Oscars 2024: Paul Giamatti and the Grace of a Curmudgeon

Giamatti’s performance in The Holdovers has earned him a nomination for Best Actor.
Oscars 2024: Paul Giamatti and the Grace of a Curmudgeon
Oscars 2024: Paul Giamatti and the Grace of a Curmudgeon

After winning the Golden Globe for best performance by an actor in a motion picture (musical or comedy), Paul Giamatti went to get an In-and-Out burger. Which is to say, the actor didn’t go to a fancy restaurant or any eatery that smacked of exclusivity or elitism. Instead, still in his tuxedo, he went to a popular fast food outlet. The simplicity and unpretentiousness of this celebration is characteristic of Giamatti, who has established himself as one of the most reliable and solid character actors in Hollywood. 

In an industry that is unapologetic about favouring height and beauty, Giamatti and his Paul Hunham make for a beacon of hope. Paul is a grouch of a man who smells of fish, has a lazy eye, an acidic tongue, and a heart of gold. His colleagues at the elite boarding school he works in, make fun of him and his students hate him. It should come as no surprise that The Holdovers gives Paul a solid redemption arc, but a key part of what makes the film such a joy to watch is the evident glee with which Giamatti plays Paul at his crankiest. The actor relishes the scenes in which Paul cuts students down to size or lets his insecurities yank his chain. When Paul is at his worst, Giamatti doesn’t ask for the audience’s sympathy or indulgence. He’d rather you laugh or enjoy his discomfort because he will earn your grace in the scenes in which Paul is faced with a reckoning. This is perhaps what makes The Holdovers so hopeful — it is a salute to a man who is comfortable with his imperfections, and who isn’t cut down by failure. Instead, he emerges a bigger man (metaphorically, of course).

David Hemingson’s script is wordy and in the hands of a lesser actor, this could have been a stumbling block. It isn’t easy to make it seem as though lines like, “In the first of said detentions, you will clean the library, top to bottom, scraping the underside of the desks, which are caked with snot, and gum, and all manner of ancient unspeakable proteins. Ah, on your hands and knees, down in the dust, breathing in the dead skin of generations of students and desiccated cockroach assholes” are just tripping off one’s tongue. However, Giamatti makes it look easy. Whether it’s a mini monologue or a muttered set of expletives, Giamatti delivers dialogues with just the right cadence, adding a hint of witty lyricism to even the most throwaway of lines. He infuses Paul with a gentle brand of vindictiveness, the sting softened by the teacher’s sense of fairplay and empathy.

Giamatti’s gift for losing himself in a role and his ability to give dignity to the everyman through richly-nuanced performances has repeatedly been in evidence over the course of his career. Not only has he shone in roles that range from minor to central, he has a slew of prestigious awards to his name already though the Oscar isn’t one of them. Giamatti definitely doesn’t need the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to ratify what a good actor he is, but much like tucking into an In-and-Out burger at the end of a frou-frou awards night, a win would certainly feel satisfying. 

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