Thursday, June 20, 2013

RIP James Gandolfini (1961-2013)

Even in my shock and despair, it's impossible for me not to comment on the death of James Gandolfini.

But what can I say?  He was a brilliant actor, but that's nothing new.  Still, it bears repeating.  And yet, let me something more--something bolder: He was one of the best actors ever seen.  Easily as good as Brando, Nicholson, Dean, Pacino, Streep, De Niro, Tracy, Hepburn, Stewart, Garbo, Bogart, and Cagney.

There are countless scenes in The Sopranos, and in his movies (True Romance, In The Loop, Welcome to the Rileys, The Mexican, and Zero Dark Thirty, among them) that bear this out.  In fact, every single scene he was in, in whatever he was in, still live as proof of this stance.  But, in particular, his casting as Tony Soprano was a miracle--a miracle that was borne out alongside his many also perfectly cast Sopranos cohorts.  The role could have gone to another terrific actor, Anthony Lapaglia, but show creator David Chase saw something in Gandolfini that made him abandon that choice.  He saw something deep in Gandofini's hurt eyes, and in his working class background.  What he saw was something that could hardly be pointed at, because it had been witnessed so few times in film and television history.  There was a truthfulness, a powerful strength, and a warm-hearted quality--the kind of quality that found something to love in every animal out there (Tony Soprano was a big animal lover, as was Gandolfini, clearly).  And yet, from the beginning, the character of Tony Soprano--which I would place right next to All in the Family's Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) as the most complex character in the history of television--displayed a profound sadness as to his choices--or maybe his lack of them.  “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor," he said, in the first scene of the first episode.  "I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”

Tony Soprano goes to Dr. Jennifer Melfi, in that first episode, because he knows that something is wrong with his life.  But he's now all in--he cannot get out of the business--and he therefore cannot reveal to his therapist all that he feels.  And so his therapy is muted before it starts, because truthfulness has been prohibited.   This is what the whole show, all 86 episodes, is about.  Moreover, the show is about how the habit of lying has infected almost every character we visit in it.  David Chase's comments about the series, and about Gandolfini's singular quality, prove this:

It was Gandolfini's eyes, and brains, and brawn, that illustrated this complexity for us.   His Anthony John Soprano was a fearless performance (for the records, he won three Emmy awards, and a Golden Globe for his efforts).  Gandolfini could say so much, without words, with a simple shift of his eyes, from here to there.  His every movement was telling.  In fact, I have to be more blunt here: In the end, I think, Gandofini literally gave his life for the role.  In an stultifying number of ways, this gentle and extremely shy actor crossed an unbelievable number of personal boundaries in order to portray a vibrant, violent man--a man who, in his blue-collar background, was so close to who he really was, but was yet ions away from the man portraying him.  It was the fabled role of a lifetime.  But acting is not the easiest job in the world, particularly when it's done well. In the best performances, it's hard to believe that the performer and the character are not the same person (as with Carroll O' Connor and Jean Stapleton, of All in the Family, it was a stunner to hear Gandolfini speak in his own voice). God. The stress that playing Tony Soprano must have caused Gandolfini is immeasurable, as we can learn here from Sopranos director Tim Van Patten:

It's impossible for me to put into words how stupendous Gandolfini's portrayal of Tony Soprano is.  It's the stuff of a entire book.  So, as this is a simple blog entry, I am forced to cut corners and simply offer a few clips to illustrate it.  Actually, as with all reviews, the clips do more than my words could ever do.  And the only way I could narrow this ridiculous wealth of material down is by including scenes with the main characters of this immensely huge drama:

Tony tries to discuss a move to a "retirement community" with his increasingly enfeebled (or maybe not so enfeebled) mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand) (this is the first utterance of the show's original title, "Poor You," which would pop up again and again in the series' dialogue): 

Tony and Pussy (Vincent Pastore) go out to get Matthew Belvilaqua (Lillo Brancato Jr.) after he and a cohort tried to assassinate Tony's cousin Christopher : 

Tony revisits his people, at Satriale's Pork Store, and tries to prove that, even though he's recently been shot, he's still the boss (though the whole thing is a charade made only to assert this single point; he feels so bad about it, it sends him into the toilet to throw up):  

Tony has decided that he has feelings for his therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), and she tries to put him straight: 

Tony, mired in a bad streak of gambling luck, is angry that his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) would not let him bet some of her money (which he helped her earn) on a sports game:

Faced in the morning with his whiny son A.J. (Robert Iler), Tony tries to school him:

In perhaps the series' single best episode, titled "College," Tony culminates his trip with daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), with a discussion about his true nature:

With his difficult cousin Christopher (Michael Imperioli), Tony happens upon an opportunity to steal many cases of wine, and then, afterwards, has a moment with Christopher--who's a perpetually recovering alcoholic:

Tony talks to the NYC family boss, Johnny Sacrimoni (Vincent Curatola) about a joke someone made (a joke that Tony once found funny) about Johnny's treasured, overweight wife: 

