With apologies - - this post is being written on the move. Was hoping to link to some examples of Gandolfini's work, but the internet connection is spotty, hence why the late posting.
I remember watching The Sopranos for the first time, watching Tony have a panic attack and thinking, “that’s how you do it.”
The Sopranos was released around the same as Analyse This, and I remember being bored for much of the screwball mobster comedy not just because Billy Crystal’s part should have been played by Woody Allen, but because they really messed up the panic attack part. I should know; I suffered from really bad attacks throughout much of my teenage years.
But watching the Sopranos, the way that James Gandolfini really sold that aspect of Tony Soprano’s character, I was utterly convinced, and utterly empathetic with, Tony (in that situation, not in many of his others). The performance was so good that one of my teachers used to call me, “Tony” and joke about giving me good marks in case I called out a hit on them.
After the Sopranos I started to notice James Gandolfini in a lot of other things. For a man with such imposing physical presence and such distinct features (you couldn’t really mistake him for anyone else) he had range. Took me years to realise he was in Get Shorty, playing Beat, the stuntman that Chili Palmer throws down a set of stairs. Even when he was in something bad - I’m thinking the Pitt/Roberts stinker, The Mexican - he was generally the most interesting thing on the screen. He had this way of inhabiting a character’s psychology, of saying so much with his eyes that you understood the character he was playing just by looking at him. The last performance of Gandolfini’s that I watched was in Killing Them Softly, a movie that can definitely be described as an actors film. one where ther performances are driven not by studio demands but by the instincts of the actors. The washed up schlub portrayed by Gandolfini in that film was a far cry from Tony Soprano; he was a genuinely unnerving mess, and throughout the whole movie you didn’t doubt that he was any other way. Psychologically, if not physically, Gandolfini was a chameleon. He could make that large frame seem inofensive and unthreatening or he could use to truly strike fear into the heart of the viewer. As Tony Soprano, he was a force of nature; the scenes where he lost his temper (witness when his bi-polar lover throws a steak at his head or when he realises that Ralphie’s done something to the horse that Tony loves so much) were so physically and psychologically intimidating that even watching from the comfort of your own living room, you’d freeze up in fear of his wrath.
Which is why I was shocked to read of Gandolfiini’s death from a heart attack at age 51. I realised upon reading the obituary’s that I’d never known what age he was, and if pressed would have nebulously given you an answer from 40s through to later 50s, but without any certainty. All I knew of him were his characters. And, with an actor, perhaps that’s how it should be. The world is filled with celebrities and egotists using film and narrative to portray various degrees of their own self. Gandolfini - from what I saw of his body of work - was an actor; utterly inhabiting the persona of the character he played. David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, said he was like “Mozart” when it came to acting, and its a fair description. He was an actor’s actor and also a people’s actor. He wasn’t mysterious about his craft, but he also took it very seriously indeed. Not only that, but he was an actor who looked like a real person which was part of his gift.
Like many people around the world, I’m considering returning to The Sopranos, reminding myself of what has to be one of the most sustained, consistent and brilliant performances ever to be put into a TV show.
RIP, James Gandolfini. You will be remembered. Even by those who only knew you through the characters you breathed such life into.