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Remembering James Gandolfini (1961-2013)

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The acting world has lost a giant today: The Sopranos star James Gandolfini has passed away in Rome while on vacation with his family, likely due to a heart attack. This tragic and shocking loss is deeply felt as the New Jersey legend was only 51 and still very much in the prime of his career, delivering scene-stealing performances in Killing Them SoftlyZero Dark Thirty and Not Fade Away last year. Most will remember Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, and rightly so — his portrayal of the angst-ridden yet sensitive mob boss is the greatest performance in television history, earning him three Emmy and SAG wins for Best Actor and paving the way for the antihero likes of Mad Men‘s Don Draper, Breaking Bad‘s Walter White and Boardwalk Empire‘s Nucky Thompson — but this talented man should be celebrated for more than just this definitive character. In True Romance and The Mexican, he elevated what could have been generic hitmen into arguably the most compelling characters in the film, especially so in the latter. After the success of The Sopranos, he doggedly pursued roles that avoided typecast — the villainous but sympathetic warden in The Last Castle, a boisterous but doomed adulterer in The Man Who Wasn’t There, mid-life crisis via musical in Romance and Cigarettes, an anti-war General in In the Loop — and more often than not delivered the standout performance of each film. He also turned to producing for HBO, with two documentaries on veterans (Alive Day: Home From IraqWartorn: 1861-2010) and one feature (Hemingway and Gellhorn) to his credit, was nominated for a Tony for his role in the 2009 play God of Carnage, and unforgettably lent his voice to Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Gandolfini had recently completed several projects that we can look forward to, including Nicole Holofcener’s untitled drama alongside Julia Louis-Drefus, Catherine Keener and Toni Collette, Michaël R. Roskam’s English-language debut Animal Rescue with Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace, and HBO pilot Criminal Justice whose future is obviously uncertain now. Mr Gandolfini leaves behind an impressive legacy and a reputation as a genuinely kind and intelligent man, but it’s impossible not to feel robbed of an immense talent by his untimely passing. To celebrate the man and his career, a selection of video highlights and online tributes have been collected below.

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James Gandolfini’s first memorable role came courtesy of Tony Scott in 1993’s True Romance, in which he played mob henchman Virgil, tasked with tracking down young lovers on the run Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette), leading to a shockingly violent altercation with the latter. Gandolfini and Scott would subsequently work together on 1995’s Crimson Tide and 2009’s The Taking of Pelham 123.

I could dedicate an entire post to Gandolfini’s peerless work in The Sopranos — and many already have — but when forced to choose just one clip, it would have to be an exchange between Tony and his psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), whose scenes together were always the show’s most memorable.

Gore Verbinki’s dysfunctional Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts vehicle The Mexican would hardly be worth mentioning if it wasn’t for Gandolfini’s surprising turn as a gay hitman —  a performance of such wonderful depth and subtly that this pedestrian film doesn’t really deserve it.

The Coens’ stylish noir tribute The Man Who Wasn’t There was accused by some upon its release of being overly cold and detached — which could be said of nearly any noir — but Gandolfini brought plenty of emotion and turmoil to his role as blackmailed adulterer Big Dave Brewster.

John Turturro’s Romance and Cigarettes is admirable in its intentions — striving for a fun and modern take on musicals — and although it doesn’t always work it does boast several great scenes, such as this one in which star James Gandolfini sings Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘A Man Without Love’.

Armando Iannucci’s first American project, the brilliant and incisive 2009 political satire In the Loop, benefitted greatly from the considerable presence of Gandolfini, who shared several testy and hilarious scenes opposite Peter Capaldi.

Spike Jonze’s ambitious adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are combined live action, costumes, animatronics and CGI to achieve its unique look, and this required voice work for most of the major characters. Gandolfini proved an ingenious choice for the role of Carol, the lovable but angsty and impulsive Wild Thing, and his heartbreaking performance is nothing short of astonishing.

[Note: You may want to hold off on watching this film unless you want to be an emotional mess today]

Andrew Dominik’s unfairly maligned Killing Them Softly was one of my favourite films of last year, and Gandolfini gave a standout performance as a sadsack alcoholic hitman who is brought down to New Orleans to solve problems but only causes more for Brad Pitt’s character.

The Sopranos creator David Chase made his feature directorial debut last year with the sorely underappreciated Not Fade Away, notable for his reteaming with Gandolfini, who plays the struggling father of a wannabe rocker in 1960s New Jersey.

Gandolfini appeared on James Lipton’s Inside the Actors Studio in 2009 to discuss his career and craft in a sometimes difficult but always fascinating interview, and you can watch that in five parts below.

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HBO first confirmed the news of Gandolfini’s passing today, and followed up with this statement:

“We’re all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family. James Gandolfini was a special man, a great talent, but more importantly a gentle and loving person who treated everyone no matter their title or position with equal respect. He touched so many of us over the years with his humor, his warmth and his humility. Our hearts go out to his wife and children during this terrible time. He will be deeply missed by all of us.”

The Sopranos creator David Chase later issued this statement:

“He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.” There would be silence at the other end of the phone. For [his wife Deborah Lin] and [children] Michael and Liliana this is crushing. And it’s bad for the rest of the world. He wasn’t easy sometimes. But he was my partner, he was my brother in ways I can’t explain and never will be able to explain.”

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Tributes from colleagues, friends, critics and admirers have been pouring out on Twitter since the news broke, and you can find a selection of these below.

 

James Gandolfini

Rest in peace, James Gandolfini. You will be missed.

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