I fell in love with James Gandolfini the first time I heard Tony Soprano say "Ah, Carm…"
He was like a mischievous boy caught in the act, the barest of smiles playing around the corners of his mouth.
Edie Falco as Carmela Soprano shot him a look that would have brought a lesser man to his knees. Willing to hand him leftover pasta. Not yet willing to forgive.
I was. I knew then Tony Soprano was one man I was willing to forgive — for cheating, lying, stealing, even killing. It is what mob bosses do, and no one, not even the Godfather, did it quite like Tony Soprano.
It will take a while to believe that Gandolfini is gone. It is too soon, 51. It makes me forever grateful to David Chase for the gift of "The Sopranos," HBO's landmark mafia drama. Chase's creation introduced me to the singular acting talent of James J. Gandolfini Jr. A Jersey boy with grit in his voice, a certain spark in his eyes and a smile that could melt the coldest heart. A tough yet tender bear of a man, more street-smart than schooled, simple yet complex, a dichotomy that Hollywood didn't always know how to handle.
Chase, however, understood from the very beginning what a gem he had in Gandolfini. No one else could have played Tony, not with such greatness, not with such humility. Chase knew to let Gandolfini dominate the screen and Gandolfini knew to let Tony Soprano dominate him.
I hate that the movie industry missed that — miscasting, misplacing, misunderstanding the actor most in his post-Soprano days. The movies didn't see what Chase saw, what we saw — a leading man. One with a belly, bags under his eyes and a receding hairline, but sexual, visceral, vital, commanding all the same.
The small screen was never quite as small when Gandolfini was on it. I'm convinced he could have played as big on the big screen had he been given half a chance.
Half a chance is about what he got from the movie side of town.
It was as if Hollywood made a list of what type Gandolfini could play in film with a line drawn through "leading man." "Romantic lead," they crossed that out twice. Clearly the guys who can say "yes" or "no" to major casting calls never checked with the women of America who swooned each time Tony settled into a chair across from Dr. Jennifer Melfi.
Even Freud must have been mesmerized by all that therapy as foreplay. Lorraine Bracco in those tight black skirts and stilettos channeled the dissonance of sexual arousal and years of repression every time her character crossed, then re-crossed her legs. Gandolfini channeled Don Juan, a knowing smile, his eyes running over her body, claiming it without a touch. It's amazing more TV sets didn't short out during "The Sopranos'" six-season run.
There is a coming romantic comedy from indie writer/director Nicole Holofcener that features Gandolfini in a romance with Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It seems like a good fit. Holofcener's movies like "Friends With Money" and "Lovely & Amazing" create interesting and unexpected chemistry between characters. Gandolfini doesn't have the lead, but as he told Times feature writer Nicole Sperling last December, at least he got to kiss the girl this time. Hollywood didn't often ask.
Instead, the default for Gandolfini tended to be law-and-order types: A detective in "Lonely Hearts," a colonel in "The Last Castle," a lieutenant general in "In the Loop," the mayor in "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," the CIA director in "Zero Dark Thirty."
Though Gandolfini was game, it never made sense to me. Why cast the quintessential rule-breaker, the consummate head-basher, as an enforcer of the straight and narrow, an authority figure whose main task is to scowl, or in a really tense moment, slam down the phone?
And not because Gandolfini didn't have the range, he did. It was more that the roles themselves rarely let him move around much in the uniform. And doing nothing was never Gandolfini's style.
He was a purpose-driven actor. Gandolfini's devotion to the craft was never in question.
When he wasn't on active duty somewhere, the quirky character roles would show up. Gandolfini was a hoot as the gay amigo of Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts' couple on the run in 2001's "The Mexican," but he was also barely there. He probably should have taken a pass on the snuff film talent agent in "8MM," but then everyone in the cast should have too.
Not surprisingly, Gandolfini got the occasional mob types. He had a nice turn last year in the neo-noir "Killing Them Softly." But the movie's star was Brad Pitt, and Gandolfini's competing hit man couldn't upstage the main attraction. Besides, Mickey was no Tony anyway — just following orders.
Significantly one of Gandolfini's most nuanced movie performances came in giving voice to Carol, the havoc-wreaking big-footed giant furball in Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are," the director's live action/animatronic mash-up in 2009. There was the raging about that monsters must do, but there were moments of such gentleness between Carol and young Max, it showed Gandolfini's power to move us sight unseen, the growl in his voice softened by emotion.
That deep well of feeling surfaced opposite Kristen Stewart in the indie drama "Welcome to the Rileys" in 2010. The movie itself was a bit of a mess, but Gandolfini and Stewart were wonderful to watch in a quasi father-daughter tangle. Gandolfini's middle-aged Doug takes the smallest of steps to be the father figure the homeless teen never had, Stewart's Mallory wearing her punk rage on her sleeve as she smokes and seethes. Never has Gandolfini played quite so vulnerable.
It felt like another shade of one of "The Sopranos'" most moving story lines. The relationship between Tony and his nephew Christopher was so fraught, and fragile. Every time Tony said "Chris-taa-pher," each syllable carried an equal measure of love and frustration for his willful nephew. Often Gandolfini would grab actor Michael Imperioli by the scruff of the neck as he said it. Eye to eye. Man to man. Tony never blinked. Christopher always did.
Gandolfini would reunite with the man who gave him his greatest role for a modest movie in 2012's "Not Fade Away." It was Chase's first time directing a feature film, a '60s story of one of those garage bands that proliferated back in the day. Gandolfini played the father of the drummer, a decent blue-collar dad but totally out of sync with his son. The actor said he did it as a homage to his father. The movie didn't really work well for either the actor or director, but the sentiment in it was nostalgic, nice.
The finality of any death always carries regret. What might have been lingering, unanswered. There is some comfort in knowing that in Tony Soprano, Gandolfini had his day in the sun, a long run of doing a job he loved very, very well.
Still, I wish there had been more time. More time for him to find his footing in movies. For movies to truly find him.
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