If any actor could have rested comfortably on his laurels early on, it was James Gandolfini, who passed away in Italy today at the age of 51. His work on “The Sopranos” came to define the otherwise minor character actor so quickly and wholly that he seemed destined to live out the remainder of his career being typecast—he slid so comfortably into the role of Tony Soprano, embodying the New Jersey gangster in the popular imagination, that it was hard to imagine him breaking free from that filmography-eclipsing preconception. He offered us a recognizable, relatable narrative: an actor struggles for years to make it big in Hollywood only to be embraced by television when success never pans out. It didn’t make sense for the script to change.
But much as David Chase refused a tidy ending with the series finale of “The Sopranos”, so too did Gandolfini rewrite the ending of his illustrious career in television: instead of receding into gangland obscurity, becoming just another second-rate Pacino primed for mafia pictures on a budget, he continued to challenge both himself and our perception of him, taking on increasingly difficult roles with fervor and audacity. Perhaps we should have anticipated it: his performance in the Coens’ wildly underrated “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, which finds him playing a sleazy businessman and enemy to Billy Bob Thorton’s hapless barber protagonist, seems in retrospect like a concerted attempt to reconfigure his public image as his TV epic was reaching the peak of its popularity. Even when it made the most sense for him to stick to what he knew, Gandolfini wanted risks. It was a tendency he would return to again and again.
When “The Sopranos” wrapped production, in 2007, the now exceptionally well-known actor wasted no time dismantling his beloved public image, re-emerging in the film world with three varied, back-to-back Hollywood turns: the first was in Armando Iannucci’s blistering, howlingly funny political satire “In the Loop”, which he joined as one of the few American actors trying to hold his own in a cast of British comedians. “In the Loop” found Gandolfini playing against type as a high-ranking member of the U.S. army uninterested in fighting and dead-set against the Iraq war. It was, in careerist terms, an obvious reveal of his natural knack for comedy: his most memorable scene, in which he spars with Peter Capaldi’s infamously sweary Malcolm Tucker, lends him the welcome opportunity to describe hitting somebody in the face so hard they’ll “be sh*tting teeth”.
The same year found Gandolfini co-starring alongside Denzel Washington and John Travolta in Tony Scott’s remake of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3”, in which he plays the widely detested mayor of New York City. It seems like a somewhat slender role, but Gandolfini shrewdly inflected his performance with weariness rather than incompetence; the latter might have played better for laughs, but it wasn’t as believable. In Gandolfini’s hands, the disliked mayor became a tired, listless figure doing his best to deal with another in what seemed like an endless stream of catastrophes, and in the end he seemed like the most three-dimensional character in the cast. And the following year, of course, he lent his voice to the acclaimed “Where the Wild Things Are”, a deeply moving turn which further reinforced the new idea that, whether you wanted a gangster of a beast, Gandolfini could do just about anything.
But what’s especially sad about the loss of James Gandolfini is that he delivered some of the most compelling work of his career over the course of the last year alone. In “Killing Them Softly”, “Zero Dark Thirty”, and especially in “Not Fade Away”, again working under David Chase, Gandolfini really opened up as a dramatic performer, in each case both building on his reputation as a typical Jersey heavy and subtly undermining it. It wasn’t simply that he had hit a groove—it was as if he’d found a more sophisticated voice. Gandolfini had long-since been known as an actor of powerful expression, flying into uncontrolled rages or spells of heart-wrenching brooding better than most people working. But across his last three films he proved supremely capable of something more intriguing, and more difficult: he became an actor of powerful thinking, suggesting a depth to his characters but barely letting any of it out. That we got to see some of this before his career was cut short is something to be thankful for. That he never got to develop it further, and that we are denied the rich work that was no doubt to come, is tragic.