Photo credit: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
It’s hard to believe that James Gandolfini has passed away at age 51. To say that James Gandolfini’s consistent excellence set the bar for television acting would be an understatement, but his on and off screen presence reached far beyond the world of Tony Soprano. His gracious, intelligent and gentle demeanor made an impact wherever he went, and he will be truly missed.
A longtime supporter of the NYC downtown arts scene, James Gandolfini was one of our most beloved TFF alumni. His films Lonely Hearts (TFF 2006) and In the Loop (TFF 2011) provided a glimpse of his incredible versatility and range as an actor. In Lonely Hearts, filmed in the classic noir style, he plays a 1940s police detective pursuing the infamous Lonely Hearts Killers. On the other end of the spectrum, the biting black comedy In the Loop features Gandolfini as a fully realized and acerbic U.S General who attempts to avert war in the Middle East.
Gandolfini sought out challenging roles on-screen and remained dedicated to his own growth as an artist in other capacities as well. In 2007, he produced Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, a documentary for HBO which featured the actor interviewing soldiers suffering from severe injuries and trauma in relative obscurity. Returning to the Broadway stage in 2009, Gandolfini was nominated for a Tony for his work in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, a ferocious 90 minutes of vernacular volleyball in which Gandolfini, as one fourth of two sparring suburban couples, more than held his own.
Without Gandolfini’s influence on television acting, there would be no Don Draper (seriously, remember "Mad Men’s" Matthew Weiner got his start on "The Sopranos") or Walter White. Gandolfini paved the way for the development of high quality hour-long dramas that don’t have to be driven by the presence of a bona fide movie star. When he was cast by David Chase (which started a nearly 15 year long collaboration between the two and HBO), Gandolfini was transformed from a character actor (appearing in films like True Romance, The Juror and A Civil Action) into a fully realized television legend.
In the hands of a lesser actor, Tony Soprano could have been a limited, brutish character, but Gandolfini breathed new life into the stereotypical mob boss, portraying Soprano as a complex human being who could be both terrifying and powerful in his business dealings and gentle and compassionate in his personal life. His Tony Soprano was not a cardboard figure, but rather a complicated mess of a man, who understands and is resigned to the human condition in all its complexities.
During and after "The Sopranos," Gandolfini compiled a full and varied filmography, deftly navigating his career path between indie projects and studio pictures. From his vocal performance as the impulsive Carol in Where The Wild Things Are to his portrayal of the grieving father battling personal demons in Welcome to the Rileys, Gandolfini was truly a marvel at his craft.
Recently, he shined in the role of Mickey, a violent mafia hitman in the middle of an existential crisis, in Killing Them Softly. Knowing he is about to go back to jail on gun charges, Mickey takes on one last job. Deeply depressed, Mickey drinks heavily, consorts with an array of hookers, and finally offers a wrenching commentary on the life he has led through a passionate, crude and oddly distant monologue about a former love. Only Gandolfini could create empathy for this ferocious killer in the midst of a breakdown.
In addition to a pilot for a limited-run HBO series entitled "Criminal Justice," Gandolfini had recently completed work on two films: The Untitled Nicole Holofcener Project and Animal Rescue. In light of this tragedy, these final opportunities for us to enjoy his craft will be incredibly poignant.