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R.I.P. James Gandolfini

June 22, 2013

In his book Hype and Glory, William Goldman quoted Stanley Kubrick as saying that a really good story is a miracle. In its own way, another miracle is the character (and actor) who connects with the public. Just as there’s no formula for ultimately making a story work (no matter what the “screenwriting gurus” may tell us), there’s no one way a character becomes memorable to audiences and critics. It does take talent from the person who wrote the character and the actor playing it (as well as everyone else involved), but it also takes luck and timing. Tony Soprano, without question, was one of those roles, and James Gandolfini, who died Wednesday at the age of 51, was a major reason Tony Soprano became arguably the most influential TV character of the last 10-15 years or so. However, there was more to Gandolfini than that.

I was never lucky enough to see Gandolfini on stage, either before he hit it big (his first big role was in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange) or after (he was in the original Broadway production of God of Carnage, with Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden), so my first exposure to him was through movies. While he had bit parts in movies such as The Last Boy ScoutA Stranger Among Us (the first of two movies he did with Sidney Lumet) and Mr. Wonderful, his first really noteworthy role was in Tony Scott’s True Romance, written by Quentin Tarantino. True Romance boasted an all-star cast – among them Patricia Arquette, Christian Slater, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt and Christopher Walken – but even though he only appeared in three scenes, Gandolfini still managed to shine. It was his third and final scene of the movie, where Virgil (Gandolfini), a mob foot soldier, finds Alabama (Arquette) in a Los Angeles motel (her boyfriend Clarence (Slater) stole cocaine from her pimp Drexel (Oldman), an associate of Virgil’s boss (Walken), and is now looking to sell it), that proved to be one of the truly memorable moments of the film. Basically, Virgil ends up beating up Alabama, and then Alabama ends up taking her revenge, but in between, Virgil delivers a trademark Tarantino monologue about how tough it is to kill someone at first, but how much easier it gets afterwards. It’s not exactly an original speech, but Gandolfini sells it.

From “Get Shorty”; Bear (Gandolfini) with Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo).

Gandolfini appeared in a few other high-profile movies after this – among them Angie (as Geena Davis’ boyfriend), Terminal Velocity (as a salesman who turns out to be something else) and Crimson Tide (as a lieutenant on a submarine crew who sides with commander Gene Hackman over executive officer Denzel Washington) – but, for me, his next really memorable role, movie and performance came in Barry Sonnenfeld’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty (scripted by Scott Frank). Gandolfini plays Bear, a former stuntman and single father (to a little girl) who works for Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo), a gangster. And once again, Gandolfini had a memorable scene involving violence, though this was nowhere near as graphic. On Catlett’s behalf, Bear threatens Chili Palmer (John Travolta), a loan shark turned movie producer, at a restaurant, only for Chili to hit bear in the crotch and toss him down a flight of stairs (“That’s pretty good for a guy his size”, Chili says afterwards). Bear may seem at first glance to be just another villainous stooge, but thanks to Leonard’s writing and Gandolfini’s performance, he’s more than that. You see the devotion he has to his little girl, as well as the fear and resentment when Bo uses her to threaten him, and he gets a scene near the end where he shows Bear is much craftier than you’d think. Once again, Gandolfini pulls it off with aplomb.

Gandolfini as Al Love in “A Civil Action”.

Get Shorty allowed Gandolfini a chance to stretch somewhat past his usual type of playing either straight unlikable parts (She’s So LovelyThe Mighty), low-level mobsters (The Juror) or cops (FallenNight Falls on Manhattan, the latter of which re-teamed him with Lumet). Another chance to stretch came with Steven Zaillian’s A Civil Action, where he got the rare chance to play a completely sympathetic character. The movie, adapted from Jonathan Harr’s best-selling book, is based on the true story of a lawsuit brought by the town of Woburn, Massachusetts, against Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace (the townspeople were convinced the companies were dumping chemicals in the water, which ended up causing many children in the area to die of leukemia), and is unfortunately much more simplistic than Harr’s book, but Gandolfini’s performance is one of the better things about it. He plays Al Love, a receiving clerk at one of the plants responsible for dumping chemical waste, who was also a resident at Woburn, and who ends up giving information to the plaintiff’s lawyer (Travolta again; this was the third of five movies they made together) that helps their case. Love is a man who knows he should be loyal to his bosses but also knows they’re lying, and is also conscience-stricken by what he sees, and Gandolfini is terrific here, both in the scene where he basically realizes the company lawyer (Bruce Norris) is full of crap, and in the scene where he unburdens himself to a neighbor (Kathleen Quinlan) who lost a child and is part of the lawsuit.

