Does anybody have a problem with how James Gandolfini humanized the mobster for, probably, forevermore?
I didn't think so. And keep your mouth shut if you do.
"The Sopranos" star, who died unexpectedly at the age of 51 Wednesday in Italy, led his TV mafia family to a very high perch of American culture. Not only did he make the East Coast gangster staple of thousands of shows psychologically relatable like never before, he spearheaded the transformation of U.S. television from highly censored, commercial-dependent broadcast to the freer and finer dominance of cable networks that we enjoy today.
Quite the accomplishment for a chubby Jersey guy, but Gandolfini did a lot more than make Tony Soprano a pop criminal icon on a par with the Corleones and Scorsese's worst/best. The man was quite simply a brilliant actor all around, and what made that even better was that he was so humble and generous in sharing his talents in projects that never had a chance of gaining the spotlight "Sopranos" did. The TV fame was enough for him; otherwise, he did what a good actor should but rarely does, sought roles for no other reason than that he could really do something with them.
Last year alone, Gandolfini made riveting, wildly different supporting turns in three fascinating movies: as a dissolute hit man in the far-grungier-than-"The-Sopranos" crime thriller "Killing Them Softly," as "Zero Dark Thirty's" sardonic CIA director and, most poignantly, as an old-school dad not adjusting at all well to the changes of the 1960s in "Not Fade Away," "Sopranos" creator David Chase's beautifully observed, criminally underseen feature directing debut.
His other post-"Sopranos" work was consistently great, whether the projects it appeared in also were ("In the Loop," "Where the Wild Things Are," "Cinema Verite") or weren't so much ("Welcome to the Rileys," "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone").
Just a few weeks ago I saw a dreadful thing about fashion-obsessed young female assassins called "Violet & Daisy" — dreadful, that is, until Gandolfini entered the picture with authentic reserves of fatherly concern and self-sacrificing fatalism. Can't say I was glad I saw that movie, but now I'm grateful that I got to see him.
Needless to say, he was great on stage, too, in everything from "A Streetcar Named Desire" to "God of Carnage." Not casting Gandolfini in his film version of the latter will probably go down as the second-biggest mistake of Roman Polanski's life.
Gandolfini was one of those actors we could tell didn't like to talk about themselves, but when you did interview him he turned on just enough charm to overcome his shyness, and spoke with real enthusiasm and intelligence about the work he loved. Celebrated as "The Sopranos" rightfully made him, this guy just wasn't ever, ever going to be a celebrity. And we liked that about him, too.
As mentioned, most of Gandolfini's non-"Sopranos" work was in very small, underseen movies. Of course he died too young, but he left a marvelous filmed legacy that I urge you to start checking out after your memorial re-viewings of all those "Sopranos" box sets.
Trust me: You won't have a problem with that.