By Paul Casey
James Gandolfini is one of those people who didn’t need to do anything else following his most famous role. The range of his performance from the start of The Sopranos to its end was incredible, particularly his ability to make the audience really care about a character who was so despicable. He brought the most insightful human elements to the kind of character who is so often played for simple cathartic thrills or to make dubious Sticking-it-to-The-Man crowds whoop it up. He never let you forget the kind of person Tony Soprano was, but the loss of what remained of his humanity and the perversion of all around him still made you cry.
It seems absurd to think of anyone touching the quality of that performance, even celebrated actors who are currently at the front of the public consciousness. Those who gift the title of Best Show Ever too easily may prefer to forget how good The Sopranos was, for how quickly it diminishes otherwise quality shows. The importance of The Sopranos cannot be shrugged off as a matter of taste or preference. It was just that good. If you fail to acknowledge that, well, it just doesn’t matter. It was the kind of show that drew contrarians, not critics.
Yes, the writing was consistently excellent. David Chase was a fearless show runner. The cast had a great depth of talent, and the characters they played were never stock or reduced to plot devices. They were independently compelling, and some could have easily supported their own show. Still, without James Gandolfini and Tony Soprano, the show could never have possessed its individual quality. To express both the criminal brutality of his life, as well as his struggle with the remnants of his better nature, with equal honesty and without contradiction is what makes The Sopranos work. James Gandolfini made relating to such an extreme character, and the world in which he inhabited, possible.
Being defined by Tony Soprano then does not seem like a failure. James Gandolfini still had a long career of interesting performances. Such was his talent; he could work successfully in any genre without bother. A watch of 2012’s Killing Them Softly is perhaps the most familiar post-Sopranos role, and the only one I have seen which drew (unfavorable) comparisons to that show. This is largely because it is a familiar kind of movie which, while competent, does not adequately display Gandolfini’s talent.
There are many fine movies to choose from but here are five pictures that stick in my mind:
True Romance. Naturally. From that same kind of intimidating place, but full on psychotic. Physically intimidating, scary, but with that dark comedy he did so well. Perfect for a Tarantino script. A shame that he did not get a chance to act for Quentin directly.
Get Shorty. A small part, as above, only instead of sticking in your mind through scaring the quivering shit out of you, he does it by getting beat up by John Travolta. When Travolta grabs the ex-stuntman’s testicles and lowers him onto the ground, the two find they share a deep love of movies. You never question the character’s reasons for working for very bad people. He loves his daughter. You aren’t told he loves his daughter. Gandolfini shows it to you. A very funny movie, but the heart of the thing comes from Bear, one of the few decent men in a city of gangsters and movie producers.
Romance & Cigarettes. If you want to be convinced in one movie how versatile an actor James Gandolfini was, watch this. A musical directed and written by John Turturro. Apart from most of the things he did. Traditional wisdom in the movies, would say that a man the size of Gandolfini could not possibly be a romantic leading man. Well, traditional wisdom can eat itself. And he sings. It’s a lovely, original movie.
The Man Who Wasn’t There. Just a gorgeous modern Noir by the Coen Brothers. A small but significant part.
In The Loop. Those who currently follow Armando Ianucci’s Veep probably know that this is where the crossover first happened between the world of The Thick of It and that of their American counterparts. Again, look at his gift for comedic acting. The dude could deliver sharp, weird lines as good as anyone, and as with everything he ever did, make you believe that it was real.