Stanley Tucci: 10 essential performances

From lockdown negroni-making to his exemplary turn in the upcoming Supernova...On his 60th birthday, we salute the inestimable talents of Stanley Tucci.

11 November 2020

By Matthew Thrift

Supernova (2020)

Often appearing in more than half a dozen films a year, Stanley Tucci has been a ubiquitous presence on both the big and small screens for more than 3 decades. Born in New York on 11 November 1960, he’s best known for his scene-stealing supporting turns, at home in blockbuster franchises (The Hunger Games, Transformers: Age of Extinction) and micro-budget independents alike. Leading roles are rare, but always welcome, mostly arriving with his name attached as both writer and director. Final Portrait, his 2017 biopic of the Swiss artist Giacometti was his fifth feature on a quietly amassed directorial CV.

This, his 60th year, has been a big one. Roles in Robert Zemeckis’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches and a masterful turn in Harry MacQueen’s incoming Supernova followed the post-9/11 legal drama Worth and the reprisal of his voice roles in Netflix phenomenon Bojack Horseman. All this while finding time to break the internet for a day with a video demonstrating his – much contested – perfect method for lockdown negroni preparation.

With his upcoming entries into the Marvel and Kingsman cinematic universes, 2021 looks set to be just as busy. Here are just 10 of his 130-plus performances that stand among his best.

Monkey Shines (1988)

Director: George A. Romero

Monkey Shines (1988)

A pair of tiny, unnamed parts in Prizzi’s Honor (1985) and Who’s That Girl (1987) aside, George A. Romero’s Monkey Shines is Tucci’s film debut proper; a role early enough to catch him at his most northwardly hirsute. He plays the ‘genius’ surgeon who operates on Jason Beghe’s “accident victim creamed by a truck,” a quadriplegic granted a super-smart (read: telepathic, psychotic) capuchin monkey to perform the simple tasks he’s unable to himself. A small role, perhaps, but one that plays to Tucci’s confident facility for self-satisfied villainy – in this case stealing his patient’s missus before a comeuppance by way of some fiery monkey business.

The Pelican Brief (1993)

Director: Alan J. Pakula

The Pelican Brief (1993)

Nothing screams 1990s like a John Grisham legal thriller. Star-powered – in this case by Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington – but with supporting roles packed by catch-of-the-day character actors, they’re a great stage for an actor on the up to do a lot with a little. A chameleonic Tucci makes the most of his largely wordless role as a shady assassin, donning various disguises – including a fat suit to pass for John Heard, the FBI agent he’s just offed – to take out some supreme court judges and Roberts’ entangled law student. With little to work with beyond his character’s practical capacities, Tucci chillingly strips out any and all emotion, carrying out his murderous deeds with the habitual ennui of the commercial traveler.

Murder One (1995-96)

Creator: Steven Bochco

Murder One (1995-96)

Steven Bochco had seen huge TV hits with his groundbreaking procedural Hill Street Blues (1981-87) and glossy, case-of-the-week legal drama L.A. Law (1986-94) before Murder One pioneered the current trend for telling a single story over an entire season. Tucci steals the show as Richard Cross, the sleazy, slippery businessman with the body of a teenage girl found in one of his apartments. He goes from prime suspect to prime meddler when a movie star is arrested, his motives for destabilising his legal team’s defence a key source of narrative tension across the 23 ‘chapters’. Tucci didn’t return for season 2, despite an Emmy nomination. Ratings plummeted and ABC pulled the plug.

Big Night (1996)

Directors: Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci

Big Night (1996)

Of all the qualities Big Night possesses in spades, its timelessness stands out. It feels like it could have been made 70 years ago or tomorrow. Tucci stars as Secondo, manager of an Italian restaurant in 1950s New Jersey and brother to Primo (Tony Shalhoub), the joint’s star chef. The prospects for the failing business hinge on a single evening; a feast prepared for Louis Prima, whose custom could reverse their fortunes and mitigate a move back to Italy. Tucci’s interplay with the irascible, immovable Shalhoub is endlessly joyous – and hilarious – but his work behind the camera (as co-writer and co-director) deserves as much credit, not least in an extended final shot that draws the brothers together over a shared pan of eggs. It’s a bittersweet, beautifully human comedy. Just don’t watch it on an empty stomach.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

