Appreciating James Gandolfini and ‘The Sopranos’

June 21, 2013

Actor James Gandolfini’s death Wednesday came as a shock that many are still digesting. Perhaps it was his young age — he was 51 — or that the end of the HBO series “The Sopranos” still feels like yesterday. Or maybe its because the summer doldrums are officially here and they’ve given us more time for contemplation.

Appreciations have poured out over the last two days, from friends of the actor to long time film and TV critics.

GQ, which had a Gandolfini story out on newsstands at the time of his death, had writer Brett Martin put forth a preface, in which he says we will never know how much of an influence the taxing roll of Tony Soprano had on Gandolfini’s death.

It is not too much of a stretch to say that if Gandolfini had not gotten the role of Tony Soprano—as, by all rights of all television rules ever written, he shouldn’t have—and attacked it with such gusto, television would not be what it is today. Without an actor capable of finding Tony’s melancholy, his soulfulness, his absurdity and his rage, the era of TV antiheroes may never have found its foothold. In interviews, which he did his very best to avoid, the actor would often fall back on some version of “I’m just a dumb, fat guy from Jersey.” “That’s bullshit,” David Chase once told me, with an affectionate chuckle. “Jim knows damned well what he’s doing. He knows.”

 

The article goes on to depict just how much Gandolfini absorbed the character and took on Tony’s travails as his own.

Not so Gandolfini, for whom playing Tony Soprano would always require to some extent being Tony Soprano. Crew members grew accustomed to hearing grunts and curses coming from his trailer as he worked up to the emotional pitch of a scene by, say, destroying a boom-box radio. An intelligent and intuitive actor, Gandolfini understood this dynamic and used it to his advantage; the heavy bathrobe that became Tony’s signature, transforming him into a kind of domestic bear, was murder under the lights in midsummer, but Gandolfini insisted on wearing it between takes. Other times, though, simulated misery became indistinguishable from the real thing—on set and off. In papers related to a divorce filing at the end of 2002, Gandolfini’s wife described increasingly serious issues with drugs and alcohol, as well as arguments during which the actor would repeatedly punch himself in the face out of frustration. To anybody who had witnessed the actor’s self-directed rage as he struggled to remember lines in front of the camera—he would berate himself in disgust, curse, smack the back of his own head—it was a plausible scenario.

Read the full article here.

 

Matt Zoller Seitz of New York Magazine harkened to the days when he reviewed Gandolfini’s work in “The Sopranos” for the Star-Leger, the newspaper Tony Soprano read.

Anybody who had even the slightest contact with Gandolfini will testify to what a great guy he was, how full of life he was, how extraordinary he made other people feel. Yes, absolutely, he had problems – with drink, with drugs, with women, probably with lots of other things, for all we know – but so does everybody, to one degree or another. But whether he was feeling well or poorly, or living smartly or stupidly, there was always something about the guy that you wanted to embrace.

You could feel it shining through the screen, that warmth and vulnerability, that broken yet still-hopeful humanness.

That’s what made Tony Soprano, a bully and killer and cheater and disgusting hypocrite, so likable. The decent part of Tony, the part that stood in for the tragically wasted human potential Dr. Melfi kept trying to tease out and embrace, came from Gandolfini. His humanity shone through Tony’s rotten façade. When people said they sensed good in Tony, it was James Gandolfini they sensed.

“It’s like showing emotion has become a bad thing,” he told me. “Like there’s something wrong with you if you’re really in love or really angry and you show it. Like if you feel those powerful emotions and you express them, instead of keeping them inside or expressing yourself politely, then you must be someone who needs therapy, or Prozac. That’s the world we’re in right now.”

 

Read the full story here.

His death also led Joel Achenbach, of Achenblog, to ask who would make a top 5 list of TV characters. For him, Gandolfini was a shoo-in.

 James Gandolfini was an actor you couldn’t take your eyes off of, even if he was just eating a plate of spaghetti. He had all that coiled intensity. Usually he’d just finish eating his meal and then stagger off to a chair, but you knew that there was a slight chance he’d shoot someone — or worse. He had that knack for body disposal.

 

R.I.P. James Gandofini

James Gandolfini: The Soprano who was Mozart

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