My most prolific blog contributor queried, roughly two weeks ago, if my readers could expect some sort of tribute to James Gandolfini. I was pretty certain there would be, but I needed some distance to figure out just how to go about it. For one thing, mass and social media was flooded with dedications for days. I chose to wait that out. Also…I was not a regular viewer of “The Sopranos”. Oh, I admired the show. I even watched the majority of one of the later seasons around the time my wife was pregnant with our first child. But, the vast majority of episodes—I haven’t seen. However, I did see Jimmy G in his Broadway debut(as Steve Hubbell in the 1992 revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire”), well before most folks even knew who he was—so I considered the stage angle, being that Gandolfini was also one of the stars of the Tony-winning “God of Carnage” in 2009. But there’s such a large selection to cull from on his film resume, that it quickly became the ultimate choice. And in talking to James Gandolfini lovers the past bunch of days, I discovered a common theme…most were simply “Sopranos” lovers—they have never seen the majority of Gandolfini’s film work. So, allow me to present a trio that you should add to your agenda now. Their most prominent distinction? All three were box office bombs.
Back in 1993, Quentin Tarantino was on some people’s radar, but we were still roughly a year away from the phenomenon that was “Pulp Fiction”. So, maybe the mainstream was unprepared for Tony Scott’s violent, bloody and profane “True Romance” with a script from Q.T. himself. The film stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as young lovers on the run, and its most famous scene is a brilliantly scripted history lesson on Sicilians, as given to Christopher Walken’s gangster by the doomed night watchman character played by Dennis Hopper. It also co-stars Gandolfini as Virgil, one of the gangster’s henchmen, who administers an absolutely brutal beating to the film’s heroine. Yes, it’s difficult to watch, but the movie is a forgotten gem. It has, of course, developed a sizable cult following.
The year 2001 saw the release of my favorite film of last decade, the renowned and brilliant “Mulholland Dr.” Among the David Lynch masterpiece’s many accolades is capturing the Best Director Award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. But that bauble was actually shared with a lesser known film from the talented Coen brothers called “The Man Who Wasn’t There “. The story of a small-town barber(Billy Bob Thornton)and his alcoholic, wayward wife(Frances McDormand), the film also stars Gandolfini as the boisterous “Big Dave” Brewster—the boss of the barber’s spouse…and possibly more than that. A black-and-white, neo-noir, mystery/thriller that utilizes not only murder and blackmail…but also U.F.O.’s. It’s a patient and exacting work from the Coens, and one of their least seen triumphs.
Lastly, 2012’s “Killing Them Softly”, which I’ve praised as a criminally dismissed marvel, just three months ago here on the blog. It stars a fantastic Brad Pitt as a hired killer, and an incredible James Gandolfini as Mickey the Enforcer. Slow, middle-aged, overweight Mickey is distracted by booze, food, prostitutes and drugs after committing to a mission for which he could be deemed too past his prime to carry out. It’s an acting tour-de-force from Jimmy G, an award-worthy performance in a film that hopefully someday attains the cult status it so richly deserves.
So, try those on for size for a quick Gandolfini tutorial. There’s no escaping that his “Sopranos” legacy will remain the strongest, but here was a man whose impact was felt on the boards of Broadway and the multiplex screens as well. Farewell, Mr. Gandolfini…and thanks for the memories. Grades: A- for all three