It’s not easy being a Paul Giamatti character. If you’re not reining in motormouth DJs, tackling Nazis in occupied Europe, suffering Alzheimer’s, fending off a scrunt infestation or man-wrestling Tom Wilkinson on an airport runway, you’re being confronted with a pile of household bills that’d scare Midas himself. That’s the predicament his New Jersey lawyer is faced with in Thomas McCarthy’s comedy-drama Win Win. With his human qualities and mastery of the gloomier shades of the human condition, Giamatti is the perfect cipher for the struggling everyman. In short, there’s no-one better at capturing a flawed man trying to do his best – or, just occasionally, worst – in trying situations. He’s one of Empire’s favourite actors and to mark his return to the big screen we’ve put together a ten-strong portfolio of best characters to date.
Film: Private Parts (1997)
Keeping shock jock/interplanetary ego Howard Stern in check is a job that falls to Paul Giamatti’s anally-retentive WNBC exec, Kenny Rushton, in this biopic. Stern doesn’t like Rushton very much – you can tell by the way he calls ‘Pig Vomit’ and beats him up on air – while Rushton thinks Stern is a dangerous lunatic who should be fired, or better yet, killed. In fairness, he’s probably right - at least on the first count. The DJ has the hair of Justin Lee Collins, the mouth of Chris Moyles and the agenda of Satan himself, persuading models to strip on air, making funnies about his wife’s miscarriage and generally trying to facilitate the collapse of Western civilisation. Rushton could have been a by-the-numbers villain but Giamatti is too good for cardboard cut-outs. The movie wasn’t much seen on this side of the pond (they had Stern, we had Wogan), but for anyone that got hold of it on VHS it was early pointer that Giamatti was an actor who could muster a giant reservoir of boiling, spitting rage (“You are the motherfucking Antichrist!” he yells in Stern’s face) when required.
Film: American Splendor (2003)
The terminally grumpy comic-strip writer Harvey Pekar gave Giamatti free rein to scowl, splutter and harrumph his way through the slings and arrows of outrageous everyday life. A man who could have an argument in an empty house, the only thing stopping Giamatti’s misanthrope actually trying it is the presence of his long-suffering wife (Hope Davis) and their adopted daughter (Madylin Sweeten) who give him someone to squabble with for real. Behind the craggy veneer, he’s obviously having a ball as the most joyously miserable real-life character this side of Ian Curtis. Smart and funny, the film sees Giamatti share the screen with the real Pekar who comes through hardship, cancer and a brief stint as a talk-show personality just as grumpy as ever. We reckon the prospect of being played by Paul Giamatti would cheer anyone up. Apparently not.
Film: Sideways (2004)
Any casual Giamatti dabbler will probably know him best from Alexander Payne’s sleeper hit. His perpetually grumpy wine snob Miles and dim pal Jack (Thomas Haden Church) are the Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon of this smart midlife-crisis comedy. Miles has skeletons practically spilling out of his past, as well as an unpublished and chronologically-challenged novel (‘The Day After Yesterday’) in the works and a candle still burning for his ex-wife. They’re the ingredients of an entertainingly awful road trip. Wine is sipped, then drunk, then thrown back in industrial quantities as the odd couple find their liberating road trip anything but. The two women they meet along the way, Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), do their best to cope with their antics but Miles and Jack take turns to make a complete snafu of their week of R&R. Miles is a classic Giamatti antihero. Somehow he rolls all those bursts of fury, childish sulking and snobbery into a character that you’d have a drink with – just not merlot. It’s rarely mentioned but worth noting just how good he is at playing drunk, not as easy as it looks.
Film: Cinderella Man (2005)
The mighty Giamatti was born to play a boxing manager - that brow furrowed from slapping too many contenders back to consciousness, the disappointment carved by years training bested challengers, the bucket – while Russell Crowe was definitely born to play a blue-collar boxing challenger who must vanquish a man about seven times bigger than him and who has fists like small cars. It’s a pairing made in Ron Howard movie heaven, and an uplifting story of struggle and triumph that won Giamatti his first – and surely not last – Oscar nomination. For the actor, Cinderella Man was an effortless switcheroo from the effete writer and wine snob in Sideways to the kind of hard-scrabble hero who populates Norman Rockwell paintings. He’s so convincing in period pieces (see also: John Adams, The Last Station), but if he has a face for any era, it’s definitely the Great Depression.
Film: Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)
It’s Giamatti versus Clive Owen in a deliriously unexpected feast for anyone who thought Michael Bay was going a bit arthouse or that John Woo had taken his foot off the pedal post-Face/Off. No danger of that here: it’s truly batshit. Giamatti is the suspicious, possibly foreign assassin/villain Karl Hertz, the kind of guy who’d be thrown out of Treadstone for being a bit too rogue. He shoots women, hunts babies and spends his downtime trying to gouge out poor Clive’s eyeballs with a scalpel. He also reads minds, and not to find out what you want for Christmas. He’s really not a very nice man. Giamatti’s CV was hitherto filling up with cantankerous, talky characters more likely to wield a glass of pinot than a sniper rifle, so we weren’t really prepared for the demented glee with which he chucks himself into the role of balls-out bad guy. More please Mr G. We’re ready now.