At this point in his career, while Gandolfini had been working steadily, and attracted the notice of a few critics (most notably Roger Ebert, who singled him out as being one of the few good things of the otherwise forgettable The Juror), few probably would have guessed he was capable of more. One of those people was David Chase, who was casting a show about a mobster who seems to have it all, but is having trouble with both his business and especially his family. Chase had originally pitched the idea to Fox, and Anthony LaPaglia was set to play the lead, but the network passed, and it later ended up on HBO. Chase had originally envisioned Steven Van Zandt (“Little Steven” of the E Street Band) in the role, and HBO also liked Michael Ripsoli’s audition, but when Gandolfini read for the role, Chase became convinced he had the right actor for Tony Soprano, and the rest is history.

From the infamous final episode; Tony Soprano, Carmela (Edie Falco) and A.J. (Robert Iler).

Much has been written, of course, about the greatness and the influence of The Sopranos; how it shepherded in what is now known as the Golden Age of Television, how it broke a lot of rules of what could be done on TV, how it inspired other shows to put an anti-hero at their center (such as Rescue MeMad Men – from Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner – and Breaking Bad), and, of course, about its controversial ending. But there are a couple of things that always struck me about the show at its best. First of all, with the exception of a few things like Tony being fascinated by a family of ducks, or caring for Pie-O-My, a horse, Chase and company never tried to make the characters relatable by giving them too many of what are known as “pet the dog” moments. Rather, while always reminding us of just how vicious Tony and his fellow mobsters were, Chase and company chose to humanize them by having them go through the same crap the average American did. A small example came in season 1, where Tony worries about whether or not A.J. (Robert Iler) knows what he really does for a living, and Silvio (Van Zandt), Tony’s best friend/right-hand man, sympathizes, “It’s hard raising kids in an information age” – which, of course, is what many parents have said or at least thought. On a larger scale, Chase showed a man, like many of this time period, caught between the masculine ideal of his father’s world (of of movie stars he admired, like Gary Cooper) and the realities of today’s world, and the constant conflict between both sides, which helps lead to Tony’s panic attacks.

Another thing that struck me about the show came up in one of the rare interviews Gandolfini gave about the show, to The New York Times, one of the show’s biggest boosters. In the interview, Gandolfini said he didn’t know of another show where the characters lied to themselves as much as they did on The Sopranos, and that, to him, was a key to its success. There’s a lot to that. In shows that last a long time, one of the dangers is if the characters don’t change in some way, it can make the show seem ridiculous. But on The Sopranos, we can see while some characters honestly did want to change, and for the better – Tony wanting to turn things around after being shot, Carmela leaving Tony for a while, Christopher trying to kick his drug habit – eventually, they reverted to their old ways, because that’s all they knew, and it was in their nature. And while I might have had some problems with the show in its later seasons (the Carmela/Furio storyline, Vito after he fled New Jersey, the general unevenness of the last season), at its best, it remained true to that idea, which, to me, is one of the reasons why the show was so great.

Guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office; Tony and Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco).

Every Sopranos fan probably has their favorite Tony moment. Mine comes in the first season, and it ties in to the point about characters lying to themselves. It’s from “A Hit is a Hit”, the 10th episode, and it isn’t even a Tony-centric episode – the A-plot revolves around Christopher and Adriana trying to break into the music business. Tony’s subplot shows him attempting to bond with his new neighbor, including going to play golf at his club, only to hear his neighbor’s friends make jokes about mob movies and John Gotti, as if they’re getting off on being around someone notorious. In Dr. Melfi’s office after he discovers this, Tony tells her about a kid named Jimmy he grew up with who had a cleft palate, and how Tony and his friends made fun of Jimmy (not knowing Jimmy cried himself to sleep every night), but for the first time, he knows a little of the humiliation Jimmy must have felt. If the scene had ended there, it would have been indulging in the same kind of cliches Chase was consciously trying to avoid. Fortunately, Chase (and episode writers Joe Bosso and Frank Renzulli) don’t stop there; Tony goes on to tell Melfi Jimmy ended up in prison for robbery, and the cops recognized Jimmy because of his voice, which Tony (again) makes fun of. Again, it’s a small but funny and also true way of showing just how little these characters really change, if at all.

