×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

James Gandolfini: A Rich Bigscreen Career in the Shadow of Tony Soprano

James Gandolfini will forever be defined by Tony Soprano, a fact that scarcely diminished his work on the bigscreen and stage.

It’s no knock on James Gandolfini to note that this remarkable and galvanizing actor was not exactly a chameleon. He was and will forever be defined by Tony Soprano, to the point where it became almost impossible to see the actor on the bigscreen and to not discern some glimmer — some hulking, menacing glimmer — of that iconic New Jersey mobster. For reasons less of physical heft than of cultural stature, Tony Soprano cast an immense shadow, a fact that Gandolfini seemed acutely aware of and used, at times, to his and the audience’s advantage.

SEE ALSO: James Gandolfini Dies at 51

Without ever stooping to wink at the viewer, Gandolfini had a way of signaling precisely what you were in for when he turned up onscreen. Like an unusually rough-edged quality seal, his mere appearance in a supporting or throwaway role let you know that, for the duration of his performance, you were in for a good time, or at least a few caustically tossed-off lines. Sometimes that was all he needed. One of my favorite of his performances was in the Coen brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There”; he not only melded perfectly into those velvety ’50s-noir shadows but managed, in his relatively brief turn as a crude, unsympathetic department-store owner named “Big Dave” Brewster, to strike notes of unrestrained pathos almost too shocking for the film to withstand.

That year (2001) also saw the release of the Brad Pitt-Julia Roberts vehicle “The Mexican,” in which Gandolfini, two years into his career-defining success with “The Sopranos,” handily upstaged his higher-billed co-stars in the role of a gay hitman with an obsessive-romantic streak. But in almost every other role, the actor seemed possessed of essentially the same gruff, world-weary temperament — that of a man steeped in cynicism, at ease with violence and prone to ferocious fits of temper, yet whose thick Joisey accent and gravel-edged voice could just as easily slip into an unexpectedly warm, even tender register.

Popular on Variety

PHOTOS: James Gandolfini’s Most Memorable Roles

Gandolfini played shlubby but imposing working stiffs who had generally seen better days: politicians (“All the King’s Men,” “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3”), military/government heavies (“In the Loop,” “Zero Dark Thirty”), detectives (“Lonely Hearts”) and, well before “The Sopranos,” more than his fair share of crooks (“True Romance,” “Get Shorty,” “The Mexican”). It almost didn’t matter which side of the law he was operating on; cops or crooks, his characters always seemed to be trudging their way through the same irredeemably rotten system.

One of his best recent performances, in the underappreciated “Killing Them Softly,” embodied this stance perfectly; as a hitman truly gone to seed, his killer instincts completely dulled by an excess of boozing and screwing, Gandolfini easily walked away, or perhaps drunkenly shuffled away, with the whole movie. Last year was, indeed, an outstanding year for the actor; he was pitch-perfect as a disapproving ’60s dad in “Not Fade Away,” his reunion with “Sopranos” creator David Chase, and he channeled former CIA director Leon Panetta with memorable toughness in “Zero Dark Thirty.” (Gandolfini sent Panetta a personal note apologizing for, among other things, the unflattering wig he wore in the film. Panetta, for his part, commended the actor’s performance and noted, “Thank God it was an Italian.”) With Gandolfini’s last few films still awaiting release, this year promises to be similarly special; in particular I can’t wait to see what Nicole Holofcener does with him.

SEE ALSO: James Gandolfini’s Unlikely Stardum

I count myself especially fortunate for having had the chance to see Gandolfini onstage, in the 2011 Los Angeles run of “God of Carnage.” It was an unimprovable piece of casting; so fully did the actor disappear into the role of this coarse, chronically henpecked husband and father that it left me even less receptive than I would have been to John C. Reilly’s more clownish take on the part in Roman Polanski’s film adaptation. As his wife (played by an equally superb Marcia Gay Harden) pushed him a bit closer to the edge with every casual putdown, drawing out his rage in tense little increments until an explosive point of no return, Gandolfini was simply mesmerizing, never more angry and alert and alive. That these spats couldn’t help but inspire flashbacks to Tony quarreling with Carmela somehow didn’t diminish the experience so much as deepen it, summoning memories, then as now, from this rich and singular career.

More Film

  • Lee Byung-hun stars in "The Man

    Lee Byung-hun’s ‘Man Standing Next’ Secures 2020 Asia Theatrical Releases (EXCLUSIVE)

    Showbox’s political drama “The Man Standing Next” has secured releases in multiple territories in Asia. The film was picked up by Falcon for Indonesia, The Klockworx for Japan, Viva Communications for the Philippines, Shaw Renters for Singapore and by Moviecloud for Taiwan. Release dates in each territory have yet to be confirmed. Set 40 days [...]

  • Lulu Wang and Zhao Shuzhen'The Farewell'

    Zhao Shuzhen on Stealing Scenes in Her First American Movie, 'The Farewell'

    A year ago, 76-year-old actor Zhao Shuzhen shot her first American movie, “The Farewell,” based on writer-director Lulu Wang’s very personal family story. In November, Shuzhen found herself making her first visit to the States, where she earned standing ovations from audiences and posed for pictures with stars like Robert Pattinson at parties. Then she [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez and Director Lorene Scafaria

    'Hustlers' DP Todd Banhazl Discusses How Not to Shoot With the Male Gaze

    Cinematographer Todd Banhazl had to rethink conventional wisdom in shooting Jennifer Lopez starrer “Hustlers.” What sort of approach did you and director Lorene Scafaria discuss in terms of how you were going to shoot the women and create these strong images of strippers? From the beginning, we talked about this idea of control and the [...]

  • A Hidden Life Movie

    Film News Roundup: Terrence Malick's 'A Hidden Life' Screened at Vatican Film Library

    In today’s film news roundup, “A Hidden Life” is shown at the Vatican, “Limerence” finds a home, Dave Baustista’s “My Spy” moves, and the DGA honors two veteran members. VATICAN SCREENING Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life” received a rare private screening at the Vatican Film Library this week. The movie centers on Austrian farmer and [...]

  • Wet Season

    'Wet Season' Star Yeo Yann Yann on the Need for Quality Chinese-Language Films

    Malaysia’s Yeo Yann Yann wiped away tears that weren’t purely of joyous triumph just minutes after receiving the 2019 Golden Horse Award for best actress in Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s “Wet Season.” The film plays in the New Chinese Cinema section of this week’s International Film Festival & Awards (IFFAM). Emotion welled up as she [...]

  • Wolf Totem

    Juben Productions Stretches From Peter Chan to Chinese Zombies

    Beijing Juben Productions has taken over rights to the popular “Wolf Totem” novel from China Film Group and is working on a sequel to be delivered in 2021 or Chinese New Year 2022. It also has a zombie film up its sleeve, as well as a British co-production about Shakespeare and a Chinese drama with [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content