In the role of New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell–source and subject alike of Joe Gould’s Secret–Stanley Tucci adopts the hesitant drawl of a displaced Southern aristocrat, who goes through the New York City of the early forties wearing his politeness like a second raincoat and hat. He needs the protection.
To his editor, Harold Ross, he speaks in apologetic stammers, even when receiving a compliment. (“Thank God you don’t write the way you talk,” Ross grumbles.) Before a daughter who is no more than 9, he visibly recoils when told that Daddy’s new story sounds boring. That’s how vulnerable Tucci’s Mitchell can seem, even among friends and family–let alone while plunging into the Village’s lowest bars, sifting through rubble-strewn pits or eyeing strangers in the subway. Sleek and long-faced, Tucci carries himself down to all these places with a slightly stiff modesty and emerges with equal decorum, having undergone little visible alteration.
As producer and director of Joe Gould’s Secret, Tucci behaves with similar reticence. His movie is as withdrawn, as quizzical–I’m tempted to say as inert–as its point-of-view character. All the film’s energy has gone into the character who is Mitchell’s chief object of study, the well-educated and grandiloquent Village bum Joe Gould: cadger of meals, drinks and dollars, stray pet of artists and poets, author of a purported million-word Oral History of Our Time. Here, at the opposite pole from Mitchell, is a man so exhibitionistic that Alice Neel gives him three penises when she paints his nude portrait, feeling “He didn’t seem to have enough.” A living tourist attraction, Gould makes a pittance by displaying himself to Village sightseers, who would be disappointed if they didn’t get to meet a Bohemian. He’s just as willing to gratify a more sophisticated audience, The New Yorker‘s readers, to whose amused curiosity Mitchell delivers him in a wrapping of glossy paper.
The movie’s energy goes into Gould, and in him it goes bad. As played by Ian Holm, he’s the squat, dirt-darkened shadow of Joe Mitchell: hat comically battered, coat and all other surfaces ragged, beard overgrown in the time-honored style of the Cynic (though no previous Diogenes has been in the habit of dumping an entire bottle of ketchup into his soup). To Mitchell’s embarrassment, this shadow won’t disappear, once the New Yorker profile is published. Gould continues to cling to him, growing more rather than less desperate in his needs. It’s as if he’s become a weight that Mitchell has to drag along; and the movie drags with him, until we finally see what Mitchell can be when he lets the good manners slip.
For an actor of Ian Holm’s boundless skill, the character of Joe Gould might be almost too easy. Lesser performers have been known to shuffle along and mumble at one moment, throw back the head in a Shakespearean roar the next and at the end voice a few lines of pathetic self-knowledge, with eyes misty but sharp and fingers atremble. That said, if you’ve watched other impersonations of the cracked Diogenes, you will be grateful to Holm. He does not charm; he refuses to twinkle. His Gould is perhaps least vital at precisely those moments when he’s being the life of the party–forcing the randy-old-goat routine, misplaying the classic wild-dance-on-a-table. Unlike, say, Alec Guinness’s Gully Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth, Holm’s Gould has to strain to be a rascal–to do anything, it seems–as if the strange inertia hanging over the movie had its center in his heart.