The death of James Gandolfini came with two shocks. The first was that he was gone so young. The second was that he was gone so young. The iconic star of “The Sopranos” was just 51 years old when he died of a heart attack Wednesday while vacationing in Italy. 51. I would have thought he was older than 51 in the finale of “The Sopranos,” which aired more than six years ago.
The mental image I have of Gandolfini from “The Sopranos” is of an immense, powerful mountain of a man, bellowing at his underlings or bickering combatively with his therapist. But looking back the show’s pilot last night for the first time in a decade I was struck by just how broken and tired Tony Soprano already looks in the series’ very first episode. He’s introduced talking to Dr. Melfi about anxiety and depression; in their conversation, he keeps returning to feelings of loss and regret. Narrating the events of the fateful day when he had his panic attack, Gandolfini begins with this monologue:
“It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that. I know. But lately I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over… I think about my father. He never reached the heights like me. But in a lot of ways he had it better. He had his people. They had their standards, they had pride. I tell you, what have we got?”
In episode #1, Tony is already anticipating the end. A few scenes later, Tony collapses. It’s a deeply unsettling scene. Shot from below with a backyard grill in the foreground, barbecue flames lapping at his body, it’s as if hell itself is calling out to him. Moments earlier, Tony had gleefully run over a man who owed him some money, and then brutally pounded him into the ground while demanding payment. He didn’t look sick. And then, in an instant, he topples over.
James Gandolfini became an iconic as Tony Soprano, but film fans also knew him as an impressively versatile actor who could play more than a morally conflicted mobster. In the movies, he played everything from deadpan army generals (“In the Loop”) to magical monsters (“Where the Wild Things Are”); he even sang and danced in the indie “Romance & Cigarettes.” But the roles I keep thinking about today are the ones from the last three films he made, where he played three characters even wearier than Tony Soprano. I don’t know what Gandolfini’s health or mental state was like in the last few years. But he did some of his finest and most haunting film work in these final roles, playing men who felt, deep in their bones, that they were coming to the end.
In “Killing Them Softly,” Gandolfini is Mickey, a hired gun recruited by Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan to help him eliminate a pair of low-level thugs who have robbed a mobbed-up poker game. But the job never happens, at least not by Mickey; he’s too far gone to drink and vice. “Violet & Daisy” is another story about hit men, but this time Gandolfini plays the killee instead of the killer. His Michael is a thief who’s been marked for death; his contract is given to the two young female assassins of the title (Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan). But rather than fight his end, Michael accepts it. He’s sad. He’s exhausted. He misses his family. This is suicide by murder.
And then there’s the best of these films, “Not Fade Away,” from “Sopranos” creator David Chase. In his statement on Gandolfini’s death, Chase said he “was my brother in ways I can’t explain and never will be able to explain,” but in the semi-autobiographical “Not Fade Away,” he cast the actor as his father, a working-class mook from New Jersey named Pat. Like Tony, Pat is an old school Italian guy who has has trouble communicating with or understanding his kids, particularly his son Doug (John Magaro, playing Chase’s stand-in), who dreams of becoming a rock star.
I don’t want to spoil what happens to Pat in “Not Fade Away” (God, that title) because the movie came and went so quickly last year that I suspect most readers still haven’t seen it. But Gandolfini’s part was already brimming with heartbreaking poignancy even before it became one of his final performances. His last scene in the film is incredible. Just as Doug is leaving on a trip, Pat flags down his car. He trots over, hands him a wad of cash, and gives him a single piece of advice. As Doug disappears over the horizon, Chase cuts back to Gandolfini standing in the street, watching silently for a moment before he heads back into the house.
Gandolfini’s final scene directly recalls his very first scene with David Chase from “The Sopranos”‘ pilot — both are about fathers and sons, and beginnings and endings (both are set in suburban New Jersey driveways, too). It’s devastating to realize that we’ll never see another collaboration between these two great artists. But it’s good they got to finish things the way they did. And now the best really is over.