“I’ve been very lucky, considering what I look like and what I do.” — James Gandolfini

It’s his birthday today.

51 years old. It seems incomprehensible. Like a lot of people, he first came on my radar through the extraordinary scene in the motel room with Patricia Arquette in True Romance (“you gotta lotta heart, kid.”) The moment I always remember, though, the moment that struck me most when I first saw it, was the look on his face after he punches her for the first time. There’s a little smile, the eyes flying up to the ceiling. It’s absolutely brilliant: what I see in that smile, is the tiny flash of shame this character can still feel, and the smile is the way it’s handled. Watch for it again. It’s not a sneering “I just showed this bitch” psycho smile. It’s the smile of a little kid who stole something and got busted. It’s extremely chilling, and representative of the kind of emotionally detailed and instinctual work Gandolfini would become known for.

While Gandolfini’s impact on the culture can’t really be measured, due to The Sopranos (his work in that is such an enormous accomplishment it’s still daunting on a re-watch) … his film work was also superb and varied. It wasn’t just a retread of Tony Soprano. He played a lot of gangsters and heavies, but always with their own complex little spin. He was a great great character actor. And I treasure the wonderful Enough Said, unique in his filmography, because he got to play a romantic lead. And he killed it. Gandolfini’s final role was in The Drop, which came out in 2014, a movie I really liked. I wrote about it here.

But the main thing I remember about Gandolfini is the enormous privilege of going to see him in God of Carnage on Broadway (with Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, and Jeff Daniels). I went with three of my cousins and we sat in the third row. It was THE ticket in town and so we were very very lucky. It’s one of the most exhilarating theatrical experiences I’ve ever had as an audience member. I wrote about it here. It was the first thing Gandolfini did after The Sopranos ended, which speaks volumes about who he was as an actor.

When he died, I wrote an obit for Capital New York, and I focused mainly on that live performance. It wasn’t captured on film. 19th c. actor Edwin Booth said, “An actor is a sculptor who carved in snow.” The reality of theatre. You can’t keep it forever the way you can a film. But that doesn’t make it any less precious. In many ways, it makes it MORE precious. God of Carnage is one of Gandolfini’s best and I will always be so grateful I got to see it. A beautiful sculpture made of snow.

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7 Responses to “I’ve been very lucky, considering what I look like and what I do.” — James Gandolfini

  1. Scott Abraham says:

    I saw God of Carnage in Los Angeles, and a family member knew Marcia Gay Harden so we all got through the stage door and took a group picture with her. We finally looked at the picture on the drive home, and nobody noticed Gandolfini sneak in behind and join the photo (sticking his tongue out, of course).
    He really was a 12 year old boy who hit it big. Losing him really hurt.

  2. Todd Restler says:

    This was such a devastating loss. He was just so great. Thanks for recommending “Enough Said” which I also loved, he developed great, authentic chemistry with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, which is not a pairing that inherently seems natural. (Elaine with TONY?!?)

    He was so identified with The Sopranos that it was amazing to me to watch him create unique characters afterward. He never seemed to be bogged down with the baggage of Tony. As you said he often played other “heavies”, but even as another mobster in “Killing Me Softly”, he played such a unique, internal, damaged character that he disappeared into the role. (What a weird movie that was!)

    He also played two very different military guys in Zero Dark Thirty (drama) and In The Loop (hysterical!), and showed that he was adept at comedy too. I couldn’t wait to see what else he would do.

    I love True Romance. But the early role that stands out for me was in Crimson Tide, with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman. It’s a great movie, really well written. acted and paced. Somehow, in a cast with those two stars and full of exceptional character actors (Viggo Mortensen, Matt Craven, George Dzundza), Gandolfini is wholly unique in his ability to hold your attention. You can’t take your eyes off him when he’s onscreen. He seems to BE his character, rather than playing him. You can already see some of the physicality he would bring to Tony. When he wanted to be, he could be intimidating as SHIT, just with a glance or a frown. He was so EXPRESSIVE.

    Who knows what made him so good, but one thing that stands out to me was always how generous he was with his cast on The Sopranos. Everybody seemed to love him, and he stood up for his cast in negotiations many times. I feel that generosity shows through as an actor. It’s never about HIM, or how he looks. It’s about serving the story.

    His death (6/19/13) and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s (2/2/14) within about 8 months of each other threw me for a loop that I still have not quite recovered from. It feels to me a little like the heart and soul of acting is gone now.

  3. That True Romance scene is one of my all-time favorites. Patricia Arquette was great too. Theirs was the most interesting relationship in that movie.

    “What are you laughin’ at?”

    “Ha ha ha! You look ridiculous!”

    This is exactly how I’d want to go out, if I were ever menaced by a hit man. Exit laughing.

    • sheila says:

      Jincy – Yes – it was a relationship scene, for sure! There’s also a moment when he throws her into the tub – through the glass wall – and she screams at one point, “Wait! Wait!” Not like “stop” – but “just give me a second to pull myself together it’s all happening too fast” – just the way she does it is so specific! Like, she’s in this thing to the end.

      So good.

  4. Donna L Thomas says:

    “The love between Tony and Carmela was one of the greatest I’ve ever known.” Edie Falco quote at Jim’s death.

  5. Larry Aydlette says:

    Really enjoyed him in Romance & Cigarettes, which I finally got around to watching this year.

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