It’s tough to find a spot in history worthy of a man and an actor quite like James Gandolfini.
On Wednesday, the legendary thespian lost his life while on vacation in Italy due to an apparent heart attack, and yet, it’s still impossible to believe. Unanimously considered one of the greatest people in Hollywood, the actor single handedly helped usher in this new golden age of television with his work on The Sopranos, finding within that story enough meat to create arguably the most important and genuinely greatest characters in small screen history, if not entertainment in general.
However, he was more than just a character. He was the epitome of a character actor. He could be all of us.
First really catching everyone’s eye in something like True Romance, Gandolfini holds within his canon some breathtaking performances, ranging from the gay hitman Winston Baldry in the ever underrated The Mexican or the melancholy father looking to reconnect with his daughter in this year’s Violet And Daisy. He played a CIA director masterfully in last year’s Zero Dark Thirty and was an existentially frustrated killer in what may be his crowning big screen performance (aside from the one I’ll be talking about here in a second) in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly.
With a face as loveable and “real” as any character actor in film history, Gandolfini’s greatest attribute was his ability to add realism and a distinctive sense of truth to every single performance he turns in. Even if it’s a foul mouthed general in something like In The Loop (possibly his most fun and distinctively comedic performance in his entire career) or on the stage as one of four parents in crisis in the most well known staging of the beloved play Carnage, there was never a false moment within a Gandolfini performance.
And then came Where The Wild Things Are, and with it came proof that Gandolfini deserves a mention in the conversation of greatest screen actors, character or not.
Gandolfini stars in the film as Carol, the most powerful of all the Wild Things within Max’s new found world, and it’s as brazen and breathtaking a performance as I’ve ever seen. With nothing more than his voice he is able to bring with him all the truth and realism you’d expect from a Gandolfini performance, but with this undercurrent of pure id-fueled rage and existential worry. A horribly underseen picture from director Spike Jonze, this film fell in a similar place that saw Killing Them Softly hit late last year, but if there is one thing that his death may bring with it it’s hopefully a deserving re-evaluation of these, and other, underrated masterworks.
Inarguably one of the most warm, inviting and beloved faces to see on the big and small screens, Gandolfini’s voice will be on that will be impossible to forget, and one that will be missed. At the age of 51, it can be said that we lost him far too soon, but it’s hard to feel like that when it was just a pleasure to have this breathtaking body of work he gave us. He’ll be missed, without a doubt, but he should also be forever revered as one of the greatest of his time.