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Remembering James Gandolfini: 10 Great Roles

Remembering James Gandolfini: 10 Great Roles

When James Gandolfini passed away yesterday at the age of 51, he left behind a storied acting career dominated by an iconic TV role but also including plenty of notable films under great directors like Spike Jonze and the Coen brothers. In honor of Gandolfini’s work on the small and big screens, we highlighted 10 parts that demonstrated his talent and incredible presence. He’ll be missed.

Tony Sopranos, “The Sopranos” (1999-2007)

Tony Soprano is one of the greatest television characters of all time — one really made for the small screen and the hours it allowed us to spend with him, getting to know him and his family, his moments of sentimentality and his frightening side. Gandolfini had played gangsters before his defining HBO role, but Tony was different — Tony we knew. He wasn’t just a New Jersey thug who’d risen up the ranks, he was a creature of deep complexity, one who was fascinating while always challenging our sympathy and impulses to align with him as viewers. It was the role of a lifetime, not just in what it offered to the actor in it, but because the sense of a whole life is what Gandolfini gave us, from Tony’s feeding the ducks to his murdering a family member. [Alison Willmore]

Big Dave Brewster, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001)

Gandolifini’s practically trademarked ability to transition from terrifying heavy to tear-soaked softie is on full display in the Coen brothers’ largely forgotten black and white noir crime drama. As Big Dave Brewster, a money-scamming adulterer with a violent streak, Gandolfini managed to find the heart in a character who easily could’ve been a one-dimensional antagonist. Though the film didn’t make much of an impression at the box office, Gandolfini’s quick supporting turn certainly left its mark on fans. [Ben Travers]

Mickey, “Killing Them Softly” (2012)

James Gandolfini doesn’t come in till midway through the Brad Pitt-led hitman noir “Killing Them Softly,” but in his few standout scenes he manages to steal the film from its leading man thanks to a turn that’s frightening, complex and strangely moving — in a way only he could pull off. Unlike Pitt’s cold, practical gangster, Gandolfini’s is a frayed mess, verbally abusing waitstaff and call girls in one scene, and sobbing in the next when his wife files for divorce, a man broken down by and no longer able to keep up with the endless demands of capitalism crime. [Nigel Smith]

Lt. Gen. George Miller, “In the Loop” (2009)

The only character who can stand up to apoplectic bundle of foul-mouthed fury Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) in Armando Iannucci’s political satire is Gandolfini’s Defense Secretary Military Assistant. Gandolfini imbued the character with self-created air of seen-it-all machismo that made his big clash with Tucker, in which the pair attempt to cut each other to pieces in a quiet conversation made up of escalating insults, so intensely enjoyable. [AW]

Nick Murder, “Romance & Cigarettes” (2005)

Gandolfini sported a tough guy name in this quirky musical from John Turturro, but his character was actually a blue collar romantic, a Queens iron worker whose long marriage to Kitty (Susan Sarandon) is endangered when he ends up having an affair. The turning of the characters to songs to express their emotions reaches an early high point when Gandolfini steps out of his house and draws the neighborhood into a rendition of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “A Man Without Love.” [AW]

Winston Baldry, “The Mexican” (2001)

One of Gandolfini’s first roles after finding success on “The Sopranos” initially seems like not much of a stretch — Winston Baldry, a hit man in Gore Verbinski’s underrated Brad Pitt-Julia Roberts vehicle “The Mexican.” But as we find out, there’s a not-so-Tony Soprano twist to his character: He’s a hitman who also happens to be an incredibly sensitive gay man.  It’s an excellent performance, and one that in many ways steals the show from his A-list co-stars. [Peter Knegt] 

Virgil, “True Romance” (1993)

It’s no small feat to stand out in a cast that includes Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Christian Slater and Christopher Walken, but in one of his earlier film roles Gandolfini managed to make a mark as Virgil, a brutal henchman of Walken’s gangster Vincenzo Coccotti. Gandolfini was duly frightening in the role, getting a noteworthy Tarantino-scripted monologue about learning to like violence (“Now, shit… now I do it just to watch their fuckin’ expression change”) and a rough sequence in which he interrogates Patricia Arquette’s character Alabama. [AW]

Carol, “Where the Wild Things Are” (2009)

In Spike Jones’ adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s picture book, Gandolfini embodied Carol, the unofficial leader of the Wild Things, whose short temper makes him a match for the tempestuous Max (Max Records). Like Gandolfini himself, Carol is a big, intimidating presence — but underneath the gruffness there’s a sincere heart and child-like curiosity that Gandolfini brought to his vocal performance, suggesting that he really was a big softy all along, albeit one capable of causing serious damage. [Casey Cipriani]

Craig Gilbert, “Cinema Verite” (2011)

In his first return to HBO post-”Sopranos,” Gandolfini played Craig Gilbert, a producer whose 1973 PBS documentary, “An American Family,” was credited as one of the first reality television shows. “Cinema Verite” depicts Gilbert as a manipulative pusher willing to say and do anything to stir up drama and create a compelling narrative. Gandolfini embodies the role with enough charisma to be convincing, and enough command to inspire crudeness. No one would ever doubt his promise, but they’d still follow orders when he breaks it. [BT]

Pat, “Not Fade Away” (2012)

Reuniting with “Sopranos” creator David Chase for the latter’s film directorial debut, Gandolfini played a character who both summoned shades of Tony Soprano and yet was determinedly, tenderly mundane — the sometimes rough mechanic parent of would-be rock and roller Douglas (John Magaro). Gandolfini and Magaro together enacted a father-son relationship shaped by an achingly authentic dynamic, as the working class, first-generation immigrant Pat takes issue with what he perceives as the frivolous dreams in his child. He also provided advice that, though Douglas doesn’t want to believe it, is as true for music as a physical trade — that success is “10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.” [AW]

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