The news of James Gandolfini’s passing seems to have hit TV and film fans quite hard — bullet-in-Big-Pussy’s-belly hard. (There are many, many fine remembrances of him across the internet; a nice list was posted on Movie City News, along with Gandolfini’s great “Sesame Street” appearance.)
A lot of that has to do with the popularity of “The Sopranos,” and his triumphant role in the HBO series. But I think his persona has played a part, as well.
He was a bear of a man — in fact, he played a character named “Bear” in 1995’s “Get Shorty — and excelled at portraying the sly brute. (See Tony Soprano, or his unforgettably evil turn in 1993’s “True Romance.”)
Yet he possessed an inherent likability, as well. We knew “T” should either be in prison or dead, but we didn’t want that to be the case. That’s due to great writing, certainly, but also due to Gandolfini’s nuanced performance. It should rank among the finest TV has ever seen.
Note that Gandolfini’s post-”Sopranos” career was wildly varied, an indicator of an actor who did not wish to be constrained by the role that made him (almost) a household name. Consider some of his post-2007 output:
“In the Loop”
“The Taking of Pelham 123”
“Where the Wild Things Are”
“Welcome to the Rileys”
“Down the Shore”
“Killing Them Softly”
“Zero Dark Thirty”
“Not Fade Away”
It is a fascinating list. “In the Loop” (which I reviewed for the Buffalo News upon its release in 2009; I’ll be posting the review this weekend) and the underrated “Welcome to the Rileys,” in particular, feature two of Gandolfini’s finest performances.
Look closely at 2012. I did not love “Killing Them Softly,” but Gandolfini’s battering-ram character stands out, as does his Leon Panetta in “Zero Dark Thirty.”
David Chase’s “Not Fade Away” is the film I really want to draw your attention to. The story of a 60s garage band’s brief brush with success is not a great film, exactly, although I would certainly call it a good one. But Gandolfini’s work as the stern father of the film’s main character is priceless, easily among his best. The ending will now seem especially poignant, I think, and that gives nothing away.
It will be difficult to watch “T” onscreen and not feel a bit sad, but isn’t that the ultimate sign of a great actor, and a beloved performer?