It’s hard to believe that it’s already been over three months since one of TV’s all-time greatest actors passed away. While tons of articles have been written about the late-great James Gandolfini, we here at Reel Reactions have yet to contribute to the remembrance of this great actor. With Enough Said, one of his final films, on the eve of release we figured there’s no better time than now to throw our hat in the pile and reflect on the many achievements of this beloved and dearly missed actor.
First things first, it is completely impossible to talk about Gandolfini without immediately bringing up his groundbreaking work as Tony Soprano is HBO’s breakout series The Sopranos. While it is far from unheard, it is a rarity in TV for one actor to become synonymous with a character he plays and that’s exactly what happened with Gandolfini thanks to his unbelievably nuanced performance. Tony, at his core, is an extremely unlikeable character. He’s frustratingly stubborn, set in his ways, prone to fits of anger, and pretty much a terrible husband and father. Really the only thing Tony is good at is being a thug, being a ruthless mobster who isn’t afraid to make hard choices and take violent action. In the hands of a lesser actor this character would’ve become exceptionally uninteresting within the first season; there’s only so much violence and anger an audience can take before losing interest all together.
However, with the guidance of David Chase, Gandolfini was able to take a one-note character and transform him into one of the most compelling characters, not only on TV, but in any form of storytelling. Thanks to Gandolfini, Tony Soprano became much more than just a thug, he was a man cursed with an unending desire to change but was born into a sedentary world where change is unequivocally looked down upon. He was constantly at odds with himself and his contradicting desires to be a better man and to be a powerful mobster. He wanted more than anything to be there for his family and to be a good father but was constantly distracted by the world that his father forced upon him. More than anything Tony Soprano was a mask, and Gandolfini revealed the real man underneath the mobster, a man who never wanted to be involved in organized crime but forced himself too due to the world he was brought up in. Throughout the series you can see how much each and every murder or beating emotionally scars Tony, you can see in his eyes and expressions how much he wants to change and escape this life but there’s no way out for him. He made his choice long before the show began and the entire series depicts the futility of his longings for change.
All of these nuances and subtleties, the little things that made Tony Soprano such a compelling anti-hero, can be traced back to Gandolfini’s brilliance. Sure David Chase and his writers deserve a lot of credit too, but in the end it was Gandolfini’s incredible performance that made Tony who he was. He brought so much world-weariness and emotion to the performance that, even in his darkest moments, we never stopped caring or rooting for Tony. There are many moments where we really should hate Tony but it’s because of Gandolfini and all he brings to the character that we never once turn against him.
While Gandolfini will forever be remembered as Tony Soprano, we shouldn’t forget his many other great performances. While he never had a role quite as meaty as Tony, Gandolfini was a consistently great character actor for years before and after The Sopranos. He first made a splash with his small but memorable appearance in True Romance. Afterwards he had small roles in films like Crimson Tide and Get Shorty before finally signing on to The Sopranos. Once that series wrapped up in 2007 Gandolfini had trouble shaking off audience’s undying perception of him as Tony Soprano. Regardless, he continued to put in great work in films like the British cult comedy In the Loop, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, and last year’s crime drama Killing Them Softly. He even voiced the main monster, Carol, in Where the Wild Things Are.
It truly is a shame that he had to be taken from us so early because it seemed like he was finally shedding himself of Tony Soprano by taking more and more varied roles. Selfishly, I wish he could of lived longer because Tony Soprano should’ve been just the beginning for a man as talented as James Gandolfini. He will be dearly missed but never forgotten.
R.I.P James Gandolfini
Article by James Hausman