Saturday, June 22, 2013

Death of a Character Actor

The things people say about you after you're dead are forgivable only to an extent. On the negative side, Baudelaire once asked, apropos the hysterically hostile obituaries of Edgar Allen Poe, "Is there no by-law in America to prevent dogs from entering cemeteries?"

On the positive side, excessive praise can sometimes invoke eternal damnation for its intended beneficiary. Think of Ronald Reagan or the recently deceased Margaret Thatcher. Ultimately, what does it matter what people say about you when you're dead?

At the death of James Gandolfini this week, which wasn't altogether a surprise considering his size, I found that the sheer volume of praise expressed day after day was getting tiresome. And virtually all of it was for one role - Tony Soprano - which I never liked. How hard was it, really, for a big Italian man from New Jersey to play a mafioso?

I first noticed Gandolfini in Tony Scott's True Romance (1993). With a script by Quentin Tarantino, could the subject of facile violence have been avoided? Gandolfini played Virgil, a hit man (he claimed he was inspired by a friend who was a hit man) whose longest scene called for him to beat Patricia Arquette all over her cheap hotel room. When he finds her defiant to the last, he opens his shirt and tells her to give him her best shot. She drives a corkscrew into his foot, which inspires an even more brutal beating. (Arquette eventually kills him with a toilet tank lid.)

Gandolfini didn't get my attention again until Get Shorty (1995), in which he played a bodyguard known as Bear. Once a stuntman, Bear dreams - like everyone else in the Get Shorty - of making it big in movies. Since he gets beaten up every time he goes up against Chili Palmer (John Travolta), Bear's incipient humanity has a chance to show itself. Though it was the usual sort of role for a man his size, Gandolfini brought to his performance just enough truth to make me believe in him.

Listening to all the praise for Gandolfini was too often quite silly. They all managed to say pretty much the same thing - that he made audiences care deeply for Tony Soprano, who is a professional murderer. Did anyone in the series have the nerve to inform Tony that the real reason he was depressed and needed therapy was because he was a blood-thirsty murderer?

Post-Sopranos, which was an example of immorality masquerading as amorality ("Shakespeare didn't balk at writing about murderers, did he?" Yes, but Shakespeare never expected anyone to feel sorry for Macbeth.), Gandolfini's performance in the otherwise useless The Mexican (2001) stole the show away from its putative stars, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. He played a hit man again in that film, with the preposterous name of Winston Baldry, but we learn some time after he kidnaps Samantha (Roberts) that he is gay, and the film slows down considerably to indulge Winston in a fling with another man he meets in a truck stop. It was a surprisingly off-beat role for the redoubtable Tony Soprano. Gandolfini was clearly trying to stretch his image.

I next noticed him in Tony Scott's remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), playing the mayor of New York City. His last scene with Denzel Washington, thanking him for his acts of heroism during the movie's long hostage ordeal, was touching. Gandolfini next played a voice role in Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are (2009). I found the film disappointing, since Jonze reduced Maurice Sendak's book, which I loved since I was a boy, to a rather dimly-realized shadow of itself. But Gandolfini's unmistakable voice for the wild thing Carol was a surprising presence, and the rock bottom gentleness of the big man shone through - even if Carol is little more than a more animate muppet in Jonze's sorry movie.

The last thing I saw him in was Killing Them Softly (2012), but neither the movie nor Gandolfini's small part in it - yet another hood, this time named Mickey - were otherwise mentionable.

James Gandolfini had a great deal going for him as an actor, and being deprived of his future performances, in which we would have seen more of his talent in a wider range of roles, is a true loss for everyone. His size was, as he knew too well, a shortcoming to be surmounted. It seemed to me that his physical presence, just like Shaquille O'Neal's on the basketball court, probably accounted for a large portion of his success as an actor. But he had a tough time convincing producers that he could do something more than beat the crap out of Patricia Arquette, even if he did it with so much aplomb and panache. But he wasn't, alas, the Great Actor everyone said he was this week. He was just getting started when his heart stopped.

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