Though the majority of our Scene Stealers inductees are made up of scenery-chewing tour-de-forces and unexpectedly bizarre cameos, our latest entry stands as perhaps one of the series’ most understated performances. As such it’s perhaps remiss to bestow the title on Michael Stuhlbarg – in a film where he is firmly a supporting player. But what a wondrous ballast he is!
Something of a charmed artiste, Stuhlbarg this year found himself a cast member in three of February’s Best Picture nominees at the Oscars, a run completed by turns in Spielberg’s Sorkin-esque The Post and aquatic erotica The Shape of Water. The feat, one that only five other actors have achieved, is truly a testament to his standing as one of Hollywood’s most dependable and consistent thesps.
Luca Guadagnino’s stunning Call Me By Your Name, a fever dream of the most romantic, set in the sweeping lush locale of northern Italy, features a career-best Armie Hammer and an undoubtedly star-making turn from Timothée Chalamet. Our two central figures form an intoxicatingly joyous and playfully lustful pair, navigating their way through the burgeoning feelings that they have for each other. Chalamet in particular earned widespread acclaim for his delicate portrayal of Elio Perlman, a role requiring a certain naiveté in dealing with first love, which he achieved alongside the considered work of the paternal Stuhlbarg, a subtle brilliance which we celebrate here.
As Perlman Sr., a surname-addressed patriarch and professor of archaeology, first greets Oliver (Hammer), the mid-20s graduate invited to study at their home, the apprentice is bathed in a welcoming warmth that continues throughout as one of the film’s constants. Upon bringing Oliver into his home, he beams as he introduces his family, his smile near splitting his cheeks with pride as another joins the household, “our home is your home” he says as he embraces his wife. This is an introduction to character that breathes with the familiarity of an old friend or family member.
Perlman and Oliver’s friendship blossoms through intellectual discussions at the garden’s breakfast table, where conversations are punctuated by the preparation and demolition of butter on crusted bread. The professor holds court without being overbearing, inviting other points of view and respectfully challenging when necessary. Following one morning’s meal, Elio exclaims “we almost had sex last night”, discussing his girlfriend and the reply comes nonchalantly, “why didn’t you?” perhaps a telling insight into his father’s liberal worldview, inviting his son to elaborate over orange juice.
As Oliver and Elio’s secret relationship grows, the former’s involvement with Mr. Perlman is relegated to passing comments over newspapers or glasses of wine. The pendulum of Oliver’s attention has swung away from studying. As young love blossoms he casts knowing glances, registering every micro-interaction between the two, supportive from afar while never attempting to broach the subject until it naturally arrives.
As Oliver returns home and the loss can be seen to weigh heavy on his young son’s mind as he sits wearily next to his father. Perlman, with scotch in his left hand, cigarette in his right, makes a delicate foray into a formative, perhaps life-altering conversation. Set in the early ’80s when such conversations could be seen as taboo, we find nothing but tenderness in his words: “you two had a nice friendship. You’re too smart not to know how rare, how special what you two had was.” Without a hint of inquisition or accusation Perlman makes known his unwavering acceptance of Elio, Stuhlbarg’s delivery giving credence to the poetry on the page – a part of the script that begs to be read.
Giving us one of the decade’s most moving pieces of cinema, Stuhlbarg’s monologue and performance in general, is something truly important yet rarely seen on film – parents shown as being essential to LGBTQ narratives. “In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away. Pray their sons land on their feet, but… I am not such a parent.”
As Hollywood continues to learn how queer stories should be told, with commitment to positive representation making a steady incremental growth, Call Me By Your Name illuminates the need to breed allies, especially parents of young adults, showcasing the power of familial support.