“In The Loop” (2009)
Most fans of Armando Iannucci’s “The Thick Of It” knew that he’d be assembling a murderer’s row of comedic voices for this sort-of spinoff, with each put-upon politico trading rat-a-tat barbs and slander like sworn enemies. But seeing the Americans cast had to give some audience members pause: former TV star David Rasche? The original “My Girl” Anna Chlumsky? And at the time it seemed unusual to consider what role burly, intimidating Gandolfini would play against these sharp-tongued visitors, as he’s never been known to spit rapid-fire dialogue in a heightened comic atmosphere. Turns out, surprise, Gandolfini’s a natural: as Lieutenant General George Miller, Gandolfini creates possibly the most complex and likable figure in the picture, a decorated head honcho who nonetheless has zero battle experience. Every character fears him, and when he speaks he has considerable bark: it’s in his quieter moments where he reveals his own insecurities that work as the strongest dramatic moments in a very funny movie. It’s a complex character, and Gandolfini creates a plausible idea that he may be on higher ground than those who surround him, but he does have to use a children’s toy when it comes time to perform military calculations.
“Killing Them Softly” (2012)
There’s something genuinely diseased about Mickey, the out-of-town contractor that is brought in for a particularly shady hit in “Killing Them Softly.” With Gandolfini’s sad eyes and saggy jowls, he’s clearly losing his tenuous hold on his own composure. While it’s strictly an impersonal hit job, Mickey settles into the bar with fellow hitman Jackie, and the two of them exchange pleasantries in a way that suggests years of history without outright saying anything. The interplay between fellow “True Romance” veterans Gandolfini and Brad Pitt is fascinating in their two extended, shared scenes; they’re the only moments Gandolfini has in the entire film, but they loom large. As he tosses drinks back, swearing an allegiance to irresponsible bad behavior, casual sex and passive-aggressive animosity towards ex-wives, you can see his words are merely hiding a man who is decomposing before our very eyes. Gandolfini gets to be funny and profane, sure, but he also gets to reveal the touching identity of a man lost in an endless downward spiral.
"The Man Who Wasn’t There" (2001)
A black-and-white neo-noir directed by Joel Coen and co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is heavily influenced by the novels of James Cain (“The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Double Indemnity”), but also has the trademark Coen surrealistic spin. The story follows Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber whose wife (Frances McDormand) is cheating on him with her boss, Big Dave Brewster (Gandolfini), the owner of the local department store Nirdlinger’s. Clear opposites from the beginning, Big Dave is a real blowhard (Gandolfini described Big Dave as “a bit of a loud-mouthed clotheshorse kind of guy”), especially about his purported time in the Pacific during the war, whereas Ed is generally a very quiet guy and was unable to serve due to flat feet. So when Ed decides to blackmail Big Dave, there’s that spark of Coen magic, especially when Big Dave turns to Ed for advice on how to deal with the blackmailer. Within this one pivotal scene, Gandolfini performs a true tour-de-force, going from gregariously chatting, to confiding, to quietly concerned, to pissed-off, to crying and breaking down, to almost instantaneously confrontational, to a confessional, to a blanket apology, and all within a few minutes. As Big Dave, Gandolfini brought so many dimensions to a supporting role that lasted roughly only a third of the film: the loudmouth who's living on his wife’s coattails but still sleeps around, the adulterer who becomes remorseful once he’s blackmailed, the war veteran whose bloated stories question whether he actually served, and so much more. As with many of his roles, Gandolfini humanized what could have simply been a caricature through his subtle portrayal of the man’s depth and duplicity, which made the character all the more resonant and marks the true greatness of the actor.
What performances stand out for you? Share your thoughts on Gandolfini with us below. And after that watch James Gandolfini's episode of "Inside the Actor's Studio," him reading Maurice Sendak's "In The Night Kitchen," appearing on "Sesame Street" and the final scene from "The Sopranos." -- Gabe Toro, Kevin Jagernauth, Rodrigo Perez, Diana Drumm, Mark Zhuravsky