by: Douglas Grant and Michael Shields (respectively)
In remembrance of one of this generation’s greatest actors…..
‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.” – David Chase to James Gandolfini
My first experience with James Gandolfini’s work was his role as Virgil in True Romance, where he beat Patricia Arquette’s character, Alabama, half to death. It was one of the most disturbing scenes I’d ever seen on film. The next time I remember him in a role was when he played Eddie Poole in 8MM, a seedy snuff-porn film producer involved with the murder and cover-up of a young girl. His character here was equally brutal, and I worried that this guy, whose acting ability I admired, was going to be typecast as a sociopath. Then I became acquainted with Tony Soprano, his most celebrated role, the role of a lifetime on arguably the best-written television show of all time. Here, too, he played a sociopath.
I didn’t start watching The Sopranos until halfway through season 2, but I was immediately taken with the dialogue and dramatic storyline. I recognized Gandolfini right away as that creep who’d disturbed me into dwelling on those previous two movies for an uncomfortably prolonged period of time, and I thought to myself, Oh, he’ll suit this role nicely.
I remember watching the show, being enthralled with the plot, when my roommate at the time told me that his character was going to be murdered soon, and that his rival at the time, Richie Aprile, was poised to become both the new head of the family and the star of the show. I didn’t know at the time how ridiculous this ascertainment was. No one knew ahead of time what the writers had in store for the Soprano family. I think he was screwing with me, but I do remember thinking at the time, This character is brilliant. If he gets written off of the show, I’m walking. How silly that seems now looking back on David Chase’s masterpiece. No one could ever replace Tony Soprano, and no one could bring that level of intensity to the role quite like Gandolfini.
I could write pages and pages about Tony Soprano, but I’m not going to. We all know who he is. He’s a permanent fixture in our Americana, and if you’re unfamiliar with the character then you shouldn’t be reading this.
I still worried about him being typecast. What kind of work would he find in a post-Sopranos world? Typecasting can be the bane of an actor’s livelihood. Was the world ready for him to play anyone other than Tony Soprano? I know I was, because I truly wanted to see what kind of range he had. I’d only seen him play sociopaths or mob-related characters.
I’m no expert on Gandolfini’s body of work, and some of the roles I saw him in, like Winston Baldry from The Mexican, were in my opinion either underdeveloped or one-dimensional. His performances in All the King’s Men and The Last Castle were noteworthy, and that was when I started to see a broadening of his acting ability.
It was a few years after we parted ways with Tony Soprano in an abrupt and momentarily confusing blackout to the tune of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing that I saw him in roles that not only widened his range, but showed me that he’d truly stepped out of Tony Soprano’s shadow. Lt. Gen. George Miller from In the Loop introduced audiences to a dryly comical character who was as endearing as he was forthright. His role as Carol in Dave Egger’s and Spike Jonze’s reimagining of Where the Wild Things showed us a lovable but frighteningly conflicted classic character brought to life. And the last role I’ll have seen him in before he passed away was the fiercely pragmatic CIA Director from Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant follow-up to The Hurt Locker, in which he brought just enough of a presence to the story without overshadowing the film itself. This was earlier this year, and I was more than pleased to see that he was still at the top of his game.
Having said all of this, highlighting all of the roles he played that I found memorable performances, there isn’t too much that I knew about the man himself, except for on one occasion.
I’m a regular listener to The Howard Stern Show, and I remember once years ago telling a story about how he’d said on the air that Gandolfini was somewhat of an attention whore who fawned for time in front of the camera while out in public. Apparently Gandolfini lashed back, writing Stern a personal letter in which he called Stern an asshole, and citing the fact that he couldn’t go anywhere with his kids without be accosted by the paparazzi. It’s rare that a well known celebrity will personally make a retort to one of Stern’s on-air rants of trash-talking, and I applauded Gandolfini for that. But what was even more surprising, and equally as rare, was that Stern expressed humility after having read the letter, humbly admitting that he had been wrong for saying what he had. This gave me a brief glimpse at the man behind the actor, and I like what I saw: A no-nonsense family man who went about his day-to-day life without taking shit from anyone.