TV Series: John Adams (2008)
Okay, it’s not cinema – hey, we’re big fat cheaters – but we can’t leave out what may be Paul Giamatti’s finest role in this US independence origin story. Plenty of actors have played a real-life POTUS before, some successfully (Henry Fonda, Frank Langella, Bruce Greenwood, Anthony Hopkins - twice), some not so much (John Travolta, Robin Williams), but few have lent such intelligence or gravitas to their roles. It maybe unfair to compare the seven episodes of character development allowed by an HBO miniseries with a two-hour cinema biopic (sorry Trav), but Giamatti still does the heavy-lifting brilliantly and was well deserving of his Emmy. Adams’ journey from disillusioned lawyer to heartbeat of the American Revolution is beautifully portrayed, and Giamatti shows that he can play diligent husband, dedicated family man and fiery campaigner, all while wearing some very silly wigs. Once again, he’s helped by having a real female character to play off in Laura Linney’s Abigail, and his screen time with Linney gives the historical epic an emotional core even a scrunt could relate too.
Film: Cold Souls (2009)
Cold Souls is basically cinema’s second longest meta moment (Being John Malkovich is ten minutes longer). This blackly funny philosophical sci-fi sees Giamatti putting his soul into cold storage and flexing those facial muscles in a downward direction again. No wonder: (1) the darn thing looks like a chickpea, and (2) David Strathairn has accidentally sent it to Russia. This would piss anyone off, and it definitely wipes the smile from his nervy character, toiling actor Paul Giamatti, forcing him to board the first plane for wintry Russia for some literal soul-searching. The role suggests a pretty powerful sense of absurdity on PG’s behalf: is he sending up the navel-gazing of one or two of his other characters? Is he sending up the whole crazy business of acting? Either way, his character’s stressy attempts to master Chekhov ends up turning his own life into its own Chekhov play.
Film: Duplicity (2009)
Tony Gilroy’s distinctly unspicy corporate thriller gave us Giamatti as a pinstriped CEO looking ever bit as peeved as you would be if you found out that Clive Owen was making you look silly behind your back for a second time. He plays Dick Garsik, unscrupulous corporate honcho, arch-rival of Tom Wilkinson’s chief exec and all-round grumpy bugger. Bearing the perma-scowl of a man who’s just found an ice-cream van in his executive parking spot, Garsik forgets Kojak’s First Rule of Baldness (i.e. bald people are cool) and launches a by-any-means-necessary pursuit of his rival’s secret formula for hair growth. This involves a pair of corporate spies (Owen and Julia Roberts) and more twisteroos than a camping holiday with Bill Paxton. It all got a little indecipherable, but Giamatti navigates the labyrinthine shenanigans with growly ease. He also gives us that rarest of beasts: a classic Giamatti action scene, three minutes of credit sequence slo-mo carnage in which he sets upon Wilkinson with moves straight out of a middle-aged Enter The Dragon.
Film: The Last Station (2010)
In Michael Hoffman’s end-of-era Tolstoy biopic, Giamatti plays the writer’s acolyte, Vladimir Chertkov. He’s a subtle intellect with the sense of ownership over Tolstoy’s legacy that befits a man who’s made it through all of War And Peace without using a Letts Revise. That twiddly moustache, slick-back hair and suspicious demeanour: it can mean only one thing. Yup, he’s the bad guy. And a sensitive Giamatti performance – whispering blandishments in shy secretary Bulgakov’s ear and slyly needling Sofia Tolstoy, he’s basically a Cold War spymaster in a cravat – sets up a battle of wills for the soul of the Russian novelist with Helen Mirren’s formidable Mrs T. The only problem? Great man is still alive and underwhelmed to have his legacy picked over like a chicken carcass. Chertkov is a Tolstoyan, a believer in self-denial and moral ascetics. In Giamatti’s hands he’s also a kind of Tsarist era Ed Balls, a comparison that probably won’t have you running out to join the Labour Party.
Film: Barney’s Version (2011)
Like Stanley Tucci and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Giamatti’s curse has been the label of the ‘character actor’ – as if actors ever play anything else (cough Jason Statham) – but he’s quietly picked up some plum leads down the years. Barney Panofsky could be the plummest of the lot. He’s the man at the heart of Mordecai Richler’s novel, as complex and flawed a protagonist as you’ll find in any of this year’s dramas. The film spans decades of Panofsky’s life, the ageing Barney rendered with the help of some Oscar-nominated make-up work and an ever-thinning pate. Our flawed hero blunders through three failed relationships, a career as a TV exec, a murder case and several thousand bottles of Scotch, in a life littered with moments of weakness but elevated by Giamatti’s wry wit. He makes this selfish cad into someone relatable and even oddly likeable. He’s especially terrific opposite Rosamund Pike in a rare romantic leading turn. That hangdog bearing is in full effect until the pain of his failed relationship is heartbreakingly washed away by a narrative curveball that really shouldn’t be spoiled.