James Gandolfini’s Best (Non-Tony) Roles

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Slate's Culture Blog
June 19 2013 11:05 PM

James Gandolfini’s Best (Non-Tony) Roles

James Gandolfini died Wednesday of an apparent heart atttack while on vacation in Rome. He'll forever be known for his iconic performance as Tony Soprano, of course, but he was a remarkably intuitive, subtle actor who shined in any number of other parts as well. We'll be updating this post all day with Slate staffers' memories of their favorite Gandolfini performances.

George Miller, In the Loop

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In the Loop is nothing if not a smorgasbord of brilliantly awful cartoon characters, and James Gandolfini stands out as the least despicable. As the peace-loving armchair Gen. George Miller, Gandolfini plays the only character who doesn't take himself too seriously, grinning his way through the whole political charade of a run-up to war. In one unforgettable scene at a Georgetown cocktail party, Miller ducks into the bedroom of the host's daughter to privately discuss war planning with a State Department official. His hulking form on the princess-y bed, he runs through the numbers of troops the war will require using a talking toy calculator. In perfect deadpan, he concludes that as many soldiers will die as he can deploy. "And at the end of a war," he shrugs, "you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you've lost." Gandolfini's most delicious comic role, Miller is the only character who can go toe-to-toe with foul-mouthed Downing Street aide Malcolm Tucker, whom he gleefully derides as a "poodle-fucker" resembling "a squeezed dick." Miller is always the wisest wiseguy in the room, and the most cheerful, until the movie's end—when Gandolfini drives home the crushed ideals of a guy who's been putting on his cynicism the whole time.  Hunched defeatedly over a cigarette, the best he can muster to a pesky British foreign ministry staffer is a desultory "Go fuck yourself, Frodo." -Chad Lorenz

Carol, Where the Wild Things Are

Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are never should’ve worked. It was a dreamlike free adaptation of a beloved picture book; it depended on an untested child actor who was in nearly every shot; and most weirdly, its Wild Things were huge, shaggy full-body animatronic puppets asked to carry deeply emotional scenes. But it turned into a minor masterpiece, in no small part because of the vocal performance of Gandolfini as Carol, the fiercest and saddest of the Wild Things. He’s the one who falls hardest for Max, and he’s the one who gets the most angry when the world isn’t exactly how he imagined it would be. The tantrum during which he tears off another Wild Thing’s arm, and then childishly tried to blame him for it, shocked me and made me laugh and scared me and made me miserable all at the same time. “I’ll eat you up!” Carol roars, an overgrown kid in a body he could barely control. And then, at movie’s end, Carol and Max howl together as Max sails away. -Dan Kois

Nick Murder, Romance & Cigarettes

My two favorite Gandolfini roles both come from rather underrated movies. There’s Big Dave Brewster in the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, with his great “What kind of man are you?” speech. And then there’s Nick Murder, in the even more sorely underappreciated Romance & Cigarettes, directed by John Turturro. Don’t let the surname fool you: Murder may be a salty sort from the Tri-State Area, but this is hardly Sopranos-inspired typecasting. Murder’s a sad romantic, a steelworker who writes a poem about a certain special place on the body of his mistress (Kate Winslet), a salesgirl in a lingerie shop. When his wife (Susan Sarandon) finds that poem, the couple fights; then he steps out of the house—and sings “A Man Without Love,” the Engelbert Humperdinck tune. “Every day I wake up, then I start to break up/ Lonely is a man without love.” -David Haglund

Winston Baldry, The Mexican

Heavily indebted to Quentin Tarantino, the comic-violent The Mexican was ostensibly a formula for compounding the star power of Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts (then just on the verge of winning her Oscar for Erin Brockovich), who respectively play a low-level gangster on a fool’s errand and his self-improvement-obsessed girlfriend. But the movie only knows what it should be—an odd-couple talkfest—whenever Gandolfini is onscreen as the charming, vulnerable hitman who first kidnaps Roberts and then develops a brotherly bond with her. In this scene, Roberts slips effortlessly into the Dr. Melfi role to nudge her thuggish-princely captor into a moment of tearful revelation. When she fixes Gandolfini with that dazzling smile, Roberts is no longer the star of the movie; she’s just an adoring audience surrogate. -Jessica Winter

Bear, Get Shorty

Get Shorty boasted such a glitsy ensemble—Travolta, Hackman, DeVito—that it's easy to forget that a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini was even in the movie. But his turn as the bodyguard Bear is one of the movie's many pleasures. Bear is mixed up in some dirty business with Delroy Lindo's gangster Bo, but from the start you can tell that this is a bad guy whose heart isn't really in it; for one thing, he's always bringing his young daughter along on business, and lavishing more attention on her than the evildoing at hand. And despite his imposing physique, Bear is no match for Travolta's Chili Palmer, who has his way with him on multiple occasions, including this painful crotch grab/stairs tumble. In limited screen time Gandolfini brings to life a character that in lesser hands would have been a one-dimensional one-liner: the tough who turns out to be a softy. Gandolfini sells his love for his daughter, his pride in his other career (like nearly everyone in this affectionate Hollywood send-up, Bear moonlights in the movies, as a stunt-man), and his moral progress from reluctant bad guy to genuine good guy. There's a glimpse of the Tony Soprano torment here, but only a glimpse: Bear has a conscience. Also a ponytail. Two things you can't imagine seeing on Tony. -John Swansburg

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Read Jessica Winter's appreciation of James Gandolfini.

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