Stars are generic. A character actor is specific. Consider Stanley Tucci, the man with the liveliest deadpan on screen. The less he seems to do, the louder you laugh. Take his performance as Paul Child, spouse of the French Chef, in Julie & Julia. He doesn't have a lot of dialogue, but his reaction shots are the bearnaise to Meryl Streep's skirt steak. The movie is unimaginable without him. You could set Greenwich Mean to his timing. In the scene where Julia turns a bushel of onions into a mountain of dice, Tucci's Paul enters the kitchen, and lurches back into the wall in the face of the onion odor, eyes tearing. The move is balletic slapstick, a combination of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Stan Laurel.
It's worth noting that Stanley T played a Stan L-type figure in The Impostors, the hilarious 1998 movie he also wrote and directed, starring opposite Oliver Platt as the Oliver Hardy figure. (The two likewise played slapstick guys in Beethoven, where Tucci was the dogcatcher.) And that he was sublime in The Big Night, the mouthwatering indie he co-wrote, co-directed and co-stars with his high school bud Campbell Scott, about the immigrant restaurateurs who make a dinner for Louis Prima.
With the exception of TV biopics such as Winchell, most of Tucci's starring roles have been in material he initiated. In big-star screen fare such as America's Sweethearts and The Devil Wears Prada, his character literally supports the film. He functions as the fulcrum keeping the movie from seesawing.
While personally this has been a dark year for Tucci -- his wife, Kate, mother of his three children, died of cancer in May -- professionally it looks to be his breakout year. Not only will Julie & Julia likely generate buzz for him come awards time, but his pivotal role in The Lovely Bones likely will, too.