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Before Stanley Tucci Was the Internet’s Boyfriend, There Was ‘Big Night’

Twenty-five years ago, Tucci co-wrote and starred in a movie about struggling to become a success. It turned out to be his breakthrough.

Character actors rarely inspire the passions that Stanley Tucci inflames on the internet. People love that he’s such a good cook. They find his every Instagram post to be a thirst trap. And in films like Easy A and The Devil Wears Prada, he projects a grownup, sophisticated sexiness that’s both cuddly and fetching. In her book A Field Guide to Internet Boyfriends, Esther Zuckerman made the case for the web’s obsession with the Oscar nominee. “Tucci represents a whole subset of Internet Boyfriends who are not your typical heartthrobs,” she writes. “With the rise of daddy and zaddy culture, offbeat types like the Tooch are finally being appreciated the way they should be.” 

Tucci, who turned 60 in November, has been working steadily for nearly 40 years, but because he’s become internet-famous due to more recent movies — including Julie & Julia, Spotlight, the Hunger Games films, and his latest, the same-sex love story Supernova — there’s a whole wealth of hidden gems in his back catalog worth seeking out if you’re just now joining the Tucci Gang. And your first stop should be Big Night.

Released in the fall of 1996, Big Night was co-directed by Tucci and his childhood friend (and fellow actor) Campbell Scott, telling the story of Italian brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci) who are trying to keep their fledgling restaurant Paradise afloat in the 1950s. Primo, the older brother, is the chef, a perfectionist who insists only on serving authentic Italian cuisine — don’t even think of asking him to add a meatball to his pasta — while Secondo handles the business side, balancing Primo’s unyielding attitude against a unsophisticated client base that just wants the stereotypical trappings. It’s the old art-versus-commerce debate, but with timpano.

Paradise faces stiff competition from Pascal’s, a local spot that serves more American-friendly Italian fare. Of course, it’s incredibly popular, led by Pascal (Ian Holm), a smooth-talking restaurateur who only cares about making money. Envious of Pascal’s success — and worried that Paradise will have to close soon unless they start bringing in customers — Secondo reaches out for help to Pascal, who feels bad for the brothers, offering to host a night at their restaurant that will feature special invited guest (and close personal friend) Louis Prima, the beloved singer. Secondo is thrilled for the lifeline, but will they be able to pull off this big night? 

Because of Tucci’s well-established love of food — his CNN travel/culinary series Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy premieres on February 14th — it would be easy to assume that he was drawn to writing this script (with Joseph Tropiano) because of the incredible cuisine. (And, indeed, the food in Big Night looks divine.) But back then, Tucci (who was still trying to gain a foothold in the business) was mostly inspired by his frustration with the clichéd roles he was being offered. “I felt I was always playing a heavy, usually a mafiosa,” he explained. “The thing is that most of these roles aren’t well-written. They’re caricatures. Besides, the Mafia is the only view we get of Italian-Americans. There are 15 million of us and we’re not all thugs.”

The accents are thick in Big Night, but it’s in keeping with a story about working-class immigrants who are still new to this country. Secondo desperately wants the American dream — personified memorably in a sleek new Cadillac he covets — and resists his brother’s suggestion that they move back to Italy. Clearly, Secondo burned some bridges back home, and has staked his reputation on being a success in the U.S. But if Primo won’t compromise his menu, are they destined to be failures?

When Tucci appears on talk shows, he conveys an unfussy, modest demeanor, always slightly thrown by all the attention he’s getting lately. That same gentle manner pervades this melancholy film, which is as much a portrait of immigrant life as a look back on a specific moment in postwar America where it seemed like the picket-fence paradise was available for all. It actually wasn’t, of course, and through Secondo’s struggles, we sense the wide chasm between a dream and the reality. (Not that he’s a saint: We’ll learn over the course of Big Night some of the ethical lapses he’s made.)

Everybody is great in Big Night, including Minnie Driver and Allison Janney, who were both very early in their careers. They play, respectively, Secondo and Primo’s love interests, and it’s a sign of the film’s generous tone that the women are taller than their fellas. (They’re probably also smarter.) Big Night is about brothers, but its notion of community extends beyond that, showing how a group of Italian-Americans try to fit into a culture they don’t entirely understand. 

Every immigrant story is, in some ways, an examination of the hard choices people have to make to assimilate. Tucci, an actor fighting to make his name at the time, was wondering what it would take for him to get ahead. It’s funny that, all these years later, he’s more popular than he could have possibly imagined when he made Big Night, which argues that we need to remember that success isn’t as important as one’s own personal integrity. 

That’s why the long, unbroken, nearly silent shot that closes the film remains so momentous. Nothing much happens in it — just a man making an omelette — but it’s a quietly audacious scene that speaks loudly about the power of family and forgiveness. It’s also quintessential Stanley Tucci, an unassuming actor who tends to let his work speak for him. Finally, people are starting to listen.