In 2009, Slate’s film critic Dana Stevens invited me to the New York Film Critics Circle Awards dinner, a wonderful if strange annual event where ink-stained critics and A-list Hollywood celebrities rub shoulders. We in the Slate contingent were relegated that night to a less than glamorous table, far from the high-watt stars like George Clooney and Kathryn Bigelow; the only movie person at our table was the eccentric actor Sylvia Miles, best known for her turn as the real estate broker who sells Charlie Sheen his high-rise apartment in Wall Street. It wasn't entirely clear why Miles was even there—she hadn't been nominated for an award, or for that matter acted in a movie that year. But we were glad to have her brassy company, especially when it turned out she was apparently old buddies with James Gandolfini, who was representing In the Loop, the winner of that year’s Best Screenplay award. “Tony!” she screeched in salutation when she saw the actor take a seat at an adjacent table. Gandolfini, who seemed used to being called by his most famous character’s name, greeted Miles warmly, and asked who she was sitting with. “Slate!" she barked back. “Never heard of it,” he said.
I’d had a couple of cocktails at that point, and a colleague and I somewhat brazenly took this exchange as an invitation to try to explain Slate to Gandolfini. You know, online magazine? Founded by Michael Kinsley? Covered the hell out of The Sopranos? None of this rung a bell for Gandolfini, and he made it pretty clear he had no plans to look Slate up when he got home, either. We took a hint and dug into our salads.
Later in the evening, Gandolfini was called to the dais. Like many of the winners and presenters that night, he took a moment to graciously thank the critics. I’m very much paraphrasing here, but he said something to the effect of: “It’s an honor to be here tonight, to get to meet the film critics, who do us the service of watching and thinking about the work we do. We don’t always agree with what you write, but we do appreciate how much you care about the movies, and it’s a pleasure to get to spend time with you, especially the folks from Slate, my favorite online magazine.” An exuberant whoop went up from table 27. We’d just been shouted out by James Gandolfini, and only we—and Sylvia Miles—knew he was totally kidding.
When Gandolfini finished his acceptance speech, he walked back to his seat. As he passed our table, we raised our glasses to to the actor. Gandolfini leveled a chilling, unsmiling Tony Soprano gaze at us. “Now we’re even,” he said. On the contrary, I've always counted myself still in his debt—for that thrilling if disingenuous accolade and for the hours of joy his acting brought me.