June 21, 2013

The Great Gandolfini

Filed under: TV — DB @ 9:00 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

My heart plunged Wednesday afternoon when I read that James Gandolfini had died. I can barely comprehend that he’s left us this soon. The details of his death are as sad as the loss itself. We invest an awful lot of time and energy into the TV shows and movies we love, and when the performers pass away, the feeling of loss can be as genuine as for those we knew in person. I have relatives who have died who were less familiar to me than James Gandolfini. The Sopranos is probably my favorite TV show of all time, and Gandolfini was without a doubt one of my favorite actors.

When the show burst onto the scene in 1999, immediately launching Gandolfini into a new stratosphere of national recognition, I took pride in being one of the people who knew him when. His work in films such as True Romance, Get Shorty and A Civil Action had already endeared him to me. And like many—though relatively few in the scheme of how many millions came to know him after The Sopranos hit—I didn’t just know him as “that guy.” He was an actor who had earned name recognition, and his involvement in The Sopranos was one of the first things that caught my interest when the commercials began running on HBO.

I remember in the show’s early days, when it was saturating the pop culture conversation, a friend of mine who hadn’t seen it but knew me to be a committed fan asked me what the big deal was. I asked her to name a movie that she loved. Not one that was simply fun or entertaining, but one that was so compelling, so well acted and so well written that it blew her away. When she answered, I said, “Now imagine seeing that movie for the first time, every week. That’s The Sopranos.” And while it took an uncompromising creator in David Chase, an amazing staff of writers and a brilliant ensemble of actors to make it all hum, in the end it boiled down to Gandolfini and his portrayal of Tony Soprano. Many will say it was the role that defined him, but Gandolfini was too good to be defined by any one part. He succeeded in other roles during and after The Sopranos because he had too much depth and charisma to be pigeonholed by the role that made him famous. It will surely be the one for which he is best remembered, but no conversation about his work will ever start and stop there. His presence elevated anything he was in. He could make an otherwise forgettable movie like The Mexican worth seeing. He could make an already good movie better, most recently demonstrated by his three or four brief scenes in Zero Dark Thirty. Without even appearing on camera, he could convey ferocity, anguish and loneliness enough to break your heart, as he did voicing the lead creature in Where the Wild Things Are.

It was exciting when great directors like the Coen Brothers or Spike Jonze enlisted his talents, and it was disappointing when planned projects didn’t come to pass. (He filmed a role for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close that was cut, and he also came close to starring opposite Leonardo DiCaprio as the dogged FBI agent in Catch Me If You Can when that film was going to be directed by Lasse Hallstrom. By the time Steven Spielberg came on board to direct, production had been delayed and Gandolfini was no longer available. The part went to Tom Hanks). I always looked forward to more collaborations between Gandolfini and other top actors and directors. A few years ago, he earned a Tony nomination for the play God of Carnage, in which he starred with Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis. Just the other day, I watched a commercial for the new season of Daniels’ HBO series The Newsroom and saw that both Harden and Davis were guest starring. I hoped maybe they would try to get Gandolfini to come on at some point and round out the reunion. He was supposed to return to HBO on a limited series called Criminal Justice, for which he’d already filmed a pilot, and in a movie with Steve Carell about rival paleontologists in the 19th century, called Bone Wars. I looked forward to those too. Clearly, I was looking forward to a lot more from Gandolfini. We all were. There are a couple of posthumous offerings that will serve as final showcases for his talents. He had completed shooting two movies that will likely be released next year: one called Animal Rescue, written by Dennis Lehane and starring Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace, and one called Enough Said, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener and starring Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and Catherine Keener.

And that will be all. I occasionally wonder what John Lennon would be doing today, or what Phil Hartman would be up to. What would Heath Ledger’s latest project be? There might be others about whom you ask the same questions. I will be asking it about Gandolfini for years to come.

