James Gandolfini’s Best Performance

By  · Published on June 21st, 2013

The world lost a robust acting presence on Wednesday. It was obvious looking at James Gandolfini that the big guy was powerful, but his work was often so fragile and nuanced that he had no trouble crawling into our veins. No one did vulnerable tough guys quite as well as he did, leaving his footprint on television and film screens alike.

With that in mind, we put the entirety of his career to our panel of writers, asking simply: what is James Gandolfini’s best performance?

Their answers (and a place for your own) can be found below.

The Sopranos

Brian Salisbury: “Tony Soprano was a fascinating paradox, because he both epitomized the classic mob boss archetype while simultaneously challenging the contemporary standards of stoic manhood. The very idea that a mafia don would reveal his innermost thoughts to a therapist, someone outside either of his ‘families,’ was a direct affront to the oldest tenets of La Cosa Nostra.

Gandolfini played every inch of this complexity with absolute mastery. As a gangster, he was brutal, greedy, manipulative, and indulged his every salacious whim. As a man, he was the broken offspring of a woman who made Lady MacBeth look like a den mother. Our hearts bled for him even as he made people bleed to expand his empire. Gandolfini’s imposing screen presence aided one aspect of his character while his arresting emotional range facilitated the other. The Sopranos redefined network drama, and it owes so much of its success to the man behind the cigar.”

Killing Them Softly

Landon Palmer: “This fact may have faded out of memory, but this time last year, critics were abuzz about a potential Best Supporting Actor nomination for Gandolfini’s brief role in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. The film was unduly maligned by critics after its Cannes debut in May (while no masterpiece, the expertly crafted film is a prime candidate for one of the most interesting overlooked entries of 2012), but even then critics agreed that Gandolfini was magnetic and terrifying, infuriating and compelling for every one of the few moments he graced the screen.

This is especially impressive considering that his character literally does nothing for his duration of the film. Many, many mob movies have drawn parallels between organized crime and ‘legitimate’ capitalist industry, but no gangster film has taken the analogy to its logical extent that Killing Them Softly does, and Gandolfini’s specialized hitman Mickey is the embodiment of an entitled corporate leech, living off the company dime and accomplishing nothing resembling the job he was hired for. Gandolfini takes an inherently frustrating character and gives him depth, crafting a character that is simultaneously heinously lazy and absolutely terrifying. He turns a satirical pawn into a three-dimensional character, and he’s pitch-black funny to boot.

Gandolfini is justly celebrated for headlining one of television’s greatest achievements, but in his film roles he perfected the art of the supporting character – not an easy task when one has less time to make an impression. But no supporting characters upstaged their leads quite like Gandolfini’s.”

Where the Wild Things Are

Kevin Carr: “I know that when most people hear the name James Gandolfini, they picture Tony Soprano. That’s fair, as it is this would-be character actor’s most iconic role. However, when looking back on his filmography, I tend to gravitate to the less obvious choices. I have always enjoyed it when someone plays against type, and it was the anti-typical role of Carol in Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are that was such a fun diversion for Gandolfini.

Sure, Carol was prone to temper tantrums, and he was an impulsive creature, but he wasn’t a thug or a military leader. He was the embodiment of a child’s inability to control himself. There was something lovable about Carol in this film, and Gandolfini helped bring that to life. It’s unlikely that prior to the film being made anyone looking at the creature in Maurice Sendak’s original book would have imagined Gandolfini’s voice behind it, but now it is impossible not to.”

Adam Charles: “The unfortunate consequence of an actor turning a great role into an iconic one is that their association to that character is forever glued to their skin. This is especially true for popular television actors, because you see them play that role for about twenty weeks a year for seven to ten years. Even truer for dramatic actors, because it’s the closest resemblance to ‘natural’ life if not real life. It’s hard for me to not envision Jon Hamm playing a role in which his character doesn’t look like he had sex that morning with someone that he didn’t have sex with the day before.

As such, what I’ll miss most about Gandolfini is his ability to remind me in his roles that he isn’t who I feel like he is. I feel like he’s a tough-as-nails mob dictator, until I don’t because he’s a fragile and emotionally pained furry beast looking for a best friend. For his own sake I hope he wasn’t Carol from Where the Wild Things Are, but his voice was too convincing not to feel like he wasn’t (or was at some point). That film lingers on me like few do because Carol does. Because Gandolfini makes him. He’s that friend you hurt for when they hurt you, because you know they hurt. Like I said, I hope that wasn’t Gandolfini at any point in his life. I hope he was just a really good actor.”

Not Fade Away

Kate Erbland: “Since seeing David Chase’s Not Fade Away late last year, I’ve spent an unexpected amount of time thinking back on the film, one I didn’t particularly enjoy or find satisfying or even entirely interesting or coherent, but one that is also, strangely enough, laced through with moments of brilliance and emotional honesty that continue to resonate. A reunion between The Sopranos creator and his best creation, Chase set James Gandolfini up with a role that seemed a bit like Tony Soprano-lite – not a mobster or a monster, but still an emotionally bereft man trying to reach those closest to him in the only way he knew how (which was, admittedly, just sort of poorly).

It was a “dad” role, and a dad with a rocker son during Vietnam who just didn’t understand, a seemingly easy and tossed-off role, but one that Gandolfini infused with humor and heartbreak that lingered long after the film was over. It was a glimpse at things to come, but now we’ll never get to see those things, and that’s just heartbreaking.”

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Christopher Campbell: “His role on screen is so brief, and yet Big Dave seems like a much bigger character in this Coen Brothers film. Maybe it’s because he’s so important to the overall plot, or maybe it’s because Gandolfini shines so well in the part that his performance continues to linger long after the character is killed. Like many of his roles, Big Dave is a morally corrupt man, but here he appears a lot weaker than usual, more vulnerable. As would be the case with much of his career, he found a way to make us hate his character but still feel sorry for him and prefer he be spared. It’s also great to see Gandolfini in an old-fashioned suit and maintaining a more traditional lifestyle than the many gangsters, cops and soldiers he played elsewhere.”

What’s your favorite James Gandolfini performance?

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.