In the aftermath of James Gandolfini’s death earlier this week, there’s been no shortage of eulogies from peers and press alike, the majority paying homage to the actor’s most acclaimed performance, that of course being the role of Eddie Poole in Joel Schumacher’s “8mm”.
OK, I’m kidding, of course, but for those us who’d seen Gandolfini lumber thru sundry similar parts early in his career, his star turn as Tony Soprano was a revelation. Still, some of his self-professed admirers can’t help but damn the late Rutgers product with faint praise. For instance, the New Yorker’s Joan Acocella, who echoes her NY’er colleague David Remnick’s sentiment that Gandolfini, “wasn’t an especially versatile actor”.
In a play, Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” that he landed in soon after “The Sopranos” ended, his character was a person altogether different, a respectable Brooklynite, and his performance was just okay. Someone else could have done the role just as well, or close. (It was a joy to see him again, though.) I think that he was like famous movie villains or famous glamour girls. In his chosen specialty, he could do everything—every subdivision, every sidelight. But he couldn’t stray far beyond his boundaries.
Acocella is obviously entitled to her opinion, and if it turns out she’s never seen Gandolfini’s work alongside Robert Redford and Mark Ruffalo in “The Last Castle” —- pretty much blowing both of them off the screen (OK, not the toughest task in the case of Ruffalo) —- I’ll at least give her the benefit of the doubt for having an uninformed opinion. Gandolfini’s Colonel Winter — a vain, deeply insecure warden of a military prison — has none of Tony Soprano’s charisma, wit or depth. As a leader of men, he’s a farce. And Gandolfini did more to breathe life into that portrayal of a simpering basketcase than the slightly above average film deserved (though I would’ve liked to see him and director Lurie reu. Unlike “The Sopranos”, Gandolfini didn’t have the benefit of world-class writing, direction or brilliant supporting casting.
Sadly, Acocella can’t stop with a merely modest assessment of Gandolfini’s talents, as there’s always, y’know, the matter of calling him a fat slob.
In the eight and a half years (1999-2007) that “The Sopranos” lasted, Gandolfini aged dramatically. If you look at the photos of him accepting his first Emmy Award in 2002—he later received five more nominations and got two more awards—you see him grinning, fit, and with a pretty complete head of hair. (On the show, he could run like a gazelle.) By the end of the series, he has a lot less hair and a lot more weight. I once took a bus tour of the locations in New Jersey (Satriale’s, the Bing, etc.) where “The Sopranos” was filmed. The tour ended at Holsten’s Ice Cream Parlor, in Bloomfield, where the frightening last scene takes place. Our tour guide told us that in Holsten’s, the tables in the booths are screwed to the floor. For the “Sopranos” scene they had to unscrew a table and move it over so that Gandolfini could sit there comfortably.
Clearly, Gandolfini wasn’t the picture of health. And we’ve already got News Corp’s top North American tabloid detailing exactly how much he consumed the night prior to his death (along with an anonymous source claiming the deceased, “loved to blow lines”). But if you’re gonna give a non-athlete (or a non-racehorse) who’s been dead less than 72 hours some very public grief for aging poorly, wouldn’t it be fair play to see a recent photograph of Acocella? So we can at least compare it to one from 8 years ago? But even without that, thanks very much, Culture Desk. There’s no way I could’ve come to any great conclusions about James Gandolfini’s body of work without being reminded he was a big motherfucker (which clearly didn’t hinder his ability to play the only part you think he was exceptional in).