It’s a measure of James Gandolfini’s skill as an actor that even though his Tony Soprano was one of the most iconic characters in television history, Gandolfini was able to tweak his distinctive voice and dominating physical presence and have a flourishing secondary career as a character actor in movies. Last year Gandolfini re-teamed with his Sopranos boss David Chase for Chase’s feature-filmmaking debut Not Fade Away, a quasi-memoir of Chase’s New Jersey youth and his adventures in the world of ’60s garage-rock. Gandolfini plays the hero’s irascible father, whom Gandolfini and Chase depict as an imposing figure with an unexpectedly soft heart, who’ll shout at his son with terrifying rage in one scene and then watch the boy with loving awe in the next. Not Fade Away sort of got lost in the shuffle of year-end awards contenders, but its reputation has improved since its release on DVD and Blu-ray earlier this year, and now seems likely to be the kind of funky, personal little film that people discover and learn to love for years to come. Which means that Gandolfini’s performance in Not Fade Away (one of his best) has a chance to become as indelible as his Tony.
Yet while Gandolfini had a type he tended to play over and over on film, he was so strong, and able to hit so many different notes within that type (from scary to funny to lumpen to romantic), that a simple reading of his filmography conjures scenes, lines, and moments that are unforgettable. Spike Jonze’s ambitious, not entirely successful adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, for example, contains a voice performance by Gandolfini as the petulant monster Carol that forms the emotional core of the film, conveying the easily bruised egos of the young with just inflections alone. The voice is both heartbreaking and warm, creating a character who’s just on the edge of being out of control, like so many of Gandolfini’s best roles.
We’ll have more appreciations of Gandolfini’s oft-under-recognized film roles on The Dissolve Tumblr tomorrow morning. —Noel Murray