As the tributes, statements and appreciations from friends, colleagues and admirers poured in, many pointed out that Gandolfini was not just a great actor, but a great friend. A great person. It’s easy to believe. Every time I saw him accept an award on TV—he earned three Emmys, a Golden Globe and five SAG awards (three for individual achievement, two as part of an ensemble)—he seemed truly humbled and almost embarrassed by the attention. The same was true when he appeared on Inside the Actor’s Studio. He was generous with his thoughts on process and the work, but reticent to be in the spotlight. At all times, he was quick to praise his co-stars, his writers and his acting teachers. Two remembrances I read—one from Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter and one from Matt Zoller Seitz of Vulture—brought up a Television Critics Association event in the summer of 1999 where Gandolfini was honored with an award, and how uncomfortable he was when the press started to swarm; how he couldn’t wait to get out of there. As Seitz mentions near the beginning of his piece, Gandolfini didn’t understand why people were interested in what he had to say. Well, we were interested because our culture is always interested in what celebrities have to say. At least someone like Gandolfini was worth listening to. Once he realized that, he tried to use his voice to bring attention to things that mattered to him. He was an advocate for U.S. soldiers who returned from war with severe injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to private work he did with these men and women, he actively produced two documentaries for HBO to raise attention to their experiences. By all accounts, this was a guy whose heart was as big as his talent. How tragic that it gave out on him.

Some of the writers who have eulogized Gandolfini online since his death Wednesday—including Entertainment Weekly‘s Mark Harris and Yahoo’s Richard Rushfield—talked about his refusal to apologize for Tony Soprano’s dark deeds, pointing out that he never sentimentalized the character, tried to soften him or ask for the audience’s sympathies. One of my favorite scenes in the show’s history—one that has always stayed with me among the series’ countless examples of excellence—exemplifies this. It’s the final scene of an overall fantastic episode titled “Cold Cuts,” from the remarkable fifth season. In the episode, Tony’s sister Janice is arrested at her stepdaughter’s soccer game for attacking another mother after an incident between the two girls. Much to his agitation, Tony’s name gets dragged into the local news coverage. He impresses upon Janice that such outbursts are bad for business and that she needs to control herself. She attempts to do so by taking anger management classes. Tony, meanwhile, can barely contain his own rage as frustrations on both his home and business fronts continue to mount. He sees Janice benefitting from her classes, and even though this is exactly what he wants, he resents her newfound ability to keep her cool. In the end, this is what happens.

When she explodes, he’s the happiest and most satisfied he’s been during the whole episode. That smirk he gives just before walking out of the dining room speaks volumes. The scene shows the kind of cruelty Tony is capable of even to the people he loves, and there are others like it throughout the series. As he walks away, with the aggressive strains of The Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” perfectly used on the soundtrack, we have to admit to ourselves—as we have many times before—that this character we love (or if not love, exactly, then feel for) is an unrepentant sociopath. And why did we feel so much for Tony? Because Gandolfini gave us no choice. You’ll notice in that clip that the closing credits begin to appear before the screen has gone to black, which is atypical for an episode of The Sopranos. It’s almost as if the director just couldn’t move on quite yet. Even with his back to us, walking away after that instance of emotional violence, James Gandolfini compelled us to watch him. And we watched in wonder.

I’m so sad he’s gone.


  1. Very sad indeed. Definitely not a one-hit wonder, like you said he was doing interesting stuff right up until the end.

    Comment by ggears — June 21, 2013 @ 2:55 pm | Reply

  2. My mom is a huge Sopranos fan. We both now wish that we had taken the time to see him in God of Carnage while we were in New York. 😦

    Comment by Denise — June 22, 2013 @ 5:51 pm | Reply

    • As you probably know, that play was made into a movie with Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly – an excellent cast, no doubt. But it’s not like James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis are a group of no-names. It would have been nice if they were given the chance to reprise their roles onscreen. Then again, the movie wasn’t as well received as the play, so maybe they dodged a bullet.

      The four of them brought the play to L.A. for a limited run, and I considered going down there to see it, but I didn’t make it.

      Comment by DB — June 22, 2013 @ 6:01 pm | Reply

  3. Great tribute, DB. I think that gentleness that everyone spoke about was one of the reason that he played such fascinating villains. We could sense the contradictions… and it made it more interesting to watch. Glad you gave mention to “Where the Wild Things Are”, too, I really love that movie 😉

    Comment by Fogs' Movie Reviews — June 22, 2013 @ 8:04 pm | Reply

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