As Col. Winter in “The Last Castle”.

In real life, Gandolfini expressed ambivalence about the show’s popularity, especially after he became famous. Of course, he was always quick to credit Chase and the other people on the show for how good it was, and never tried to make it seem like it was all due to him. But with the exception of Chase, no one seemed more eager to move on, and Gandolfini did his best to take characters in movies that put distance between him and Tony Soprano. Until the show finally ended with the forever-infamous episode “Made in America” in June of 2007, Gandolfini’s busiest year in movies was in 2001, when he appeared in the Coen brothers’ neo-noir The Man Who Wasn’t There as a department store owner having an affair with Frances McDormand (the wife of barber, and title character, Billy Bob Thornton), Rod Lurie’s The Last Castle as the cowardly and bullying warden of a military prison, and Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican, as a gay hitman. Of those three, the best movie (in my opinion), and one of the best movies he ever did, is The Man Who Wasn’t There, but he’s not in the movie for that long a time. I find The Mexican to be somewhat of a slog to sit through, but I admit the best scenes in the movie involve Gandolfini with Julia Roberts. Still, the one movie of those three that shows him off the best, even though it’s also flawed, is The Last Castle. As per usual in a Rod Lurie film, the story of Lt. General Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford, an idol of Gandolfini’s in real-life), a three-star general thrown into a maximum-security prison, and his battle of wills with Col. Winter (Gandolfini), the prison warden, is  overwrought and heavy-handed. That it works at all is thanks to some of supporting performances (notably Mark Ruffalo as a cynical prisoner), especially by Gandolfini. As with the story, the characters are painted with broad strokes – Col. Winter listens to Salieri instead of Mozart, to give you an idea – but Gandolfini is able to push things towards something more subtle. Watch, for example, his first scene with General Irwin, whom Winter idolizes. When Irwin first comes to his office, Col. Winter asks Irwin to autograph his book, and while he goes to get it, General Irwin happens to notice all of the battle memorabilia Col. Winter collects, and says only someone who’s never fought in combat would collect so much. Winter is clearly displeased to hear this, but Gandolfini doesn’t overplay, instead pretending like it didn’t affect him even as he lies and says he couldn’t find his copy of General Irwin’s book. It’s that kind of careful, subtle acting that makes his character a worthy adversary instead of being the cartoon villain Lurie pushes him to be, at least until the end.

“In The Loop”; Lt. General George Miller goes toe-to-toe with Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi).

In another interview, Gandolfini claimed he loved watching “stupid” comedies, and would have loved to be asked to do more of them (if the critics were to be believed, with the recent The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, he got his wish). Armando Ianucci’s In the Loop, a spin-off of the TV show The Thick of It, gave him a chance to be in an incredibly smart (and funny) comedy. He plays another army officer, this time Lt. General George Miller, the dovish chairman of the joint chiefs of staff who, along with Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy), the Assistant Secretary of Diplomacy, try to seize on a verbal gaffe by Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the British Minister for International Development (he called war in the Middle East “unforeseeable”, and then tried, and failed, to backtrack from that position) to actually stop war. The scene that’s been making the rounds since Gandolfini’s death is the scene where General Miller and Clark are in a kid’s room during a party, and he’s trying to calculate in his head how many troops he’d need for a war before giving up and using a kid’s calculator (complete with noises). It’s a really funny scene, but even better, for me, is his one scene with Peter Capaldi (as the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker, the communications manager). Once again, Gandolfini superbly underplays, whether threatening or insulting Tucker, and also plays beautifully against Capaldi’s foul-mouthed energy (though ironically, this is one of the few scenes he seems to dial it down somewhat; at least the energy anyway).