Fifty-one is far too young for the world to have lost such a talent. The only positive I can try to derive from his passing is that he left the world with an unforgettable and inspirational career, a legacy that each and every one of us want to leave behind in one way or another.
A few years back I saw James Gandolfini on Broadway. He was performing with a quartet of stars in Yasmina Reza’s Gods of Carnage. Although I was a Sopranos zealot, it wasn’t Gandolfini’s presence that brought me through the door. Rather, it was my affinity for Jeff Daniels and two of the finest working actresses alive today: Marcia Gay Hayden and Hope Davis. I was altogether stunned, upon exiting the theater, by the grandeur of James Gandolfini’s performance. He was nothing short of brilliant.
Gods of Carnage is a play about four Brooklyn parents who come to blows over a playground brawl involving their kids. It is a study in tension between two sets of “civilized” people struggling to suppress those savage instincts that bubble just below the surface. It is as witty a play as it is telling of the nature of humanity. In it the four actors dance around each other and spar like boxers. They throw fiery jabs at one another, wearing each other down emotionally, and then turn –on a dime– to moments of levity forged through mutual respect and empathy. The whole thing was a juggling act and nobody had more balls in the air than James Gandolfini.
James, with immaculate finesse, balanced his character’s story arc from aristocratic to unrefined. He played his character as deeply layered, unpredictably admirable, despicable, and always cunning. It was a tour de force. All four cast members received Tony nominations for their work, yet Harden was the only one of the four to walk away with an award. The other three were robbed, particularly Gandolfini.
As I walked home that evening I began to wonder why I was so surprised James Gandolfini was so impressive. This was a man who I watched on television every Sunday for the 6 seasons of glory that was The Sopranos, a man who had hauled in an impressive three Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor. What I realized is that I had been taking James Gandolfini’s talents for granted. For years he had me fooled by how effortless he made it look to be Tony Soprano.
With his role as Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini made the anti-hero cool. Without Tony we aren’t rooting for Walter White. We don’t give a shit about Don Draper and his philanderous behavior. Without an actor of James Gandolfini’s proficiency, who counterbalanced moody, thoughtful, eccentric, and ferocious, the era of TV antiheroes would not be where it is today. The way in which he played the tough guy while simultaneously showing us the humanity of a villain – making us love him in spite of his reprehensible tendencies – was nothing short of art. The role of Tony was complex. For as exaggerated a character playing a mob boss could have become, he made it believable. David Chase may have written the music, but it was Tony Soprano who played it so beautifully.
Without The Sopranos television wouldn’t be where it is today – producing the highest quality programming since its inception. It is inarguable that The Sopranos forever altered what was possible on the small screen, and James Gandolfini’s role as Tony Soprano will not soon be forgotten, as iconic a character as you will find.
Like many, I first stumbled upon James in True Romance. He was unforgettable simply because he was so terrifying, delightfully brutalizing one of my first on screen crushes, Miss Alabama Whirly. It was an unforgettable role, one of many for Gandolfini. Throughout his career he exhibited more range than I believe he gets credit for, offsetting his menacing, complex characters with comedic performances that displayed a sharp sense of comic timing (Such as 2009’s In The Loop, one of this generations funniest comedies, where he played an anti-war American general). He played Leon Panetta in Zero Dark Thirty, a homosexual hitman in The Mexican, and was Big Dave Brewster in the Coen Brother’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. He even put Where the Wild Things Are upon his broad shoulders carrying the film, voicing the deeply conflicted Carol.
I woke up this morning with a hope that it was all a dream, that he couldn’t be gone. Receiving the news late last night, it hadn’t truly settled in and thus, I had yet to accept it. This one stings. It burns. It is heartening to hear from so many that he wasn’t simply an astonishing actor, but a gentle, down to earth man. James Gandolfini surely had so much more to offer the world. But, what he has left us with is incomparable. The loss of James Gandolfini, at such a young age, almost feels like a cruel joke, leaving us all deeply saddened and confused. Thankfully, the astounding art he made will live on, and so will the stories of his humility and generosity.