R.I.P. James Gandolfini

Originally published on Capital New York

James Gandolfini suddenly stood up, walked across the stage in a wild and raging manner, going nowhere in particular but needing to move, all as he impatiently removed his jacket, throwing it off to the side, a violent burst of movement which brought a gasp of excited and terrified laughter from the standing-room-only audience.

It was 2009. I was in the third row at the Bernard Jacobs Theater in New York City. God of Carnage, written by Yasmina Reza, and starring Gandolfini, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, and Jeff Daniels, had opened a month earlier to rave reviews. It very quickly became the show to see that season. An ensemble piece played like a bat out of hell without intermission, God of Carnage was Gandolfini’s return to the New York stage, and the first big thing he did after “The Sopranos” closed up shop. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Michael, the domesticated blue-collar guy who finally can no longer hold his temper. “You’ve dressed me up as a liberal!” he screams at his wife.

Today, reeling from the news that Gandolfini died after a suspected heart attack at the terribly young age of 51, it is the image of him charging across that big Broadway stage, ripping off his jacket, barreling forward randomly and clumsily, that comes to my mind. It was like being attacked. Judging from the reaction of the rest of the packed house, the sudden electric gasp of over 1,000 people, the burst of frightened laughter through the crowd, I was not alone. His presence could not be contained on that stage, it threatened to overflow and overwhelm us all.

There are personalities so visceral, so honest and so present, it is hard to comprehend their absence. How could he be gone? Where did he go? Even if we only knew him at a distance, through his performances on television or on screen or stage, he seemed so with us, he played his characters with such transparency. He was that rare actor whose work actually illuminated dark corners of the human spirit. Not every actor is willing to “go there”.

Gandolfini had a knack for showing us the underlying psychologies of un-expressive un-self-aware violent men. (Glenn Kenny, in his beautiful elegy, compares Gandolfini to Warren Oates. Oates also made a career out of playing violent outlaws or lonely outsiders in the films of Sam Peckinpah and Monte Hellman. Violent and unpleasant his characters may be, they crack your heart open. Oates also died of a heart attack, at the age of 53.)

Gandolfini added a complex and unexpected harmony line to the tough guys he specialized in. He let us see the emotional fragility of men who only understand violence. He did so without making a bid for us to pity these often reprehensible characters.

While he had been acting on the New York stage for some time, it was in Tony Scott’s True Romance, with a script by Quentin Tarantino, that he first came to the attention of a wide audience.

Gandolfini played hired killer Virgil, who has an unforgettable pas-de-deux of violence with Patricia Arquette’s Alabama. The two beat one another to a pulp in a scene gruesome, terrifying, and relentless. In the middle of the action, exhausted, the adversaries take what is essentially a break. Alabama lies on the floor, Virgil sits in a nearby chair. Virgil then has a monologue about what it is like to kill someone for the first time.

Now the first time you kill somebody, that’s the hardest. I don’t give a shit if you’re fuckin’ Wyatt Earp or Jack the Ripper. Remember that guy in Texas? The guy up in that fuckin’ tower that killed all them people? I’ll bet you green money that first little black dot he took a bead on, that was the bitch of the bunch. First one is tough, no fuckin’ foolin’. The second one… the second one ain’t no fuckin’ Mardis Gras either, but it’s better than the first one ’cause you still feel the same thing, y’know… except it’s more diluted, y’know it’s… it’s better. I threw up on the first one, you believe that? Then the third one… the third one is easy, you level right off. It’s no problem. Now… shit… now I do it just to watch their fuckin’ expression change.

I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

Patricia Arquette, in an interview around the time True Romance came out, talked about that scene. Her interpretation of the moment is fascinating: Virgil knows that either he or she was going to die that day, and he had more experience with what it was like to kill someone, and so, in a spirit of “helping her,” should she be the victor, he shares some advice. If you watch the scene again, keeping this in mind, you can see the complicated levels on which Gandolfini could be working. His monologue is terrifying, and the way Gandolfini does it is bone-chilling, but listen to it through Arquette’s interpretation and an entire new feeling is created. Virgil doesn’t value life, and he includes his own. Maybe she’ll win this fight because she actually values life. Virgil doesn’t exclude the possibility. This interpretation goes perfectly with the shame-faced smile that bursts unexpectedly on his face after he punches her in the face for the first time (I think this is one of Gandolfini’s most brilliant acting moments, in a career of great moments). Even for guys like Virgil, killing a woman is a pretty dirty job. The smile is maybe the last vestige of shame a guy like Virgil could feel. Arquette’s interpretation is also there in the almost-fond smile he gives her when she brandishes the cork-screw at him. He takes in her pathetic weapon, he feels her ferocious desire to live, something he does not share, if he ever did. Listen to how he says, “You got a lotta heart, kid, you know that?”

That’s Jim Gandolfini.

Others will talk – and rightfully so – about James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, the richness of his portrayal, the depth of the characterization, how compulsively watchable he always was in the role. Gandolfini was making a fine – if uneven – living in movies. The Sopranos changed his life, and ours.

But I am thinking now of Gandolfini standing up in God of Carnage, and charging across the stage, ripping off his jacket, and I am thinking of the sound of 1,000 people gasping as one at the sheer force of his movement and gesture, at the sheer power of his personality and intention. You just did not know what would happen next. It seemed like anything could happen next. This guy was capable of anything.

Arthur Miller wrote the following about Clark Gable:

Great actor-personalities, I have come to think, are like trained bears in that they attract us with their discipline while their powerful claws threaten us; a great star implies he is his own person and can be mean and even dangerous, like a great leader.

He could have been talking about James Gandolfini.

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