Tony contemplates killing his friend and mentor Paulie (Tony Sirico), as a result of a breach of trust Tony suspects (rightfully) that they once had in the past:

With his Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) suffering from dementia, Tony finds that his uncle holds a grudge that hits to the bone:

Adriana (Drea De Matteo) is at her club, the Crazy Horse, and Tony is spending way too much time there.  In the process, they almost cross the line...even though she's engaged to be his cousin Christopher's wife:

Tony faces down Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano), with whom he's had a longstanding beef over his murder of a Bada Bing stripper (one who reached out to Tony for innocent friendship, and he turned her down), and which now comes to a head over the death of the horse, Pie-O-My, that they co-owned, but whom Tony suspects was murdered by Ralphy for the insurance money (I always thought, by the way, that this was what Tony REALLY wanted to do to Ralphy after he killed the girl; his line, during the fight: "She was a beautiful, innocent little creature.  What did she ever do to you?"):

This may be Tony's most venal moment.  Seeing that his sister Janice (Aida Turturro) has made progress with her anger management, he pushes her back to the edge of insanity, and walks away happy: 

Artie (John Ventimiglia), Tony's lifelong friend and the owner of Vesuvio's, has to confess to Tony that he's in love with Adriana, Chirstopher's girlfriend.  And Tony tries to talk him out of it:

Visiting his uncle's home, Tony finds his uncle's caretaker, Svetlana (Alla Kilouka Schaffer) (who once took care of his mother), alone, and a bond is initiated:

Carmela says she wants a divorce:

After the death of his cousin, Tony visits Las Vegas and takes peyote, alongside Christopher's old friend: 

And, of course, the series' final scene, at New Jersey's famed Holsten's--a scene like no other ever made:

This is merely a simple sampling of it all.  You can easily see how all of this must have taken a great deal out of this gentle actor.

I met James Gandolfini very quickly in 2002.  I was staying near Little Italy during a visit to NYC in 2002.  I got out of my hotel room in the early afternoon, and rounded the corner to Mulberry Street, and saw a film company shooting.  Having been a fan of the show, my mind quickly said: "Could this be what I think it is?"  And it was.   The Sopranos team was shooting an episode on that street, and I could hardly believe my eyes. My first clue was the presence of Vincent Curatola (who played NYC boss Johnny Sack).  The second was the (as yet unrevealed, on the show) presence of Frank Vincent.  I had always wondered if he would eventually be on the show, and there he was, as the venal Phil Leotardo.  And then out of a red-painted doorway came Gandolfini, and I was floored.  This was a true fan moment for me--and most people who know me will tell you, I am a slobbering fan of few things.  But I could not tear myself away from this moment.

I was lucky, too, because shooting had concluded, and for Gandolfini, this meant a simple walk home to his Manhattan space.  He was very magnanimous to his fans, stopping for autographs and pictures.  I ran up and boldly told him: "James, congratulations on your new negotiations."  He had recently upped his HBO price to a million dollars an episode.  "Can I tell you, you're giving the best performance ever seen on TV.   You're worth every single penny."   He shook my hand and said "Thank you."  It was a big meathook of a hand, and I really got the sense of how imposing the character Tony Soprano was.  I watched him as he stopped to pet a dog owned by a Little Italy denizen (and, knowing how much Tony loved animals, this struck me).  And there I got an extreme  sense of who Gandolfini--and by extension, Tony Soprano--really was.  I've met many famous people in my life...but this was easily the most memorable instance.  And, somehow, the most profound.

I ran into James Gandolfini one more time, when I was living in NYC in about 2009 or so.  I was coming home to my Village apartment, in a terrific rainstorm, after seeing Anne Hathaway play the lead in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in Central Park.  I was on Sixth Avenue, and I saw him as he was crossing the street.  He was coming to the aid of some older ladies, bogged down with packages, as they were trying to hail down a cab.  He immediately stepped up and did something that was very difficult in the Manhattan rain: he hailed down a cab.  Of course, no one was going to fail to stop for him.  The ladies got in, and he paused for some photographs.  I stayed where I was, getting soaked in the rain, and watched him as he saw them off and then crossed back 6th Avenue.  I considered rushing up to him, yet another fan who wanted even a single moment of his time.  But I could not bring myself to do it.  As much as I loved him, I knew he wanted his time alone.  And so I watched him as he went on his way.  This moment remains to me bittersweet.  When I think of it, I want to cry.  I'm crying now.  He was obviously an artist who, in that one role as Tony Soprano, and in his many movie roles, actually gave it his all. He gave every single bit he had.

Here he as, as he really was--after a performance in his Tony-nominated role in God of Carnage, hitting the streets, greeting fans, petting dogs, and together with his son.  This puts you right there.  This is the man--bold, giving, cuddly, and straightforward: 

I add this: the MOVIE GEEKS UNITED tribute to him, with hosts Jamey Duvall and Jerry Dennis, and myself.  On the show, I'm hardly able to speak, I'm so sad about his passing:

Finally, Jamey Duvall's interview with Allen Coulter, director of 30 episodes of The Sopranos, on his remembrances of the actor: