Sunday, October 18, 2015

In Character: Paul Sorvino

Paul Sorvino has been killing us with his charm since the early ‘70s. Even when he plays lethal thugs, we can’t help but be drawn to him. We hinge on his every word, studying his slow, purposeful movements, and letting his soothing Italian New York voice school us in the lessons of life. Sorvino has clocked a ton of credits in his career, so do please feel free to share your favorites as well.

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 $44,000, 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 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.

Nixon (1995)
Henry Kissinger
Sorvino’s physically unrecognizable turn as Henry Kissinger in Nixon is a very patient performance. 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)
Guy Cipriani
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 a wealthy but humble Italian man. Paul Sorvino has never been given enough credit for his humor, and case in point is Money Talks.

The Cooler (2003)
Buddy Stafford
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
Goodfellas (1990)
Paulie Cicero
There’s an economy of movement that makes Paulie 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 robbing 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 old-age 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, Paulie 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.

Other Notable Roles
as Fulgencio Capulet in Romeo + Juliet
The Panic in Needle Park (1971)
The Day of the Dolphin (1973)
The Brink’s Job (1978)
Lost and Found (1979)
Cruising (1980)
Reds (1981)
That Championship Season (1982)
Dick Tracy (1990)
The Rocketeer (1991)
Law & Order (1991-1992)
The Firm (1993)
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Most Wanted (1997)
Bulworth (1998)
Cheaters (2000)
Mambo Italiano (2003)
Mr 3000 (2004)
Kill the Irishman (2011)

Listen to my podcast on Goodfellas!


  1. Ah, Paul Sorvino. Now that is an actor. One of my favorite performances from him is in Dick Tracy as the gangster Valentine. I loved the aspects of his character as someone that is a criminal but with a sense of moral. Especially as he finds out who is he working for as he has this great little piece of dialogue. "It does matter to me. I may not make a honest buck but I'm 100% American".

    He was so heartbreaking in The Cooler as I couldn't believe he got replaced by Joey Fatone of 'Nsync later in the film who is a good performer but such a douche bag in that film.

    1. Love him in Dick Tracy, was really close to featuring it here. I completely forgot Fatone was in The Cooler before rewatching it. I can just see a producer going, "You know, just to give this movie some more marketing appeal, we should get one of those kids from one of those boy bands."

    2. Wait. It's not Dick Tracy. Oh God, I had a brain-fart with that. It's The Rocketeer.

    3. Yeah I thought that's what you meant. But he's still hilarious in Dick Tracy as well. And yeah, so good in The Rocketeer. Basically, this guy rocks.

  2. I love Paul Sorvino in whatever he pops up in. He is a seriously underrated actor. Absolutely perfect in Goodfellas. I was gonna say it's a shame he isn't in more movies these days, but looking at his Imdb page he seems to be working more than ever, just not in anything i have ever even heard of. One movie that i actually enjoyed him a lot in that probably no one else is gonna mention has to be Knock Off. The disastrous Van Damme and Rob Schneider buddy cop movie from 1998 about exploding knock off pants in Hong Kong. He is the main villain in that movie and he gets to go as over the top as he wants to. It is a movie that no one actually believes exists until they see it for themselves. It's definitely one of my favorite so-bad-it's-good movies.

    1. Holy shit, Knock Off, I completely forgot about that movie. I'm going to rewatch it soon just to see Sorvino's work in it. I bet it's hilarious.

  3. Such an underrated character actor. Most people think of him for his gangster role in Goodfellas, but he is truly a versatile performer. He was brilliant in Nixon and pretty much makes every appearance, regardless of the quality of the film overall, memorable.

    1. Absolutely, couldn't agree more. I forgot how strong he was in Nixon before rewatching it for this post. Totally unrecognizable, but so damn strong.

  4. Another film probably no one will mention, but that he does a great job in, is Repo: The Genetic Opera. If you haven't seen it, it almost defies description, other than it's one of the strangest movies you may ever see. It's The Rocky Horror Picture Show meets the Saw movies meets Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge meets Classic Opera meets an ancient Greek tragedy.

    1. I've heard of that one but never seen it. But given your praise, I'll definitely seek it out soon. Sounds bonkers in all the best ways.

    2. It's absolutely a love or hate kind of movie. Here were my complete comments on it (no spoilers):

      It's not the greatest movie in the world, so why might you want to watch it? Because I absolutely, positively, double your money back guarantee, you have never seen anything like this before.

      It's The Rocky Horror Picture Show meets the Saw movies meets Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge meets Classic Opera meets an ancient Greek tragedy. Cast in it are award-winning actor Paul Sorvino, Spy Kids' Alexa Vega, Buffy's Anthony Stewart Head, horror movie staple Bill Moseley, Ogre from the band Skinny Puppy, world renowned opera singer Sarah Brightman, and in the category of "why the hell not" - Paris Hilton (who actually does a decent job) - all of them singing songs that are something like what would be produced if Nine Inch Nails collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber.

      Oh, and it's science fiction.

      And it's not a spoof.

      It's the kind of movie where you find yourself saying, "wait a minute - was that Joan Jett?" I also at one point said to myself (in a good way), "what the hell am I watching?"

      You may love it, you may hate it, but one thing it definitely will be is an experience. It will also give you grist for cocktail parties - "That's nothing. You should see this movie I once watched...."

    3. The first paragraph of your comments is enough to get me to see it. So I'll give it a watch very soon, along with Once Were Warriors.

    4. Please see Repo! It is definitely a one of a kind experience. Watching Sorvino belt out a tune is rather surreal. It's even more surreal seeing what happens to Paris Hilton during her big number.

      Bizarre musical aside, I love Sorvino and every word you wrote about his work in GoodFellas is perfect.

    5. Oh, forgot one other thing about Repo! It's basic premise was ripped off a year or so later by the Jude Law-Forest Whitaker flick Repo Men.

    6. Definitely going to watch Repo soon. Especially since both of you are recommending it! Thanks for the comments!

  5. Aces, man. Sorvino is terrific in Goodfellas, but I haven't seen The Gambler or Money Talks yet. And I forgot he was in A Touch of Class. That's a great scene, no doubt.

    1. He's so good, right? I think you'd like The Gambler. It's a really solid film.

  6. Sorvino Stole the Movie from Hopkins in Nixon. Such an underrated actor. I would even say that he has more range than Hopkins

    1. He's definitely incredible in it. Love Paul Sorvino.

  7. Sorvino stole the movie from Hopkins in Nixon. I would even go as far as saying he has more range than Hopkins