Quick, name the film that gave Paul Giamatti his first Oscar nomination.
If you said “Sideways,” you’d be wrong. Giamatti was nominated for “Cinderella Man” last year and lost to George Clooney. However, it’s the year before that sits irks Giamatti’s fans. He was something of a sentimental favorite for “Sideways” and wasn’t even nominated.
If nothing else, Giamatti has been giving strong, consistent performances for a number of years now. He’s a man that’s due. Fans will also remember him being denied in 2003 for his fantastic performance as Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor.” I’m partial to a smaller performance of his in the 1998 film “Safe Men” where he plays a crook named Veal Chop.
While lifetime achievement isn’t enough to guarantee Giamatti anything, his subtle, pivotal performance in “The Illusionist” should be. It’s worthy of the best supporting actor award.
There are two things that make this performance exemplary. First is the unusual position of his character, Chief Inspector Uhl. He’s caught between his allegiance to the villainous Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) in turn-of-the-century Vienna, and his appreciation for the position of the illusionist, Eisenheim (Edward Norton). Second is the way in which Giamatti accentuates the internal battle raging in Uhl’s head.
There's a particular scene in “The Illusionist” where Giamatti's acting prowess is most evident. It occurs after evidence surfaces that forces Uhl to choose between the truth and his unethical allegiance to Leopold.
Unexpectedly, it is the most cathartic moment for the audience and one of the film's major turning points. It is an astonishing moment that Giamatti pulls off with a simple glance. He doesn't say a word. A lesser actor would have tried to stretch that moment out and make it more obvious. Giamatti gives us just what we need, with no theatrics whatsoever. It's the performance of a skilled, confident actor at the top of his game.
Great performances and fascinating characters are about shades of gray. The best villains are the ones who reveal vulnerability at unexpected times. The best heroes are flawed in some striking way. It is at those moments when they are most human and the audience is best able to identify with them. These moments are the most important moments in their respective films. In “The Illusionist,” Eisenheim is the hero. The Prince is the villain. Uhl is the character with whom the audience identifies.
Giamatti’s effort here is better than his performances in “Sideways” or “American Splendor.” At different times in this film he is both a hero and a villain. Somehow, Giamatti makes his character threatening without being unlikable and that’s quite an accomplishment, because he could easily have played Uhl a number of ways. Giamatti is standing in the middle of a see-saw with Norton on one end and Sewell on the other and it’s up to him to keep the balance, bobbing back and forth in favor of one character or the other, keeping the story interesting and the outcome in doubt.
What makes the performance great is how many choices Giamatti had in playing the character and the way in which he ultimately chose to play it. He chose to play it in a way that made the film better, much better.
The Academy should notice and nominate Giamatti for best supporting actor.
Jason Katzman is co-creator and writer for Shadowculture's . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.