Get Shorty was one of the first films that I anticipated due to a love of the source material. I had read and loved the book by Elmore Leonard, and was overjoyed when the movie lived up to my expectations. A big part of that was the casting - everyone in that movie seemed born to play those roles, from the headliners to the smaller supporting performances. Even a character like the Bear, a former Hollywood stunt man turned low-level goon for wannabe gangster Bo Catlett, who didn't make a huge impression on the page, lept off the screen because the actor playing him imbued what could have been an empty thug role with such complexity that you not only believed in him but completely fell for him.
It was when I first noticed James Gandolfini.
It was a role that prefigured the range of his later work - a loving father forced to do unseemly chores for a despicable man, there are scenes in the film where the Bear is made a fool of by John Travolta's Chili Palmer, whose always toppling the beefy henchman's attempts at intimidation by getting the best of him physically. It was a testament to Galdolfini as a performer that whenever the tables were turned on Bear, the impression one got was not that he was inept, but that he was a man out of his league in the best of ways. In essence a big teddy bear of a man with a decent core, Bear was someone who had drifted down the wrong path, a genuinely decent person who just happened to become associated with the wrong people.
That innate decency, that vulnerability, was something that would be utilized to the fullest in Gandolfini's signature role. When The Sopranos first aired I was drawn to it not only by the surrounding hype but by the fact that I recognized Gandolfini as a character actor for whom I had grown quite fond and who was finally getting a chance to shine in a lead role. As I began watching the show it became more and more apparent that what I was witnessing was one of the great portrayals in modern fiction. Indeed, if The Sopranos is the definitive artistic statement of the last twenty-five years, and the richest, most complete modern exploration of the human condition, it is due in large part to Gandolfini's performance. Rarely have we seen a character so fully developed so fully realized. A man capable of being at once very loving and sensitive, yet also trapped within the nature of a violent sociopath, sometimes within the same moment, Tony Soprano is one of the great characters in all of storytelling - that rare creation who feels like a completely fleshed-out person. There is never a doubt in our minds that Tony Soprano is a loving father just as there is no doubt that he is completely capable not only of deliberately planning another human being's murder but also of lashing out in a fit of involuntary and shocking violence, either physical or verbal. A horrible, philandering husband, his devotion to his wife Carmela rings nonetheless true. A self-reflective and perfectly aware man trapped within the consciousness of an uneducated, blue-collar thug made good, hopelessly neurotic while at the same time completely dismissive of such indulgent thinking, a man destined to serve out his inevitable fate both by circumstance and by his self-loathing resignation to same while at the same time genuinely hoping and striving to give his children a better option than to follow in his criminal and emotional footsteps. Funny, frightening, lovable, loathesome, heartbreaking: Gandolfini played all of these shadings, sometimes within the same episode, often within the same scene. It should take nothing away from the immensely talented cast and crew that surrounded him to say that Gandolfini was the soul of that show, and that without him it never would have been able to grow into the resounding artistic success that it did.
I'm buzzed on Tecate when I get the message that Gandolfini has passed, and at first I think it must either be some sort of mistake or a drunken misreading. Praying it's just a rumor that will soon be debunked, I search online to see that it's unfortunately all too true. I am the first to roll my eyes when people react to celebrity deaths as if they've lost someone they know personally, but the weight of this one hits me so squarely in the gut that I do feel like I've lost a friend. At first that seems silly, but the truth is that there is a stark difference between losing someone who is merely well-known and losing an artist, someone who has done work that has reached into the darkest corners of the human soul and exposed the tender vulnerable truth that lies at the heart of us all. Gandolfini took a monster and without blinking at his most unsavory traits made him completely vulnerable, completely human. It is a supreme act of empathy that fulfills the highest calling of storytelling, which is to make us feel somehow less alone. If Tony Soprano is deserving of the kind of love and generosity of spirit that it took Gandolfini to give him such a raw beating heart, then so are we all.
The man was an absolute star, and I was always waiting for the post-Sopranos role that would thrust him back into the limelight, while at the same time taking for granted the carefully selected supporting turns he was giving us in the meantime. The Mexican, The Man Who Wasn't There, In the Loop, Where the Wild Things Are (one of the best supporting performances of the last decade, even if it is "just" a voice role. Gandolfini encapsulates the themes of that movie so perfectly - the raging, wounded howls of a rage that is buried within children too young to know how to understand or handle them), Killing Them Softly. A large portion of his legacy is now going to be the roles that he never got to take, the characters he will no longer be able to bring to life. The controversial and iconic ending of The Sopranos will now be all the more haunting for the way it reflects the death of its star - the implication that you never know when life is going to end, that it could all cut to black at any minute, whether you're ready for it or not, whether it's something prepared for or something that comes out of the blue, now hits a little closer to home. The bitter yet somehow triumphant irony, after all the speculation in the years since its airing as to whether or not he survived beyond its last frame, is that Tony Soprano will live on even as James Gandolfini has left us all too abruptly.
Photo credit: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times