Think of the greatest onscreen mobsters, the ones that captured the horror of their professional life and the reality of their personal one; who springs to mind? Al Pacino in The Godfather… Ray Liotta in Goodfellas… James Gandolfini in The Sopranos… Between 1999 and 2007, over the course of 86 episodes, we watched as Tony Soprano tried to find the balance between his duty as a husband & father and his loyalty to the mob. It was a towering performance, debatably unmatched by any other on TV. The news of his death on June 19th sent shockwaves through the Hollywood community; Gandolfini will always be remembered as TV’s greatest mobster, but the complexity of his performances meant he was so much more than that.
James Joseph Gandolfini, Jr. was born in 1961 to a working class, Italian American family, born and raised in the state of New Jersey. Despite now being remembered for having a prosperous acting career, Gandolfini came late to the profession, getting his first acting break at the age of 31 in a stage version of A Streetcar Named Desire. His breakthrough role on the big screen came in Tony Scott’s True Romance, where he gained notoriety for his portrayal of a hitman with an unflinching attitude towards violence. But, it was his 8 years at the helm of David Chase’s The Sopranos that got him worldwide fame and ushered in a golden era of American television.
Watching back episodes of The Sopranos now, is inescapably poignant; everything about the show, from the writing to the supporting performances, is televisual perfection, but without Gandolfini it just wouldn’t be the same. Violent and aggressive but also loving and loyal, Tony was a complex character who never felt like a Mafia caricature. He was one of TV’s first anti-heroes and paved the way for characters such as Walter White and Don Draper.
Every episode of The Sopranos dealt with different aspects of Tony’s character, but it was the eleventh episode of the show’s fifth season that, for me, encompassed everything that made Gandolfini’s performance great. Entitled ‘The Test Dream’ and predominantly taking place inside Tony’s own head, the episode explored the complexities of Tony’s psyche and highlighted the anxiety he faced in both his personal and professional lives. As ever, it was Gandolfini’s performance that carried the episode, with moments of humor, apprehension and sadness. The key to Tony was in his humanity, you were able to relate to him on a personal level, despite being unable to do so on a professional one.
It was that sadness and humanity that enhanced the final years of Gandolfini’s career. After The Sopranos, he began to focus more on film acting, picking projects that he felt connected with him personally. He took a keen interest in the military and helped produce two documentaries about American Soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as playing the head of the C.I.A. in Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant Zero Dark Thirty.
Admittedly, not all of his later projects were successes with films such as Welcome to the Rileys and Down the Shore bordering too close to the melodramatic. But even when the film failed, Gandolfini succeeded; memorably bringing layers of poignancy and humanity to each role he played.
For me, 2 performances that highlighted Gandolfini’s fantastic acting range, were his performances as Carol in Where the Wild Things Are and as General Miller in In the Loop. As Carol, Gandolfini played the fatherly guide, trying to bottle an ever-rising ferocity. Whether the film was a suitable interpretation of the book is neither here nor there, Gandolfini’s performance was exceptional; the power in his voice giving unsurpassed depth to what is essentially a children’s film. Meanwhile, In the Loop allowed Gandolfini to flex his comic chops, something that was always bubbling below the surface of Tony Soprano. His comic timing is second to none, even when he isn’t speaking; his look of confusion as Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker demands General Miller never calls him “fucking English again”, raising one of the films biggest laughs.
Unfortunately, his life away from the camera is what, ultimately, has led to his premature death. He told of how he’d battled with addictions to cocaine and alcohol in the past, and it was clear that his weight was a constant struggle for him. In more recent interviews, he said he found his weight hardest to control when playing the mob boss. He was a true goliath of a man and if there is to be a silver lining, it’s that his death has the potential to put the issue of heart disease back in the spotlight, where it should always remain.
Never a true Hollywood star, Gandolfini was one of film & TV’s unsung heroes; he was a giant of a man, with a giant talent. After his untimely death, it is his range of fantastic performances that we have to remember him by. No matter how he acted off camera, he was a magician in front of it. I guess the best way to remember James Gandolfini is summed up by Mr. Soprano himself, while having dinner with his family in ‘I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano’, “if you’re lucky, you’ll remember the little moments… like this… that were good”. Gandolfini’s career may have started late, but it was filled with these little moments & they were more than good, they were great… and never forgotten.