“James was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.’ There would be silence at the other end of the phone,” David Chase recalled yesterday, in a statement given to press following the sudden death of James Gandolfini. And it’s hard to disagree that the actor was indeed a composer, crafting performances on the stage and screen that will live far beyond his tragically too brief career.
At 51 years old, topping out at six feet, with a mischievous, unnerving glare and the look of a bruiser, Gandolfini could tower over bigger men. Indeed, few standing beside him could overshadow the presence of the actor, who gifts and skill were immeasurable. His body of acting work is a masterclass in exhausted machismo, anxiety and wounded pride haunting the steps of his most iconic embodiments. And while Tony Soprano will always be his pinnacle achievement, the kind of performance in a culturally game changing show that few actors are blessed to be part of, Gandolfini was eager to show he could be much more — and he did.
So below, are five laudable highlights from a versatile, often surprising career. One that was promising to go in even bolder and more interesting directions, and while we’re never get to see what further talents he could share, Gandolfini left us with more than enough proof that we’ve said goodbye one of the finest out there.
“The Sopranos” (1999-2007)
About that those eyes that David Chase spoke of, they seemed to be the key to Gandolfini’s greatest role, as the iconic mobster Tony Soprano. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and that’s the role Tony Soprano eventually found himself in HBO’s seminal show about a mobster trying to weigh his home and family life against his crime organization responsibilities, simultaneously putting them in danger as he slowly ascended to the top. The key to the beloved Tony Soprano was conflict coming from the tremendous emotional depth and sensitivity, that this man, a brute on the outside, actually possessed. Even as he pursued everything he desired — luxury, girls, booze, money, power, clout — the price that came with these vices tortured his soul, and ran counter to the well of emotion he felt for his family and the children he adored. Essentially wanting his cake and eating it too, while loyal and loving, Soprano also resented the burdens and responsibilities he was given, both as a husband and parent and the boss of a crime syndicate that seemed to bring with it more problems the further up the ladder he ascended. But the complex, contradictory mien of Tony Soprano, the various tenors of anger, sadness, exhaustion and frustration on the page were illuminated by his vessel, James Gandolfini. Complicated, flawed, surprisingly sympathetic even as he did horrible things, Gandolfini found the humanity in Tony Soprano, and gave him your empathy with his soul. One of the most beloved characters to ever appear on TV, Tony Soprano may have cut to black years ago, but Gandolfini’s indelible rendering of this tragic and layered character and his legacy, will live on.
“Where The Wild Things Are” (2009)
Max’s world makes little sense to him, and it’s even frightening at times. His parents are divorced, his older sister wants nothing to do with him, and while he might feel protected romping around in his wolf costume, the sun will eventually die ending us all. There are few films like Spike Jonze’s “Where The Wild Things Are” that capture not just the fear, confusion and loneliness that comes with being a kid, but the intensity of those feelings as well. But when Max runs away and joins the Wild Things on their island, it seems he’s suddenly found a home with a welcoming bunch of equally sensitive monsters, and finds a kindred spirit in the most unlikely one of the group. Carol is equally impulsive and as raw nerved as Max, and as voiced by James Gandolfini — in a performance that finds a different texture and deeper heart to his Tony Soprano toughness — his trademark growl is softer here, perhaps even uncertain, as his brittle exterior hides a more vulnerable core. Carol’s fearsome, violent anger (he terrifyingly rips someone’s arm off) is only equaled by the size of his heart, and like any child would be finding out that something they thought was true isn’t, he’s devastated when he learns Max isn’t really the king that has come to unite the Wild Things. The part is a tough one — particularly considering Gandolfini has to transmit this complex web of emotions mostly with his voice, while hoping the VFX can catch up — but the actor finds all the right notes in playing the wise counsel, who still holds out hope (like of all us) that something or someone will come along to fix the pain in his life. And that’s really the big lesson of “Where The Wild Things Are,” that the loss of innocence as we get older is a difficulty we’ll have to learn to sustain and move on from. But sometimes, it’s just a bit of perspective that can get us through the day. When Max worries about the sun dying, Carol gives him advice that you’re sure he’ll never forget (and that we certainly don’t): “You’re the king. And, look at me, I’m big! How can guys like us worry about a tiny little thing like the sun?”
