James Gandolfini: 1961-2013

24 June 2013

He was an exceptional actor. He channelled inner traits instead of mimicking others, which is arguably the essence of descriptions such as 'effortless' and 'genius'.

I was in Edinburgh, covering the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), when I heard of James Gandolfini’s death. As chance had it, the last review I’d filed before receiving the news had concluded with a quotation from Tony Soprano, the character with whom Gandolfini will forever be associated: “remember-when is the lowest form of conversation”.

It wasn’t the first time that week I’d written or referred to the remark. Though only one of the twenty-three reviews I’ve filed for EIFF so far quotes the line, it’s mentioned numerous times in my festival notes. I had, in fact, begun to keep a mental tally of how many times an in-film conversation was sparked by a remember-when. In my opinion, it’s a lazy form of scriptwriting.

Terence Winter might agree; he wrote the episode in which Tony makes the remark, to an underling whose anecdotal nostalgia in the presence of mutual friends is beginning to grate. We might say it’s Winter’s line. But Gandolfini’s delivery makes it. Of course, it’s impossible to itemise a collaborative art, especially when everyone’s at the top of his or her game. And for me, all things balanced, The Sopranos will take some beating, in terms of writing and – perhaps especially – acting.

“Remember When” is the 80th episode of The Sopranos and the third in its final season. By that point in the series, no corner was left uncut. We had a rapid last act and we felt a sense that anything could happen: neither longstanding loyalties nor family ties were any guarantee of safety, and veteran cast members weren’t necessarily going to be around for the final cut-to-black.

In this episode in particular, without realising it, Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) comes under threat. With the FBI digging up the skeletal remains of a man Tony killed in 1982, Paulie accompanies him on an emergency getaway to Florida. Aware that the Feds were tipped off by an incarcerated associate, Tony begins to wonder if Paulie too is vulnerable to the predatory instincts of the law.

At the episode’s start, Tony wakes up, washes his face and looks outside to see Paulie marching with some purpose up his driveway. In this comical image alone – of an old tracksuited man with blinkered vision and a grouchy face – we see what omertà means to a guy like Paulie. No family, no job, no purpose other than to serve and respect the hierarchy he’s in. Tony sees this too. He sees a guy twice his age marching up to his home like some desperately simple servant approaching, with unironic pride, the castle of his king. Watching this small spectacle of absurdity, Tony laughs.

Perhaps laugh’s too strong a word. It’s a momentary chuckle that gives way immediately to nostalgia, which in turn gives way immediately to sadness, which gives way immediately to something between affection, sympathy, shame and regret. Gandolfini nails it: those tired eyes, whose warmth contradicts the continually hostile world they witness, blink their way to some deep internal epiphany.

It’s quite clear that when he goes downstairs to meet Paulie, Tony can’t be arsed. He can’t be arsed with small talk and he can’t be arsed with serious chat. Wrapped in his giant white bathrobe, he proffers his cheek to wife Carmela (Edie Falco) and gives her the same functional smile that he gave Paulie. When Carmela heads out, Paulie’s face says everything: there’s a pressing matter that can’t wait.

Tony can’t even bring himself to look at Paulie’s face. If you watch the scene, you’ll note he looks down at Paulie’s chest, at his body. In fact, he’s looking through Paulie, as if the latter is less a friend than a concept. He is, simply, the first of the day’s interchangeable problems: what now? (Tony’s response to surviving a close shave later in the same episode: “Yeah well, you gotta wonder what’s next, huh?”)

Gandolfini rolls his eyes and turns his back, walking out of the house so that the two can speak beyond the range of any potential surveillance equipment. The gesture’s effortless: it speaks of scorn for his entire predicament, for an entire way of life that finds its metonym in these everyday rituals of barely-acknowledged ridicule. As Carmela says soon after in the same episode: “This is what life is still like? At our age?”

But this is the life Tony chose. The life, that is, into which he was born. He knows Carmela’s right, but what’s the point in changing horses midstream? Gandolfini permits a nod and a faint smile of resignation. “My tomatoes are just coming in.” You say tomatoes, I say ducks: another pipedream in a life predicated on a lie. The life that has privileged him with a garden of his own tomatoes is the same life that precludes genuine happiness.

Tony Soprano is a walking contradiction. He doesn’t particularly enjoy his responsibilities (“in this day and age, who’d want the fuckin’ job?”), but he’ll be damned if he doesn’t reap the financial rewards that come with them. He’s a simple man at heart – a child, even. And, like a child, he doesn’t like it when conscience trumps instinct.

Take that scene late on in “Remember When”, in which Tony and Paulie rent a boat and go fishing. Tony puts his pal under questioning to see how easily he crumbles; if Paulie’s so quick to whistle, who’s to say the Feds wouldn’t have a field day with him? When Paulie holds up, though, Tony doesn’t like it: all evidence contradicts his hypothesis.

He thinks for a moment whether or not to kill Paulie anyway, and annoyed by his own rationale, does the next best thing: he scares and humiliates his mate by throwing a bottle of beer at him (“think fast!”). Again, Gandolfini lends much nuance to something that might otherwise have been straightforward. Beneath Tony’s outward embarrassment of Paulie, we sense self-hatred. All at once, Gandolfini embodies a guy to whom we might relate and would hate to know.

Gandolfini was notably shy. Just as Tony Soprano’s wide cultural appeal might be the reluctance with which he assumes the mantle of mob boss, the performer’s appeal was the apparently unassuming way he went about his job. He was an exceptional actor. I always thought he channelled inner traits instead of mimicking others, which is arguably the essence of descriptions such as “effortless” and “genius”.

Others have remarked that Gandolfini wasn’t a particularly versatile performer – that though he was undeniably great, he always struggled to act differently to his Sopranos role. But given that Tony Soprano is the most complete male screen character ever, and that Gandolfini’s is the most complete male screen performance ever, it’s difficult to imagine a role that doesn’t in some way ask for those same fascinating gestures and nuances. It didn’t help, perhaps, that his facial features and physical bulk were so unique.

Whenever Gandolfini appeared in a film, I would grin like a kid. His performance was the best thing by far in Killing Them Softly last year, and was about the only thing I liked in Zero Dark Thirty. Last month, I caught up with In the Loop (2009), in which he played hot-tempered military man General George Miller. Take that scene in which he trades verbal blows with Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker – two equally familiar faces whose physical frames and vocal cadences couldn’t be any more contrasting. It’s a joy to watch.

At any rate, I’m sad that the next time I watch The Sopranos, Gandolfini's every gesture and nuance will be a constant reminder of his death. Because of the duration of the series, watching the actor grow in size and strength will be especially strange, and I don’t quite know how I’ll react to those already touching moments with Robert Iler, who plays Tony Soprano’s son, AJ.

Here are three such moments in as many episodes for those who know. Homemade ice cream delights at the end of “Down Neck”; a longer-than-normal hug upon hearing of an associate’s son’s life-threatening accident in “Whoever Did This”; poolside comfort in “The Second Coming”. My own dad turns 53 this year; it’s inconceivable that Gandolfini didn’t even reach that.

As an indelible present-tense, however, the moving image immortalises, makes permanent. And so James Gandolfini, like all great actors, leaves us with a wealth of material, to which we may return and in which we may find further truths to cherish. In the movies, there is no remember-when.