It hits me like a hammer to the gut when one of cinema’s most distinct talents passes away, particularly when I don’t realize just how unique that person was.
James Gandolfini died in Italy at the age of 51 of a suspected heart attack. That’s may not be young, but it’s certainly not that old either. It’s strange saying “too soon” about an actor who feels like he’s been with us for so long, but it always is too soon. He was most widely known for his portrayal of Tony Soprano in the highly respect HBO series The Sopranos.
My first experience with Gandolfini, however, came in 2009 with his performance in political satire In the Loop, where he played a general who was politically conscious to a fault. Even in such a small role, as he often played, he had such a talent for showing comic and dramatic heft, often at the same time. He was no less commanding a screen presence in Where the Wild Things Are, where only his voice could convey the vicious melancholy of iconic monster Carol. It worked, successfully making me weep all the way through ending for childhoods lost and maintained. This from a guy known most for playing a notorious mob boss.
Last year Gandolfini appeared in three films, Andrew Dominik’s crime thriller Killing Them Softly, Kathryn Bigelow’s CIA hunt-for-Osama-Bin-Laden thriller Zero Dark Thirty, and The Sopranos showrunner David Chase’s directorial debut Not Fade Away. That third one in particular met me sore on the back end of my time at New York Film Festival last year. Quoting directly from my review:
As much as the opportunistically just released trailer pushes him as a strong presence in the film, he falls rather typically to the backdrop for most of the film. His bluntly humorous jabs as Doug’s attire get tired very quickly, and the repetition of lines like “You look like you just got off the boat” does not aid in that issue. It’s a rather one-note role that fails to live up to the potential of the actor.
I haven’t seen Chase’s film since, but I may need to indulge it a second time through. Not just for the sake of Gandolfini either, whose “just got off the boat” quipery may land fonder with me now that I don’t have a festival looming over my head. The film as a whole may even benefit from a more respectful look from me. His role in Zero Dark Thirty, by comparison, is a lot smaller, but playing CIA head Leon Panetta is exactly the kind of legendary casting call you’d expect Gandolfini to get at this stage in his career.
I was most taken with his work in Killing Them Softly, where Gandolfini played a sex and alcohol addicted hitman with his trademarked equal dosage of humor and tragedy. Had more people seen it, Gandolfini may have seen an Oscar nod that he surprisingly never got while he was alive. His chances aren’t even dashed by his death. He still has work Bullhead director Michael R. Roskam’s Animal Rescue, Please Give director Nicole Holofcener’s still untitled project, and the recently released Violet & Daisy to keep his face alive while accept his end. To that end, I supply this rather sweetly encoraging tweet.