When I got the news this evening that the actor James Gandolfini had died of an apparent heart attack at 51 while on vacation with his family in Italy, I gasped so sharply that the friend I was having dinner with thought a family member had died. In a way, he had. If you write about television, as I do, or watch it frequently, Gandolfini’s performance as Tony Soprano on the titular show that helped remake HBO and prestige television along with it was a major contribution to the world we inhabit together. But like a good friend or good relative, Gandolfini didn’t just provide a larger context, he kept showing up, in ways large and small but always pleasant. So many of us remember Tony Soprano, but we have our private Gandolfinis, too.
For me, Gandolfini played two of the most important supporting roles in film’s exploration of the War on Terror, and what we’ve done to ourselves in pursuit of nebulous victory within it. As Lieutenant General Miller, Senior Military Assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense in Armando Iannucci’s lacerating look at the run-up to the war in Iraq, In The Loop, Gandolfini had a quiet, frustrated dignity even as he was dragged into self-important conversations at parties or dealing with diplomatic disaster that could lead to far worse things than embarrassment. Though he was overshadowed by showier performances in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, as the unnamed director of the CIA, Gandolfini was the adult in the room in his scenes, whether he was asking for risk assessments, or trying to figure out the puzzling, intense young analyst (Jessica Chastain) who presented him with absolute certainty in a time and place plunged into factual and moral darkness.
In Cinema Verite, one of the better movies HBO’s made in the last several years, Gandolfini played a role that was simultaneously less conventional and more predatory. As Craig Gilbert, the television producer who convinced the Louds to permit themselves to be filmed for America’s first widely-watched reality program, Gandolfini was simultaneously predatory and charming, particularly as he wooed Pat Loud (Diane Lane) into believing they’d be partners, rather than exploiter and exploited, on an important project. Tony Soprano might have killed you at sea. Craig Gilbert would eat your heart for a story.
As Carol, the lead Wild Thing in Spike Jonze’s tremendous adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are, a movie I deeply hope will become a classic that parents and children can watch together, even as it separates them, Gandolfini was a different kind of monster. If Tony Soprano presented self-indulgence as a matter of family, of tradition, of honor, Carol was the id to his super-ego, the creature who pursued pleasure for pleasure and wonder’s sake, and was crushed when he found out it wasn’t enough for Max, the little boy he’d adopted and befriended. Tony may have destroyed people he claimed to love out of a need for control, but Carol’s promise to “eat you up, we love you so,” was about desire run wild, about affection that didn’t understand the benefits of restraint.
And among my favorite Gandolfini performances was in a little movie he did with John Turturro, who wrote and directed it, a musical called Romance and Cigarettes. Blessed, as Tony Soprano was blessed, with the evocative sobriquet of Nick Murder, Gandolfini plays a working class-guy who is married to Kitty Kane (Susan Sarandon), cheating on her with Tula (Kate Winslet), and failing at being a father to Baby (Mandy Moore), Constance (Mary Louise Parker) and Rosebud (Aida Turturro). It’s a fabulously strange, sexy picture, and it begins with Gandolfini singing Englebert Humperdinck’s “Lonely Is A Man Without Love,” before proceeding on to other joys, including Eddie Izzard as a church choir director:
But more than anything else, it was Gandolfini, who gave us a man who fascinated us and commanded our sympathy despite the enormity of his crimes, reminding us that people whose only sins are against each other’s hearts deserve our attention, too. Tony Soprano opened the gates of hell to an awful lot of memorable monsters. But as an actor, James Gandolfini never seemed to forget what it meant to be profoundly, sensitively, almost obscenely human.