“In The Loop” (2009)
Most fans of Armando Iannucci’s “The Thick Of It” knew that he’d be assembling a murderer’s row of comedic voices for this sort-of spinoff, with each put-upon politico trading rat-a-tat barbs and slander like sworn enemies. But seeing the Americans cast had to give some audience members pause: former TV star David Rasche? The original “My Girl” Anna Chlumsky? And at the time it seemed unusual to consider what role burly, intimidating Gandolfini would play against these sharp-tongued visitors, as he’s never been known to spit rapid-fire dialogue in a heightened comic atmosphere. Turns out, surprise, Gandolfini’s a natural: as Lieutenant General George Miller, Gandolfini creates possibly the most complex and likable figure in the picture, a decorated head honcho who nonetheless has zero battle experience. Every character fears him, and when he speaks he has considerable bark: it’s in his quieter moments where he reveals his own insecurities that work as the strongest dramatic moments in a very funny movie. It’s a complex character, and Gandolfini creates a plausible idea that he may be on higher ground than those who surround him, but he does have to use a children’s toy when it comes time to perform military calculations.
“Killing Them Softly” (2012)
There’s something genuinely diseased about Mickey, the out-of-town contractor that is brought in for a particularly shady hit in “Killing Them Softly.” With Gandolfini’s sad eyes and saggy jowls, he’s clearly losing his tenuous hold on his own composure. While it’s strictly an impersonal hit job, Mickey settles into the bar with fellow hitman Jackie, and the two of them exchange pleasantries in a way that suggests years of history without outright saying anything. The interplay between fellow “True Romance” veterans Gandolfini and Brad Pitt is fascinating in their two extended, shared scenes; they’re the only moments Gandolfini has in the entire film, but they loom large. As he tosses drinks back, swearing an allegiance to irresponsible bad behavior, casual sex and passive-aggressive animosity towards ex-wives, you can see his words are merely hiding a man who is decomposing before our very eyes. Gandolfini gets to be funny and profane, sure, but he also gets to reveal the touching identity of a man lost in an endless downward spiral.
“The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001)
A black-and-white neo-noir directed by Joel Coen and co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is heavily influenced by the novels of James Cain (“The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Double Indemnity”), but also has the trademark Coen surrealistic spin. The story follows Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber whose wife (Frances McDormand) is cheating on him with her boss, Big Dave Brewster (Gandolfini), the owner of the local department store Nirdlinger’s. Clear opposites from the beginning, Big Dave is a real blowhard (Gandolfini described Big Dave as “a bit of a loud-mouthed clotheshorse kind of guy”), especially about his purported time in the Pacific during the war, whereas Ed is generally a very quiet guy and was unable to serve due to flat feet. So when Ed decides to blackmail Big Dave, there’s that spark of Coen magic, especially when Big Dave turns to Ed for advice on how to deal with the blackmailer. Within this one pivotal scene, Gandolfini performs a true tour-de-force, going from gregariously chatting, to confiding, to quietly concerned, to pissed-off, to crying and breaking down, to almost instantaneously confrontational, to a confessional, to a blanket apology, and all within a few minutes. As Big Dave, Gandolfini brought so many dimensions to a supporting role that lasted roughly only a third of the film: the loudmouth who’s living on his wife’s coattails but still sleeps around, the adulterer who becomes remorseful once he’s blackmailed, the war veteran whose bloated stories question whether he actually served, and so much more. As with many of his roles, Gandolfini humanized what could have simply been a caricature through his subtle portrayal of the man’s depth and duplicity, which made the character all the more resonant and marks the true greatness of the actor.
Honorable mentions: Of course, many will argue that “True Romance” should be up in that top five, but some of us felt he showed ever greater dimension in later roles. Either way, it’s one to seek out. Gandolfini shows some humor and heart in the underseen HBO movie “Cinema Verite” playing an overzealous documentary filmmaker; he delivers in the role of Leon Panetta in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” and two not-so-great movies with solid turns from the actor include the legal drama “A Civil Action” and the musical “Romance & Cigarettes.”
What performances stand out for you? Share your thoughts on Gandolfini with us below. And after that watch James Gandolfini’s episode of “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” him reading Maurice Sendak‘s “In The Night Kitchen,” appearing on “Sesame Street” and the final scene from “The Sopranos.” — Gabe Toro, Kevin Jagernauth, Rodrigo Perez, Diana Drumm, Mark Zhuravsky