Two other movies he did that are somewhat comic (though they don’t stay that way) were John Turturro’s Romance & Cigarettes and Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. The former is one of the best unsung movies of last decade, though admittedly it’s a peculiar one. While the story may be familiar – Nick (Gandolfini), an iron worker, is married to Kitty (Susan Sarandon), a dressmaker, but is also cheating on her with Tula (Kate Winslet), a free-spirited woman – but Turturro envisioned this as a working-class Dennis Potter musical. The differences are instead of the characters lip-syncing to the songs, they sing along, and the songs vary from classic rock (Kitty and a gospel choir sing Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”), pop rock (Mandy Moore, as one of Nick and Kitty’s daughters, sings Bow Wow Wow’s version of “I Want Candy”), and pop ballads (Christopher Walken sings Tom Jones’ “Delilah” (natch), Tula tackles Connie Francis’ “Do You Love Me Like You Kiss Me”, and Nick tackles Engelbert Humperdinck’s “A Man Without Love”). In the final act, the movie makes a turn towards tragedy that it doesn’t quite earn, and the film also has the craziness of both Aida Turturro and Mary-Louise Parker playing the other two daughters of Nick and Kitty (after Aida Turturro had played Tony Soprano’s sister Janice), but the movie feels honest, good-hearted (if foul-mouthed) and engaging, and Gandolfini is able to help ground the proceedings. In the latter movie, we only hear his voice (along with Forest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper and Lauren Ambrose) as one of the title characters, a group of wild creatures who make Max (Max Records), a young boy who’s run away from home, their leader. Gandolfini voices Carol, the Wild Thing who is most reluctant to grow up, and Gandolfini throws himself into the part with abandon, getting the humor and exuberance but also the pain, especially when he feels Max is shunning him.

“Not Fade Away”; Pat has dinner with his son Douglas (John Magaro).

Not all the movies Gandolfini did, of course, were up to that level or up to his level. The remake of The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3 was unnecessary and stultifying, even though Gandolfini reinterpreted the character of the mayor as less of a weak person and more as one who was just wrong-headed. He had some nice moments with both Kristen Stewart and Melissa Leo, but Welcome to the Rileys felt otherwise like warmed-over indie drama. The made-for-HBO movie Cinema Verite offered him a chance to go against type as Craig Gilbert, the man in charge of the groundbreaking (and controversial) PBS documentary An American Family, but the movie ended up being more superficial than thought-provoking, even if Gandolfini and Diane Lane (as the wife of the family) were very good. And while Killing Them Softly offered him a chance to play a mob killer who’s having second thoughts (as well as teaming Gandolfini with Brad Pitt for the third time), the film again seemed rote (and that’s not even mentioning the atrocity that was Surviving Christmas). But in December of last year came two movies, and roles, that were worthy of his talents. Gandolfini only had a small role in Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial docudrama/thriller Zero Dark Thirty, as then-CIA director Leon Panetta (though he’s never identified by name), but he lends an air of authority to the movie. In the scene where he has lunch with Maya (Jessica Chastain), the CIA agent who’s been obsessively tracking Osama Bin Laden, Gandolfini is basically trying to size her up, but he does it without trying to pull rank on her or intimidate her. He’s more subtle, yet still gets what he needs to know about her. And in Not Fade Away, which reunited him with Chase for this semi-autobiographical (for Chase) tale of teens inspired to form a rock-n-roll band in 1960’s New Jersey, Gandolfini took the stock part of the father who doesn’t understand his son and makes something new out of it. The scene where his character Pat, a store owner, takes his son Douglas (John Magaro) out to a restaurant for dinner to give him some news (which I don’t want to get into too much detail because it constitutes a major spoiler) is like a master class in acting in how he’s able to communicate his disappointment in his son, yet still has hopes for him. And again, what strikes you is how subtle he is.

Obviously, with his passing, we mourn Gandolfini the actor who still had so much great work in him (he has two movies scheduled for release next year – Enough Said, a romantic comedy-drama written and directed by Nicole Holofcener and starring Catherine Keener and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Animal Rescue, a thriller starring Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace – and he was scheduled to return to HBO for the miniseries Criminal Justice). But for me, there’s more than that.  I used to work at a video store on Greenwich Avenue in New York City for about eight years, and Gandolfini was an occasional customer there. Sometimes, he came in with his new wife, sometimes with his son from his previous marriage, and sometimes with his dog, but more often than not, he came in alone. Of course, as has been expressed many times in print by him and those who knew him, he was guarded in real life, and like everyone else on the planet, he had his own demons to struggle with. But he was always nice to me and my co-workers (as far as I know about the latter), was always quick to accept praise, if somewhat shy about it (I was able to tell him in person how much I loved both Romance & Cigarettes and In the Loop), and was even willing to talk movies with us on occasion. So as much as I’ll miss Gandolfini the actor, I’ll also miss Gandolfini the man.

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