Five Great James Gandolfini Movie Roles

by Ethan Alter June 20, 2013 9:55 am
Five Great James Gandolfini Movie Roles

For obvious reasons, James Gandolfini's legacy will be forever tied to Tony Soprano. It's the role he played the longest and which left the deepest impact, both on viewers and within the industry at large. But the late actor, who died (too soon) of an apparent heart attack on Wednesday, had a gallery of memorable movie characters as well, particularly after The Sopranos transformed him from a struggling supporting player (he had small, but memorable turns in films like True Romance and Crimson Tide in the run-up to the 1999 debut of The Sopranos) into a sought-after character actor who appeared in a rich variety of films, from the sublime (Spike Jonze's lovely adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are) to the absurd (John Turturro's intriguing, but problematic musical Romance & Cigarettes). And even when the films themselves stank (Surviving Christmas anyone?) Gandolfini's mere presence made them less painful than they otherwise might have been. Here are five Gandolfini movie characters we'd place alongside his towering turn as a New Jersey don.

Pat Damiano (Not Fade Away)
David Chase has made no secret of the fact that his underappreciated coming-of-age portrait (which made my 2012 Top Ten list) of a '60s-era Jersey boy and rock aficionado is modeled after his own life story and one feels that sense of familiarity bleeding through the lovingly rendered setting and the characterizations. As the father of the Chase surrogate at the center of the film, Gandolfini's performance in particular carries a level of authenticity that can only come from autobiography -- both on the part of the writer/director and the actor (who said in interviews that he modeled Pat after his own father). Mostly avoiding the nostalgic sentimentality that typically torpedoes this kind of drama, Not Fade Away depicts the give-and-take between a father and son separated by a generation gap with honesty and respect. The farewell scene between Pat and his now-grown offspring -- in which he gives the kid one last gift for the road -- resonates with emotions that don't need to be expressed in words.
Click here to read our original review of Not Fade Away
Click here to read our coverage of the Not Fade Away press conference with Chase and Gandolfini

Mickey Fallon (Killing Them Softly)
Another underseen gem from 2012, Andrew Dominik's scruffy assassin's ball of a film presents organized crime as just another corporation, with Brad Pitt's enforcer Jackie Cogan playing the ruthless CEO. That makes Gandolfini's Mickey -- a once-reliable hitman gone to seed thanks to too much alcohol and too many stints in prison -- the past-his-prime corporate drone heading towards a forcible retirement. As Tony Soprano, the actor used his bulk to be a forceful, intimidating presence, but here he allows it to render him inert and immobile -- a man who has all but quit on life already, but still masquerades as a player. Based on this performance, Gandolfini would have made an incredible Shelly "The Machine" Levene in a Glengarry Glen Ross revival -- another example of a sure-to-be remarkable performance we've been robbed of.
Click here to read our original review of Killing Them Softly

Bailey (Down the Shore)
I wasn't especially kind to this micro-budget, Jersey-set indie that sat around unreleased for two years and I still think it's a disappointingly flat production given the talent involved. Upon review though, Gandolfini -- in one of his too-infrequent feature film star turns -- does more complex work than I initially gave him credit for. If Killing Them Softly's Mickey was a has-been, then Shore's Bailey is a never-was -- a Jersey Shore lifer who stayed put in the Garden State even after he lost the love of his life to his best friend and watched his beloved sister flee overseas to escape the family drama in their shared pasts. Instead, he goes to work every day at a dinky seaside amusement park, never allowing himself to imagine that there's a world beyond the confines of his hometown. It's the rare introverted performance from the usually emotive Gandolfini, and lingers in the mind long after the credits roll.

Lieutenant General George Miller (In the Loop)
Despite having a demonstrated flair for cracking an audience up, Gandolfini wasn't cast in many big-screen comedies. Scratch that: he wasn't cast in many good big-screen comedies, as anyone who suffered through Surviving Christmas, The Mexican (the Brad Pitt/Julia Roberts team-up where he completely stole the show) and, most recently, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone knows all too well. Thankfully, British satirist Armando Iannucci recognized the natural comedian inside Gandolfini's gruff exterior and welcomed him into the terrific ensemble of comic actors that populated the writer/director's brilliant send-up of Anglo-American foreign relations. Gandolfini stared down his fair share of formidable opponents on The Sopranos, but perhaps his most well-fought screen battle was the war or words waged between his sarcastic Lieutenant General and Peter Capaldi's tyrannical swear monster, Malcolm Tucker, Iannucci's greatest comic creation.

Kenny Kane (The Mighty)
This late '90s tearjerker about a dying kid (Kieran Culkin) and the dyslexic outcast (Elden Henson) who befriends him is obnoxiously treacly and shamelessly manipulative, but it's worth checking out (with some judicious fast-forwarding) for Gandolfini's brief, but dynamic turn as Henson's hoodlum father -- the flip side of the deeply flawed, but ultimately caring dad he played in Not Fade Away and The Sopranos. In a movie that's filled with forced fantasy allusions (mostly to Arthurian legends as in Terry Gilliam's far superior The Fisher King), Gandolfini is as legitimately terrifying as any mythical monster.

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