Written by Zac Platt.
How do you measure the life unlived? Is it by the accomplishments you’ve made, or by the hole of those you haven’t? The legacy you leave, or your potential unfulfilled? When James Gandolfini left us last Wednesday, he did so with a lot to be proud of. One of the greatest roles in television history, two children, a generous amount of awards and recognition, two documentaries, and enough varied performances over the last few years to dismiss any fears of him being typecast post-Sopranos. I don’t think I’m alone in the belief that Gandolfini was only just beginning the second act of his career. When The Sopranos controversially ended by abruptly cutting to black, it simultaneously took away one of our favorite shows and denied us the closure we were so desperate for. Here, we are robbed not only of one of the finest actors to ever appear on television, but also one hell of a career we will now never see reach the heights it was destined for.
At 25 Gandolfini decided to pursue a career in acting, spending 12 years in various films and shows before The Sopranos came along to provide him with his first lead role. While some of these gigs were more notable than others, he remained more of a pleasant surprise than a name you would see on the poster. A familiar face with some real talent, but you can’t remember what else you’d seen him in. But as Tony Soprano, he quickly found himself as one of the best actors on television, setting the bar that all the Ian McShanes and Bryan Cranstons of the world would henceforth be measured against.
The most obvious weapon in Gandolfini’s arsenal was his anger. Terrifying, intense and so very real. When it wasn’t blind rage, it was desperate and defensive, even insecure. Gandolfini made Tony a powder keg, always with something to prove and ready to explode at the first sight of spilt milk. Sometimes he would make himself stay up all night, or cause himself pain and discomfort before shoots to to keep Tony looking so frustrated and ready to snap.
Looking beyond the fury, the spittle and that signature heavy breathing, Gandolfini was masterful in his ability to elicit empathy. He accomplished this by creating a strange innocence that contrasted his otherwise dominating and violent manner. His almost childlike enthusiasm is so focused that you can’t help but feel excitement for him in those fleeting moments of unbridled joy. Likewise, your heart breaks when you see him at his most vulnerable, those eyes begging you, the universe, or anyone who will listen for help.
Tony Soprano was a horrible human being. He was shameless, selfish and treated most people only as a means to an end. But Gandolfini made you love him unconditionally. You knew he was a liar and that he would never change, but he was family and none of that mattered. This is possibly the biggest testament to the actor, that he could make you care so greatly for such a vile person. Even show creator David Chase has commented on his surprise over the degree to which people sympathized with and rooted for his protagonist.
To me though, what stood out the most was his understated and candid take on depression. Gandolfini didn’t rely on any of the numbing, mopey or melodramatic conceits most actors would employ. He was bitter, insecure and broken. You get the sense that he’s exhausted, having tried and failed to make sense of the world. Gandolfini’s approach was to hyperbolize the core characteristics of Tony rather than just selling his melancholy at face value. By doing so, his misery feels more honest, and earns him one of the most human performances I’ve ever seen.
Following The Sopranos, Gandolfini’s projects often carried similar notes of vulnerability or defeat.
In Where the Wild things Are, he once again danced between child and monster as Carol. In many ways, it was the same character viewed from a different perspective, this time focusing on what the fear of abandonment does to a person rather than the rejection itself. However it’s the consequences of war that seemed closest to Gandolfini’s heart. He produced a documentary about the veterans of Iraq and another about the effects of PTSD on soldiers, with his role as the aggressively peace-loving Lt. General George Miller of In the Loop sitting between them. A role that also proved Gandolfini’s worth in a comedy, which he expressed interest in doing more of, but as he put it, “Nobody’s asked”.
Let’s return to television, where his real legacy lies. I truly believe that right now is a golden age of television drama. The last 15 years have given us so many amazing shows and incredible characters. While I recognize there were plenty of excellent shows prior (I love X-files as much as the next guy), it’s The Sopranos that elevated the medium to the bastion of excellence it is today. How many articles listed it as evidence that the gap between film and television was closing? Or that Gandolfini proved television actors deserved just as much recognition? With The Sopranos HBO set new standards of what television could be, leading us to where we are today. Really, what would that show have been without Gandolfini?
And so we get to the point of this article. Not so much to mourn James Gandolfini, or to celebrate his accomplishments, but to say thank you. Thank you for bringing to life one of my favourite characters in all fiction. For showing us all what television could do for character development. For breaking our hearts and making us care for such a monster. For the honest and relatable exploration of depression. And for paving the way for so many of the things I love today. The brilliance of the ending to The Sopranos was the tragedy of not knowing, that you could be sitting at a table, eating with your family and then suddenly it’s all over. It’s maddening that we’ll never get to see Gandolfini’s career continue to blossom the way it was always meant to, but the ending doesn’t always come when the story is over. Often it’s abrupt, while there is still life left to live. So thank you James, for all you have given us, and for all the great work you were yet to do.