Critic’s Notebook: Stanley Tucci, the leading man of supporting players
Actor Stanley Tucci is a stealth-bombing mischief-maker, an eye-twinkling scene-stealer. Often flying under the radar, he is precision in action and deadly — or deadly funny if that’s the mission — when you least expect it. At the moment, he’s the best thing about the disappointing bump and grind of “Burlesque,” but then he’s made a habit of being really good in really bad movies. Fortunately, he’s also made a habit of being terrific in the great ones, a quality that Hollywood hasn’t, in my mind, appreciated nearly enough.
It was the messy comic embrace of 1996’s “Big Night” that turned me into an unabashed fan. Maybe it helped that “Big Night” was so close to home, an immigrant’s story told by an Italian American used to big family dinners where cultural conflicts were served up with the spaghetti. The film was co-written with his cousin Joseph Tropiano (it would win them an Independent Spirit award), and co-directed with his friend since high school, actor Campbell Scott.
“Big Night” is infused with the warmth and warp of brothers trying to keep their restaurant afloat, with Tony Shalhoub as a genius chef name Primo and Tucci as Secondo (the second, did he always see himself that way?), the smooth frontman, schmoozing the customers, unruffling feathers. The film exposed Tucci for the charming softie he could be, a side of him fully realized as Julia Child’s adorably devoted spouse Paul in last year’s “Julie & Julia.”
Perhaps that Italian heritage is the reason he is so often cast as a mobster, though the Armani-clad type rather than the thug. There would be the slippery fish of Lucky Luciano in 1991’s “Billy Bathgate,” a slick Chicago mob boss in “Road to Perdition” and countless other bad-guy variations. But the truth is, there isn’t any one Tucci type, although there is always a certain serious set, no doubt helped by the bald pate that has made him seem wiser than his years. It suits him perfectly at 50 (though I will say the only fun of 2002’s tortuous “Big Trouble” is watching him work a shoulder-length wig).
The eyes have it
Tucci is handsome in an unconventional way, a “Mad Men” dapperness without being Jon Hamm intimidating. There is an elegance in his movements that suggests he takes great care with things, and he’s sexy in the sly way of smart men (see the last half of “A Modern Affair” if you have the patience). What Tucci has made into an art, though, is simply paying attention. Kind eyes dancing under heavy brows. The way he looks at Streep in “Julie & Julia,” you know that no one else matters, which — and take notes here, guys — is the most powerful of aphrodisiacs.
The fact is Tucci may be at his best playing off women. Opposite Edie Falco in the 2002 Broadway revival of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” he would win raves, and a Tony nomination, for his middle-aged lover. Romancing Patricia Clarkson as the wife whose love he’s trying to reclaim in 2007’s “Blind Date,” there are moments when he smolders — just not enough to save that movie either.
It is with Meryl Streep that he has been his most memorable on-screen, first as Nigel, the long-suffering confidant and creative director to Streep’s stingingly insolent fashion magazine editor in 2006’s “The Devil Wears Prada,” then Paul to her Julia — in both cases hopelessly devoted. But it’s devotion from a man who knows exactly who he is, which is to say the best kind, defined by strength not weakness, admirable, even enviable, never pitiable.
It was easy to miss Tucci in the early days, when he often had characters so slight they didn’t even have names — “soldier” in his 1985 debut in “Prizzi’s Honor,” “2nd dock worker” in 1987’s “Who’s That Girl” — so it took a while to notice. But Tucci is of that acting breed who believe in the craft. And so he’s kept at it, doing excellent work around the edges in between the Broadway roles that followed his 1982 debut in “The Queen and the Rebels” and no doubt helped shape him into the quietly commanding actor he has become on-screen.
Woven through the fabric of all Tucci characters is a fundamental respect for their humanity, along with a wearied, but amused, acceptance of the relative unfairness of life so perfectly executed in the running gag of his officious bureaucrat in “The Terminal.” You can feel it at some point in virtually every role. That he, so to speak, plays it straight, has served his characters well, particularly in bringing a nuance to the gay men he has portrayed. By opting for dignity over flamboyance, he has given them heft without losing a light touch when it’s called for, most recently as Cher’s backstage, sequin-managing swish in “Burlesque.”
But then he’s very good at working the duality of human nature. With it he creates villains you can understand and feel equally free to hate. He’s walk-in-the-room-temperature-dropping chilly as Adolf Eichmann in HBO’s 2001 “Conspiracy.”
But he has never been more devastating than as George Harvey, the human slime of a serial killer in last year’s “The Lovely Bones.” His insistently quiet coaxing of Saoirse Ronan’s young girl down into the underground hideout where she would meet her end is one of the more intense, literally hair-raising, moments of horror ever filmed. The performance would earn Tucci his first Oscar nomination, fittingly in the supporting category, since he has been brilliant at supporting colleagues for so many years.
A fiery Winchell
That not more filmmakers see him as a leading man is a pity, a travesty. For just how powerfully he can command the center you have to look to the small screen and his unerringly affecting performance in director Paul Mazursky’s “Winchell” for HBO in 1998. As the legendary newspaper gossip turned political provocateur, who actually did have some idea of the Pandora’s box he had unlocked (or unleashed?), Tucci mesmerized, burning up the screen as much as the fiery man he so completely embodied. It would win him an Emmy.
Whatever Tucci’s future holds, I hope it is filled with roles that are bigger and bolder than ever, a drama that shakes us, a sexy romantic romp that surprises us. Maybe there is a Tucci type after all: the quintessential stand-up guy, the one you take to the party because everyone will love him, the one you can count on to take you home.