Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Gandolfini the Great

What I want to talk about today is James Gandolfini. Because I, unlike Chase & Co., can't let shit go in the blink of an eye. And I watched John From Cincinnati but if you think I'm ever going to bother talking about that waterlogged piece of shit show, you've been left out in the sun and surf too long.

Anyhow, with the end of The Sopranos, I could write an essay about Tony and fan the flames of debate of sociopath vs. not. (He wasn't one. I think Chase was trying to present one, but somewhat failed, which was for the overall good of the show. I think we've come to toss that term around loosely for anyone who shows a selfish streak and propensity for doing bad things. But that doesn't define a sociopath, and Tony Soprano lacked many key sociopathic traits. I also think it's easier and a simplification to explain away bad or violent behavior by placing it under that umbrella; it's kind of like dividing the world up into good vs. evil and it's just not that simple most of the time.)

But, my point is this. The writers of The Sopranos (David Chase, Terence Winter, Diane Frolov, Matthew Weiner, Michael Imperioli (occasionally) and Andrew Schneider) were amazing. They built a complex show with difficult characters that kept us engaged, shocked, and amused for eight years. But I still don't think it ever would have worked without the perfect man to anchor the role of Tony Soprano.

What Gandolfini was able to bring to Tony was the X factor in spades. I remember back when the show first started, and it was shocking to the media that ladies loved him. He wasn't the Hollywood version of a leading man. He's too old, too bald, too fat, and too goombah-Jersey-dago. But hey, women enjoy bad boys and don't mind going slumming in the suburban wasteland of the east coast sometimes. So the character of Tony had that going for him -- the roguish thug appeal. But Gandolfini brought the charm.

If you'd seen him as the sadistic hitman Virgil Vega in Tony Scott's True Romance, you know he'd be able to bring the goods when it came to explosive violence and threatening malice. But there were flickers, even in that fiendish role, where Gandolfini was able to show glimmers of playfulness.

He's got the cuddly appeal and a winning smile, even if it's not veneered and whitened. And he's so devilishly appealing a potential as a husband/lover exactly because he doesn't get all mooney-eyed saptastic. He's a throwback kinda guy, a man for all seasons, if you will. And it was that guy's guy ease and jokester glimmer that helped him create a smoky aura of dangerous appeal around Tony instead of leaving him a razor-edged beast.

After The Sopranos started its run, Gandolfini became notoriously press-shy. In his few interviews, he's always come off as more educated than Tony, and with a wit that's just as sharp but less cutting. He's gracious and endearing in his manner, often rolling his eyes when his talent is remarked upon and often volleying back a self-effacing comment when heaped with praise.

And yet he's managed to land only a few plumb roles; notably in the Julia Roberts flick, The Mexican. He played, of course, a hitman. The twist, however, was that he was a sweetheart and gay. How daring, the critics noted and reviewed him favorably. Other than that, he got a few roles, mostly playing assholes or bastards. Or, worse, starring opposite Ben Affleck. Because maybe over on the other coast he can be a leading man on a TV show, but I don't think Hollywood is going to gamble on Gandolfini stuffing the seats of the local cineplexes in the bible belt.

I know he's producing a thingy about Ernest Hemingway for HBO. And I hope he'll be able to step out of the heavy typecasting and find some Hollywood success. Aren't we about due for a movie version of "Gilligan's Island" or something where he could be the skipper? Oh, yeah, it's not exactly dignified, but as long as Ben Affleck isn't cast as Gilligan it's not like he hasn't done worse, you know. Can't he start getting some of those cherry roles that Alec Baldwin used to snag now that Al's done with acting?


NormalGuyNormalGirl said...

Cool bit, Susan... I've been consistently amazed by Gandolfini even during some lulls in the series. And although I didn't yet comment on your blog about the ending, I'm in the camp that thinks those last two episodes were fantastic. Those last five minutes I was on the edge of my couch. Want to go re-watch the whole series now...

SusanD said...

Thanks, Jason! I really liked this whole season (these last nine eps, I guess I should say.)

Maryanne Stahl said...

OK, I'm NOT going to discuss the ending anymore (except to say I loved it, loved the whole season with the exception of one episode) and love Gandofini. You are so right about him, Susan. I think it's his complexity that makes him so compelling, that diabolical mixture of charm and wit and grace and murderousness.

Did you see him in the Coen brother's The Man Who Wasn't There? Great flick.

SusanD said...

Hi Maryanne! Yay, another Gandolfini lover. I guess he'll back on HBO shortly with a special about wounded GIs. And I really liked that Coen bros. flick -- highly underrated.