Acting in the house of mirth

October 18, 1998|By Jan Stuart | Jan Stuart,NEWSDAY

Stanley Tucci is lightening up.

He is not, to begin with, a natural blond. His hairline has been receding for years in the same dark brown hue he inherited from papa and mama Tucci. He bleached it to play bully journalist Walter Winchell for an HBO movie, and it stuck.

It's more than just a hair thing. He is finally shaking the grim, bad-guy roles that have stalked him since he did his first, blink-and-you-missed-it walk-on in "Prizzi's Honor" (1985).

After winning acclaim as the younger brother/owner of a failing restaurant in the melancholic comedy "Big Night" (1996), he has taken a giant leap into the house of mirth with a flat-out farce called "The Impostors" and as Puck in a recently completed film version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Unlike "Big Night," which he co-directed with buddy Campbell Scott and co-scripted with his cousin Joseph Tropiano, "The Impostors" is his own baby: screenplay to direction, soup to nuts.

Nuts is the operative word. Tucci and pudgy rising star Oliver Platt, teaming in a dual-banana turn that may earn them the sobriquet of "the new Stan and Ollie," play a pair of unemployed actors in the 1930s who accidentally find themselves on a luxury ocean liner. There, they encounter an exotic array of schemers and gold diggers whose machinations collide to nonsensical effect.

While "The Impostors," which opened recently, casts a merrier glow than "Big Night," it shares that film's almost military precision in commandeering a large ensemble cast. More significantly, perhaps, the two pictures are both valentines to craft: the artistry of cooking ("Big Night") and now the artistry of acting.

"I think the life of an artist is an absolutely wonderful way to live your life. But it also can be torture. Because you want to better yourself, you always want to go beyond what is comfortable.

"Why the artist is a pariah in contemporary society, at least American society, I will never understand. It's a very scary thing to me. And I think ... [this movie] is me getting a little bit on a pulpit and saying, 'These people are of substance and we need them.' The two actors who are considered lunatics end up being the most normal people in the film," Tucci said.

In the process of defending the artist's craft, Tucci's movies glorify artistry at its purest. Where "Big Night" ends with the silent cooking of a simple omelet (a ritualized act that is the

distilled essence of the intricate meal-fixing that has preceded it), "The Impostors" begins with its own "omelet scene": a bit of vaudeville shtick by Tucci and Platt that is mimed among the opening credits, silent-movie style.

Tucci prepared for his sojourn into farce by studying the screen greats. The most potent influences? Surprisingly, not the frenetic, Marx Brothers' shipboard classic, "A Night at the Opera," to which it has been compared. Rather, Howard Hawks' screwball comedy "On the Twentieth Century" (with its manic train locale) and Buster Keaton's 1928 "The Cameraman." For all its air of chaos, "The Impostors" is infused with a Keaton-like sweetness.

"Buster Keaton and Roberto Benigni [Italy's current answer to Danny Kaye and the director of the coming Holocaust comedy 'Life Is Beautiful'] use themselves physically, but they are never mean-spirited," Tucci says. "Chaplin would get mean. His earliest films are vicious. Keaton is much funnier to me, because he hurts people he doesn't mean to hurt. Same with Benigni. They're always sort of hapless."

If Tucci and his fellow cast members are to be taken at their word, the making of "The Impostors" was rarely as benign as Benigni. Campbell Scott, who turns in an uncharacteristically over-the-top performance as a Nazi-like concierge, had but one word for the working atmosphere: shameless.

"The prop department actually created a little thing that looked like a ham that was given out at the end of every day to the person who chewed [the scenery] the most. Everyone was vying for it. We called it the Hambone d'Or. If you hadn't won it in a couple of weeks, you really started to get tense at night."

Scott can honestly claim that Tucci was there at the beginning of his career. The two attended John Jay High School in Westchester County, N.Y., not far from Tucci's wood-shrouded home. There, under the guidance of a "sophisticated theater teacher guy" named Gilbert Freeman, they played opposite each other in the challenging title roles of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern areDead."

The son of high-school art teacher Stanley Tucci Sr. and secretary Joan Tucci, Tucci Jr. already had been bitten by the acting bug. "My sixth-grade teacher had been an actor in off-Broadway musicals, and he and this other fellow wrote a musical about 'The Tortoise and the Hare,' " Tucci recalls. "I played the hare. Slick Hare, that was his name. And I thought, 'I love this.' I never felt so comfortable in my life as when I was on stage."

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