Director: Michael Hoffman

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

With starry Shakespeare adaptations having a moment in the 1990s, who better to play a certain sprite than an actor so often described as ‘puckish?’ Tucci’s performance as the dream-weaving Puck lends Michael Hoffman’s amiable A Midsummer Night’s Dream a certain charge, as evidenced in any number of the film’s Letterboxd reviews. “This is the horniest thing I have seen in my life… Daddy Stanley Tucci as a fairy!” reads one. “I never knew Shakespeare was this kinky,” reads another. It seems there’s lots of love for a stripped-to-the-waist Tucci cavorting on a bicycle with Rupert Everett. The actor, with glitter and a glint, seems to be having as much fun as his audience.

Conspiracy (2001)

Director: Frank Pierson

Conspiracy (2001)

Tucci won a second Golden Globe for his portrayal of Adolf Eichmann in this TV dramatisation of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where high-ranking members of the Third Reich met to determine a final solution to the Jewish question. It’s the most chilling of his villainous roles, evinced in a matter-of-fact description of the finer points of a T4 euthanasia program that turns its victims pink from carbon monoxide poisoning, drawing laughs from around the table. Tucci instils Eichmann with bureaucratic efficiency, the very embodiment of the banality of evil. He conducts the conference – under the command of Kenneth Branagh’s Heydrich – with middle-management pragmatism and a “gift for organisation,” his single flare of temper saved for a young guard caught throwing a snowball outside: “Nothing ever ‘just happens’ in uniform.”

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Director: David Frankel

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

You’ll find variations on Tucci’s performance here throughout his CV, comic supporting roles brimming with characterful detail. The Devil Wears Prada, however, serves up the quintessential Tucci turn. He plays Nigel, right-hand man to Miranda Priestly, Meryl Streep’s fashion magazine editor and titular devil, tasked with showing Anne Hathaway’s new kid on the block the industry ropes. He stands in sharp relief to the couture-wearing vipers populating the professional pit, a lone source of warmth in an office powered by icy glares, engendering well-earned pathos when he takes a bullet for Streep, whose schemes to save her own skin see him out of a dream job. Sharp-tongued, and even more sharply dressed, it’s one of his great roles.

Julie & Julia (2009)

Director: Nora Ephron

Julie & Julia (2009)

2009 was a big year for Tucci, with his performance as child killer George Harvey in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones earning him his first Oscar nomination. As good as he is in that film, there was talk during awards season that he ought to have been nominated for his turn as Paul Child in Nora Ephron’s dual-biopic Julie & Julia instead. It’s a supporting role in every sense of the word, with Tucci playing the husband of home-cooking titan Julia Child (Meryl Streep). Streep goes for larger-than-life – often shot so she appears to tower over her diminutive partner – while Tucci, described as a “roué” that “all the women were mad for,” exudes emotional and professional support. It’s an unshowy performance, but one affording a quiet dignity to a character – and an actor – who knows exactly when to hold the spotlight for someone else.

Easy A (2010)

Director: Will Gluck 

Easy A (2010)

Tucci had directed himself and Patricia Clarkson a few years earlier in the Pinter-esque role-play drama Blind Date (2007), so it’s great to see the pair back on screen together as the liberal parents of Emma Stone in Will Gluck’s modern reimagining of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. They make for a terrific double-act in their small roles, riffing off one another with familial ease while offering jovial support – and enthusiastic championing of The Bucket List (2007) – to their teenage daughter as she goes through the high school wringer. Tucci gives a charmer of a turn – relaxed, funny and disarming in his self-deprecating methods of millennial parenting.

Supernova (2020)

Director: Harry Macqueen

Supernova (2020)

“I’m becoming a passenger, and I am not a passenger. This thing is taking me to a place that I do not want to go.” Tucci gives the finest performance of his career as Tusker Mulliner, the novelist suffering from early-onset dementia in this intimate drama from British filmmaker Harry Macqueen. He’s on a road trip through the Lake District with his partner Sam (Colin Firth), having already made the decision to stop taking his medication. Evasions and recriminations follow as Tucci, aided by Macqueen’s sensitive screenplay and direction, imbues Tusker’s deteriorating physical and mental state with heartrending gravity and grace. An honest, unsentimental reckoning with loss ahead of its time, grounded by a pair of career-best turns from its 2 remarkable leads.