Paul Giamatti Should Win Best Actor for ‘The Holdovers’—and Should Have Won for Something, for Anything, by Now

Everett Collection

Paul Giamatti is nominated for Best Actor this year for his performance in The Holdovers, but Vegas currently has him as a +900 underdog to Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer, at -1400. For the non-gamblers out there, that means that a $100 bet on Giamatti would pay out $900, and in order to win $100 on Cillian Murphy, you would have to put down $1,400. Those aren’t great odds for Giamatti, which is a shame, because it’s unconscionable, almost inconceivable, that Paul Giamatti has never won an Oscar. He’s only been nominated once (Supporting Actor, for Cinderella Man—he lost to George Clooney in Syriana).

The reason Giamatti is such a heavy underdog this year and the reason he’s never won before are probably one and the same: The Academy loves a hero, and Paul Giamatti doesn’t play heroes. Cillian Murphy isn’t favored because his performance is so much better (although he was great, and usually is). He’s favored because he’s a beautiful blue-eyed boy who played a historic figure in a slim suit and a big hat. The Oscars love that. As The Wire creator David Simon once said of his perennially Emmy-snubbed The Wire:

“What I am convinced of is if you show an exalted Hollywood view of anybody, black or white, it gets attention. It is regarded as exalted and it is regarded as artifice, and you are all a part of that. You have portrayed glamouring. You make a show about the inner city of Baltimore and anywhere else, and you put the camera on it, these motherfuckers in Hollywood think you’re turning the camera on and it is just some weird documentary.”

You could argue that what Simon was saying was overly simplistic or self-serving, but it feels like as perfect an explanation as any for why Paul Giamatti doesn’t have any Oscars yet. An actor who isn’t traditionally handsome is like a quarterback under six two: him being on the field at all is proof of how good he is. To put it in blunt internet terms, Giamatti plays weird little guys. He makes heroes of the flawed and the vain. In The Holdovers, he makes a hero of the flawed, vain classics teacher Paul Hunham, who is also walleyed and stinky (because of a genetic disorder that makes him stink like fish when he sweats). These are the kinds of roles a lot of leading men don’t want to take, for reasons already outlined. Giamatti is so good he makes playing a one-eyed, fish-smelling drunk incel look like the career equivalent of someone else getting cast as James Bond.

Hunham is a bitter, drunk son of a bitch who celebrates Christmas by giving his students extra homework. He eventually reveals his heart of gold by standing up for his unlikely friend, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). Yet where Al Pacino, playing a very similar role in Scent of a Woman, got to make a big speech on behalf of Chris O’Donnell at the end, Giamatti gets fired, driving off into the winter fog with a bottle of whiskey as his copilot. He doesn’t get the girl and he doesn’t “win”—he merely affirms his own humanity at great personal cost. That’s how it usually goes for Paul Giamatti characters. That his characters never get the big Hollywood ending makes it all the more incumbent on the Academy to give him one.

As much as Giamatti deserves an Oscar for The Holdovers, the movie that should have won him his first one is American Splendor. Anyone who’d say the same about Sideways is not wrong, but Sideways arguably doesn’t exist without American Splendor. American Splendor was nominated for a best adapted screenplay Oscar and won movie of the year at the AFI awards in 2004. Sideways was nominated for Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Thomas Hayden Church), Supporting Actress (Virginia Madsen), and won Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars, and also won movie of the year at the AFI Awards in 2005.

Ask yourself: what do you remember most about both movies? Paul fucking Giamatti. He’s the big, beating heart of both of them.

American Splendor is the perfect movie for Giamatti to have won an Oscar for, because it’s precisely about the Paul Giamatti Oscar problem. Giamatti plays Harvey Pekar, a file clerk at the VA Hospital in Cleveland. In an early scene, a young Harvey refuses to dress up as a superhero to go trick or treating. He simply can’t see himself that way, even as a child. This foreshadows Harvey’s later epiphany; that he, the ultimate “regular guy” leading a life of quiet desperation, should be the “hero” of his friend Robert Crumb’s comic books.

Later in the movie, Harvey’s nerd friend Toby (played by Judah Friedlander, giving a career-best performance of his own) is all hyped up about Revenge of the Nerds. To coin a phrase that had yet to really enter the lexicon in 2005, the film makes Toby “feel seen.” When Harvey finally sees the movie Toby has been raving about all this time, he’s disappointed, and explains as much to Toby in a brilliant scene:

“It’s an entertaining flick an’ I can see why you like it Toby, but those people on the screen ain’t even supposed to be you! They’re college students whose parents live in big houses in the suburbs. They’re gonna get degrees, get good jobs and… stop being nerds! Look Toby, the guys in that movie are not 28-year-old file clerks who live with their grandmothers in an ethnic ghetto. They didn’t get their computers like you did -- by trading in a bunch of box tops for $49.50 at the supermarket. …Go to the movies and daydream, but “Revenge of the Nerds” ain’t reality. It’s just Hollywood bullshit.”

American Splendor, still the ultimate anti-biopic biopic, came out in 2003, and not nearly enough people saw it. And even if they had, and Giamatti had gotten nominated, he would’ve been up against a veritable murderer’s row: Jamie Foxx in Ray (who won), Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda, Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland (kind of a joke now, but he was genuinely great in that), Leo DiCaprio in The Aviator, and Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby. Which is to say: all handsome leading men in handsome, leading-man hero roles, strong jawlines and steely resolve all around. Giamatti never stood a chance.

In his iconic memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade, screenwriter William Goldman describes “comic book movies” as:

(l) Generally, only bad guys die. And if a good guy does kick, he does it heroically.

(2) There tends to be a lack of resonance: Like the popcorn you’re munching, it’s not meant to last.

(3) The movie turns in on itself: Its reference points tend to be other movies. If, for example, there had been no Saturday afternoon serials, there would have been no frame for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

(4) And probably most important: The comic-book movie doesn’t have a great deal to do with life as it exists, as we know it to be. Rather, it deals with life as we would prefer it to be. Safer that way.

Superhero movies may not win Oscars, but the vast majority of actors who win Oscars tend to win for films that meet Goldman’s criteria for “comic-book movies.” The Oscars generally rewards actors who play life as we would prefer it to be. Paul Giamatti is the rare actor who has made a career playing life as it actually exists. That’s not something the Academy usually rewards. But once, just once… maybe it could be?

As we begin our final approach to the 2024 Oscars, we're taking one more look back at the films and performances that blew our minds last year—and looking even further back, to spotlight earlier Oscar-worthy work from the filmographies of this year's nominees.

The most deeply-felt portrayal of addiction we’ve seen from an actor of his generation.

Originally Appeared on GQ