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In The Lovely Bones (2009), the Peter Jackson-directed adaptation of the book of the same name, Stanley Tucci plays a quiet man obsessed with a neighbor’s young daughter (Saoirse Ronan), eventually luring her into an underground “clubhouse.” He is not a good man. And while the film fails to capture the essence of the novel, Tucci’s work as George Harvey is a chilling, frightfully melancholy examination of a disturbed man that earned him wide acclaim and an Academy Award nomination. It’s truly one of the best performances of that year and exposed audiences once again to a man of incredible versatility. Yet it is just one of a long list of truly memorable roles that separate the gifted actor from so many other supporting players.
From small bits in films such as the 1993 Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts thriller The Pelican Brief to his starring role in the 1996 drama Big Night, which won high praise for its story and performances, Tucci has consistently made himself memorable, even in films that have become commercial and critical flops. His flamboyant and over-the-top performance as Zimsky in 2003’s The Core, for example, a film widely-considered one of the worst of that decade, is actually spot on when understanding the filmmakers intent in re-producing the feel of 1950s cornball science epics, a move that received widespread backlash.
Tucci’s works as Frank Nitti in the 2002 crime thriller Road to Perdition, which starred Tom Hanks, is some of his best, a scene-stealing role that packed a lot of punch, giving the part a lot of depth. Tucci makes a powerful impression, never breaking the highly-charged character’s personally, yet bending it enough to make it truly standout. Despite Tucci’s small stature, he manages to give Nitti a huge physical presence.
Working with Hanks again in Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, about a man (Hanks) who lands in New York to discover his home country no longer exists, Tucci plays Frank Dixon, a Customs and Border Protection agent who struggles to rid himself of the foreigner who won’t leave the airport. While the film focuses on Hanks and his many relationships, Tucci is essentially the ‘bad guy’ who is frustrated by the situation but grows as it progresses. That is Tucci’s gift, his ability to be convincing while inhabiting some exaggerated elements that better define the role.
Most modern (and younger) audiences recognize Tucci for his part in the Hunger Games franchise, playing the smarmy and shallow Caesar Flickerman, the host of the televised games. With his flamboyant costumes and myriad hair styles, the perpetually young-looking emcee has become a fan favorite character thanks to Tucci’s impressively slimy performance that once again shines in a cast filled with some huge names.
Yet this is almost a trademark for the actor, who has made a career out of making himself memorable in the presence of big names. Go back to 1993’s Quick Change, a criminally underseen comedy starring Bill Murray where Tucci is on screen for only a few minutes as a mafia goon but steals every last second of them like he’s the star of the movie. It’s a hilarious little turn that surely got him noticed.
Even names like Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez aren’t enough to keep him in the shadows. The 2004 drama had a lot going for it but the one thing everyone remembers most is Tucci’s zealous, passionate, often hysterical portrayal of a man keeping secret his love of ballroom dancing. He single-handedly keeps this film clicking and is so effortlessly good at what he does, it’s almost unnerving.
There’s a great little film called The Imposters, starring Oliver Platt and Tucci (among a long list of big names) that was released in 1998. It was a kind of send up of the classic slapstick comedy films of the 1930s and 40s and featured the two as out-of-luck, down-trodden men who stowaway on a cruise ship in 1938 and end up on a floating madhouse of oddball characters. It is an often misunderstood gem that met with mixed reviews as it went out of its way to replicate the film and acting style of the period it is set. While that might distract modern audiences, Tucci is an absolute marvel to watch, a hyper-kinetic wild man that is unbearably funny, once again making himself the center of attention and straight-up robbing the spotlight from those around him. It’s the kind of performance only a few could truly pull off and indeed, it’s one that by now could be the defining marks for a “Tuccian” performance.
There are some actors who merely show up in a film and no matter the movie’s overall quality, lift it higher for the time they are on screen. Stanley Tucci is such a star, a talent whose presence in a cast is enough to ensure the viewer that they’re going to get something good. Character actors are a rare breed that don’t often get the recognition they deserve. While Tucci has spent most of his 30 years in the business in supporting roles, he has proven himself one film’s greatest assets, a chameleon with seemingly no limit and endless range.