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The 5 Most Memorable Performances By James Gandolfini

by The Playlist Staff
June 20, 2013 12:58 PM
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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 GirlAnna 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.

Honorable mentions: Of course, many will argue that “True Romance” should be up in that top five, but some of us felt he showed ever greater dimension in later roles. Either way, it’s one to seek out. Gandolfini shows some humor and heart in the underseen HBO movie “Cinema Verite” playing an overzealous documentary filmmaker; he delivers in the role of Leon Panetta in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” and two not-so-great movies with solid turns from the actor include the legal drama “A Civil Action” and the musical “Romance & Cigarettes.”

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

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  • cranly | June 21, 2013 12:56 AMReply

    Sidney Lumet's 'Night Falls on Manhattan.' That's definitely his greatest role pre-'Sopranos'. He's also very good in 'She's So Lovely' and 'Welcome to the Rileys'.

  • cattt | June 20, 2013 4:13 PMReply

    A lot has been said about Tony Soprano, but I actually think that this is the role of a lifetime for any actor. 6 season TV-series has a lot of material and development for one character, who is the center of the show. Movies can't do that. Imagine Daniel Day Lewis playing Plainview for 70+ hours.

    Tony Soprano had everything. He was funny, ruthless, dangerous, charming, neurotic, childish, petty, loving, violent, even psychotic at times. Not to mention he was a complete sociopath who didn't even realize he was the villain. Has to be one the greatest characters in fiction.

  • Daniel | June 20, 2013 3:14 PMReply

    "The Mexican." Absolutely terrible movie, and he's brilliant in it. Shows just how much talent he had, that he was able to elevate the material.

  • cirkusfolk | June 20, 2013 1:54 PMReply

    Although the movie was a little cheesy, he was good as the warden in The Last Castle. And I always liked his small role as Bear in Get Shorty.

  • Matt N. | June 20, 2013 1:37 PMReply

    Great article. I totally agree with all five, especially "In the Loop" and "Softly." I also think he was great in "The Mexican." A really heartfelt and touching performance. I'm going to miss seeing him on screen.

  • scallywag | June 20, 2013 1:13 PMReply

    How ironic that the world watches on the actor's real life death after it spent years watching him playing the conflicted crime boss who is forced to come clean with himself for killing others as his gangster role mandated.

    James Gandolifini may be dead but the uber role of Tony Soprano that he owned will live on as we too now are forced to come to terms with a tragic hero's sudden death....

  • darensmith | June 20, 2013 1:12 PMReply

    as Clara implied I am taken by surprise that a single mom can earn $9068 in one month on the internet. did you look at this

  • Erik | June 20, 2013 1:05 PMReply

    Pretty hard to argue with this top 5. On a side note: I have to admit that I really enjoyed him in 'The Mexican' (and honestly, I didn't think that movie was as awful as people say).

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