Minutes after news broke of Gandolfini’s death, social media came alive with talk of favorite Gandolfini performances. And as I scrolled through my Twitter feed, I noticed a very pleasing trend. After about 10 minutes, nearly every single Gandolfini performance had been listed as a favorite by at least one of my followers. That says it all, really. It’s so hard to pick just six performances to highlight this tremendous actor. It didn’t matter what he was in, he instinctually made every film better. And then some.
Five Essential Roles
Five Essential Roles
True Romance (1993)
Virgil stays in the background for much of True Romance, playing a dedicated goon in search of a young kid in way over his head. But whenever I think of True Romance, one of the first images that pops into my head is James Gandolfini telling poor Patricia Arquette to slowly turn around, so that he can punch her in the face, and lay her out cold. Virgil’s vicious beating of Arquette’s character, Alabama, is extended, horrifying, and shockingly realistic. After he became famous, Gandolfini occasionally remarked how difficult that scene was to shoot. I can hardly imagine. But nevertheless, it’s the work of two dedicated actors who shock the hell out of their audience.
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Big Dave Brewster
There’s something about Gandolfini’s portrayal of department store manager Big Dave Brewster that I’ve always been undeniably drawn to. Gandolfini isn’t in the Coen brothers’ superb The Man Who Wasn’t There for very long, but what memorable use he makes of his time.
Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) isn’t even upset when he begins to suspect that his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with Big Dave. Instead, he sees it as a golden opportunity to blackmail Big Dave out of some fast cash. But Big Dave slowly catches on, which results in a dark and moody confrontation between Ed and Big Dave that stands as one of the single finest scenes Gandolfini ever acted in. The scene is paced purposefully, simmering to a slow boil, before a quick burst of violence ends it as concisely as it began. Gandolfini always had the ability to make us fear him within seconds, and his work as Big Dave is certainly case in point.
In the Loop (2009)
Lt. Gen. George Miller
I’d be curious to know how Gandolfini was cast in Armando Iannucci’s masterful satire, In the Loop. Did Gandolfini have to audition for the part of sarcastic military Lt. Gen. George Miller? Did Iannucci specifically seek him out for the role? I only ask because George Miller is unlike any role I’ve seen Gandolfini play before or since. The man has a knack for comedy; he’s one of the main reasons we laughed so hard during many episodes of The Sopranos. But with In the Loop, Gandolfini was given a chance to play out-and-out comedy, and he simply killed it.
In one of the film’s best moments Gandolfini engages in a hilarious debate with Peter Capaldi’s scene stealing Malcolm Tucker, in which Gandolfini gets to say lines like: “Look, Tucker, you might be some scary little poodlefucker over in England, but out here you’re nothing. You know what you look like? A squeezed dick. You got a big blue vein running up your head all the way to the temple.”
Bravo, good sir. Bravo.
Welcome to the Rileys (2010)
Welcome to the Rileys is a perfect case of Gandolfini elevating an otherwise lacking film. The movie, directed by Ridley Scott’s son, Jake, tells the story of a husband and wife who have drifted apart since the death of their daughter. Lois (Melissa Leo) handles her grief by never leaving the house. She interacts with few as a means of keeping life at bay.
Doug is different. Because of his job, Doug has to leave the house. He has to put on a face that reads acceptance. But it’s all a mask. Inside, Doug is a deeply scared man, and if I’m being honest, it is very refreshing to see Gandolfini handle such pain with calm remorse. Gandolfini is an actor known for his loud, swift temper, but Doug is far more understated than that. A welcome change of pace that proved Gandolfini always had multiple facets to his craft.
Killing Them Softly (2012)
In my initial review for Killing Them Softly, I made mention that James Gandolfini’s brief role as alcoholic hitman, Mickey, was my favorite part of the movie. Mickey only has two scenes in the film, but because of a great script and an excellent actor, we get to know more about Mickey than we do about most leading performers in movies. We learn of his pain and anguish; his lasting torment fueled by booze and bimbos. Simply put: no one could play burly and brutish quite like Gandolfini could.
The Best of the Best
The Sopranos (1999-2007)
Is James Gandolfini’s role as Tony Soprano the best television performance of all time?
I could dedicate pages to the monumental achievement that is Tony Soprano. The complexity, the angst, the impeccable charm, the ferociousness – few modern TV characters are better realized and more captivating than he. Through Tony, Gandolfini took a character and made it his own. There’s simply no better way to put. And in breaking the role down, how does one come to decide upon a single best episode that demonstrates Gandolfini’s skill? Maybe it’s killing an old rat while on a college tour with his daughter, maybe it’s murdering his best friend who had been informing for the feds, maybe it’s rescuing his son from a clumsy suicide attempt. The list goes on, but for me, I was rather surprised how quickly I thought of my favorite Sopranos episode.
The season four finale, titled “Whitecaps,” is a lengthy and brutal examination into a marriage collapsed. The latter part of the episode captures Tony and Carmela (Edie Falco) exchanging in a series of devastating arguments that ultimately leads to their separation. They scream, they shout, they berate, they get violent – it is truly a tour de force of acting, something that I will never forget.
So, back to my initial question. With so many performances to choose from, it seems unfair to label one as the best, but is it? Is Gandolfini’s work on The Sopranos the finest performance the television medium has ever captured? I’m still not sure, but at this present time, I’m having a damn hard considering anyone else.
Other Notable Roles
Crimson Tide (1995)
Get Shorty (1995)
The Juror (1996)
Night Falls on Manhattan (1997)
She’s So Lovely (1997)
12 Angry Men (1997)
A Civil Action (1998)
The Mexican (2001)
The Last Castle (2001)
Surviving Christmas (2004)
Romance & Cigarettes (2005)
Lonely Hearts (2006)
All the King’s Men (2006)
The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Cinema Verite (2011)
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Not Fade Away (2012)
Not Fade Away (2012)