Giamatti’s Santa is weary, stressed



LOS ANGELES — In Hollywood, Santa Claus comes in all stripes, from the childlike Edmund Gwenn in “Miracle on 34th Street” to North Pole draftee Tim Allen in “The Santa Clause” flicks to gutter-mouth Billy Bob Thornton in “Bad Santa.”

The latest incarnation is a thoroughly modern Santa: Overworked, stressed-out over his whitening hair, battling to maintain inventory, and squaring off against an efficiency expert who wants to downsize St. Nick out of a job.

As played by Paul Giamatti in “Fred Claus,” Santa tries to keep the ho-ho-ho in his voice despite a weight problem and a centuries-old case of sibling rivalry involving his black-sheep brother (Vince Vaughn).

“I just got such a kick out of seeing Santa Claus as a human being with, like, his issues of being a saint and having to take care of everyone, and how he’s carrying that,” said “Fred Claus” director David Dobkin.

The movie mold for Santa was established by Gwenn in 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street.” Richard Attenborough did a sturdy take on Gwenn’s character in a 1994 remake, while Ed Asner played an endearingly wayworn Santa in Will Ferrell’s 2003 comedy “Elf.”

Thornton was the anti-Claus in the expletive-laden “Bad Santa” as a boozehound who uses his store Santa gigs to pull off Christmas Eve burglaries.

Allen has been the modern standard-bearer, playing a mortal who inherits St. Nick’s job in 1994’s “The Santa Clause.” He reprised the role in two sequels, done up in the classic trappings of the ruddy-faced Santa.

“When I’m up there in full regalia, in the full coat and beard, you think, it’s Santa,” said Allen, whose “The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause” debuts Nov. 20 on DVD. “The look we went for is like the Santas on the Coca-Cola tins from the early 1900s. That’s the Santa I responded to.”

Big boots to fill

Even Allen acknowledged he had big boots to fill in Gwenn’s wake.

“That’s to me my only competition. Face to face, in that black and white, he kills me,” Allen said. “He’s probably the top rung. He did the bait-and-switch where you never knew for sure whether he was the real deal.”

Gwenn played a slightly daffy yet infinitely lovable old coot who lands a job as a Macy’s store Santa and revives the spirit of the season for a single mom and her daughter.

“He probably represents the epitome of the kindly old man who gave of himself and was the essence of a paternal, all-is-well figure. It is the essential Santa Claus,” said William Shatner, narrator of “Stalking Santa,” a mock documentary that came out on DVD Tuesday tracing an obsessive man’s quest to prove Santa is real.

“That image of Santa, incredibly generous and loving and patient and supportive, it was just a great idea of what Santa was,” said Kevin Spacey, who plays the conniving efficiency expert trying to shut down the North Pole in “Fred Claus.” “And then you get Paul Giamatti.”

In “Fred Claus,” Giamatti does a weary, harried Santa trying to keep everybody happy — his corporate overseers, his needling wife (Miranda Richardson), his adoring but judgmental mom (Kathy Bates), his legion of elves and all the kids of the world.

Complicating matters is brother Fred, a huckster who hits up his sibling for some quick cash and reluctantly agrees to work it off at the North Pole. Fred’s spent eons envying Nick, the favorite son who could do no wrong.

Jessie Nelson, a producer on “Fred Claus” who came up with the story, said the idea hit her one night as she tucked her young daughter in bed.

“She said to me, ‘Does Santa Claus have a family?”’ Nelson said. “‘Does he have a brother?’ I said, ‘Yes, he has a brother.’ Then I began to think, it must be so hard to be Santa Claus’ brother, because he’s this perfect kid. He’s jolly, he’s always giving away his birthday presents, he’s laughing all the time. It must have been so tough to grow up in the shadow of that.”

Giamatti found some odd inspiration for his Santa emulation. While watching TV during the movie shoot, Giamatti caught the campy cult flick “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” in which St. Nick is abducted by aliens.

“The guy’s actually really good in that movie,” Giamatti said. “He’s really sort of dark and adult in that movie. He’s got a lot of gravitas. A little bit of a Shakespearean Santa.”

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