News Column

James Gandolfini: The magic in his moments

June 21, 2013

YellowBrix

June 21--What does it all boil down to? Moments.

In the "Sopranos" pilot, it's the almost weird joy on James Gandolfini's face as he wades into the swimming pool to interact with the ducks that have been hanging around the yard. We've barely met Tony Soprano, but he's clearly a man on the verge of starting to figure himself out. He has everything, but there's still something missing, and maybe it's here, in this pool, in this joy.

Or the way he says, "You should've stopped by ... (I) live right next door" while talking to his shrink at the end of "A Hit is a Hit," the 10th episode of this game-changing series' first season. It's a line he delivers knowing full well that an upper class Italian-American such as Dr. Melfi would never, ever do that, and knowing that she knows she would never do it. It's immensely layered, complicated stuff, and it's all in one line.

When any artist passes away -- and make no mistake about it, what Gandolfini, who died Wednesday of a heart attack at 51, did in front of a camera was art on a very high level -- something has to go at the top of the obituary, a work for which he or she was most famous.

But when the artist in question is an actor whose work I loved, I always think about specific performances rather than the actor in totality, and more than that, specific moments within a given piece as much as the whole performance.

It's those small moments where the heavy lifting in acting comes in, and I submit that James Gandolfini delivered beautiful, resonant moments, whether furious or quiet or sad, as well or better than any actor I have ever seen on a screen.

Of course his Tony Soprano is first on the list. The charm masking a true sociopathy, the wit that let him be a leader when he wasn't sure if he could do it, the careening masculinity he let fly -- it was very much the role of a lifetime, and the actor knew it.

The first season of the Sopranos remains exceptional, 13 episodes of television that changed the way the American public thought about the medium in a very real way. (See also Brett Martin's excellent book about our new golden age of television "Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution.")

And the lynchpin was Gandolfini as Tony, the complicated Joisey mobster who alternated between struggling to figure out What It All Meant and truly not giving a ... toss. Was he a sociopath? Probably. Was he misunderstood even to himself? Probably. Was Gandolfini able to put all this together such that you could hang a series on his shoulders? Absolutely.

But television drama virtually rewired itself around that man's performance. No Gandolfini as Tony means no complicated antiheroes such as Walter White in ''Breaking Bad," the drug-dealer-hunting Omar Little in the "Wire," or Mad Men's" Don Draper, who seems more and more like Tony's equal in sociopathy, if not bluster.

I am not someone who was in the tank for the entire run of "The Sopranos." In fact, after the first season, it dawned on me one day that I was watching it almost entirely for Gandolfini's tour de force.

But his work was far less showy than "tour de force " implies. It wasn't just that you couldn't take your eyes off of Gandolfini when he was on the screen; it was that his presence also made everyone better. That combination, that show-carrying charisma combined with a skill that could make Steve Van Zandt look like a real actor, is the sort of thing that makes a performer beloved.

And it's the roles he was in before and during "The Sopranos," the character actor bits that resonated differently after he started rewriting TV's rules every Sunday on HBO, that pop into my head.

Not nearly enough people remember Gandolfini's turn as Bear, the stuntman-turned-enforcer (with the admittedly odd Southern accent) for the venomous Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo) in the 1995 movie "Get Shorty."

Bear, clearly a guy who has gotten by more on bluster and crude thuggery, is wildly overmatched by Chili Palmer (John Travolta). He gets thrown down the stairs by his crotch in one scene, the wind knocked out of him by Palmer in another.

At the end of the latter scene, Palmer crouches down and starts talking movies with him. We're supposed to think this shows Palmer's essential decency, but you mostly think, "Of course he wants to chat with Bear! Bear seems like a swell guy!"

That was before "The Sopranos" defined Gandolfini. Something very different happened the more famous Gandolfini became. Based on the disconnect between his off-screen personality (civilized, generous and thoughtful -- see also "Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq," his 2007 documentary on wounded warriors) and the often-savage Tony, it must have been absolutely exhausting to have to get in that role for so long.

So it was a relief and a thrill to see Gandolfini capable of fascinating performances without the cultural gravitas of "The Sopranos" behind him

"The Last Castle" is not a great movie, but Gandolfini is a blast to watch as Col. Winter, the autocratic commander of a military prison. Winter runs an abusive prison, but he is in awe of his latest inmate, the brilliant Lt. Gen. Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford) and cannot understand why Irwin won't play ball. Redford is supposed to be the good guy, the unjustly incarcerated hero. Guess who we end up feeling a little bit sorry for?

In his tiny but commanding role in Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," Gandolfini plays the CIA director based on Leon Panetta and exists mostly as an adult foil, sort of, for Jessica Chastain's young, obsessed Maya.

"What do you think of the girl?" asks the director of an aide.

"I think she's (expletive) smart," his aide says.

The director barely pauses. "We're all smart, Jeremy," he says, vaguely bemused at his aide's short-sightedness, a line reading that conveys the director's maturity, his ability to navigate in Washington, his knowledge that being smart isn't an unknown quantity around those parts.

Of course one could go on. There he was as the smarmy-yet-visionary filmmaker Craig Gilbert in "Cinema Verite," HBO's canny look at "An American Family," the PBS documentary that anticipated reality TV. Or his role as the exasperated general in "In the Loop." Or Mickey, the burned out hitman playing off Brad Pitt in the underseen "Killing Them Softly."

Of course, that's what we'll miss the most about Gandolfini. It's not the roles we have on film; it's, of course, the ones we won't get to see. Gandolfini could locate the humanity in the inhumane and work with it in small moments.

Which is to say that it wasn't that many of his characters were like us. It's that, hopefully, they were very much not, and he made us root for their happiness anyway.

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