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Remembering James Gandolfini, the Reluctant Tough Guy

James Gandolfini RIP
HBO

James Gandolfini‘s passing at the relatively young age of 51 comes at a shock. I hope it isn’t too inappropriate to say that the startling news reminds me of the ending of the show with which he’ll forever be most closely associated, ‘The Sopranos.’

It’s the shock of an abrupt cut-to-black, followed by emptiness.

In 2012, Gandolfini gave two outstanding film performances in ‘Killing Them Softly‘ and ‘Not Fade Away,’ and while neither were widely seen, I was definitely looking forward to a post-’Sopranos’ career of wildly divergent and interesting turns from a man who didn’t need to make any more money and had the acting chops to take on challenging and unique roles.

I can’t endorse checking out the criminally under-seen ‘Killing Them Softly’ and ‘Not Fade Away’ enough. There’s no better way to see his remarkable range. His performance in the former, Andrew Dominik’s hitman picture starring Brad Pitt, is the darkest, most nihilistic howl of despair tinged with sympathy and sadness. The latter, ‘Soprano”s creator David Chase’s semi-autobiographical tale of rebellious youth, shows him as a father whose unconditional love is eclipsed by generation-gap frustration. These are alpha and omega roles, wholly different, both handled with outstanding strength.

Which is not to imply that ‘The Sopranos’ wasn’t complex. While much of the discussion around the show focuses on the violence, humor and braggadocio of mobsters swinging their pistols around, what made the physically imposing Tony Soprano so fascinating was his weaknesses. He was a reluctant tough guy, who only ever wanted people to just take it easy and calm down, for people to give him five minutes rest and, to put it in North Jersey terms, for everyone to stop busting everybody else’s chops.

Tony Soprano was greedy and selfish and completely unable to stop feeding his id, but he always felt a little bit bad about it. He didn’t want Artie Bucco’s place burned down, he didn’t want Vito whacked just because he was gay, he didn’t want Caputo’s Poultry to get sold to make way for an Orange Julius. But it was always easier to let these things happen – and there were always fringe benefits like money, power, or a fling with Julianna Marguilies (not that he didn’t feel guilty cheating on Carmella, but that’s another story.) The point is, Tony Soprano was a tough guy who didn’t want to act like a tough guy, but then when he ultimately did, we knew that he wasn’t even happy with the results.

Not any old actor can pull this off. Tony Soprano was 98% morally bankrupt, but that 2% burned so brightly, and had to come through at just the right moments to keep us tuned in for six seasons. He also had have the physical presence; overweight yet still charming, with a sexual presence (difficult to do with our current codes of conventional desirability). And had to be funny. He had to be perfect. He had to be James Gandolfini.

While I’m upset for Gandolfini’s family, I’m also sad for very selfish reasons. I was very much looking forward to seeing him sink his teeth into more roles. James Gandolfini will be greatly missed, and I doubt we’ll ever hear Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” the same way again.

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