Top 5. What a pleasant surprise that film was for me.

    1. Nice. Point, Big Night. Margin Call was far better than I thought it'd be. I love Tucci's "be careful" moment in the elevator. Dude can do so much with so little.

  11. How the hell did I miss this? Stanley Tucci is like my favourite supporting actor ever. He is the king of great small roles. I love him in everything of his I've seen. Though he's given better performances, his role in Easy A is kind of close to my heart. He's so perfect in that :P

    1. Nice! I knew you liked him, but I didn't know you LOOOVED him haha. I really enjoy his work in Easy A as well. He and Clarkson killed in those roles.

  12. Stanley Tucci is great. He is one of those actors who may have a small "supporting role" in a film who I will actively go out of my way to go and see. I've sat through some pretty mediocre films because of him (The Devil Wears Prada for one) but probably one of my favorite performances from him was the dad in Easy A. It's not a great film (there are some jokes I like though), but I just thought he was amazing as the understanding and light hearted father figure to Emma Stone. He and Patricia Clarkson basically steal the entire film with their brief scenes.

    1. So happy to hear you're a Tucci fan. Dude is the man, isn't he? I agree that Easy A isn't great or anything, but he and Clarkson are perfect in it. They took such cliched roles and really made them pop. Just hilarious.