There's no question that James Gandolfini's legacy is Tony Soprano from the HBO TV series The Sopranos. But the actor, who died suddenly yesterday in Italy, also appeared in more than 40 films. This includes some decent turns in made-for-cable movies like William Friedkin's 12 Angry Men and the drama Cinema Verite, which cast him as reality-TV pioneer Craig Gilbert. As in the case of the latter, he tended to shine even when the material wasn't up to his level of talent. Just a couple weeks ago his most recent theatrical release Violet & Daisy further proved that he could often save a feature film -- or, at least be the best thing about it.
Another recent part was initially declined by Gandolfini, because he felt it was just another Tony-type mafia hit man character. Eventually he accepted the part in Killing Them Softly and it ended up his most celebrated performance since The Sopranos went off the air. Still, it made sense why he was reluctant. Even before the show began he was regularly playing the same sort of tough guys and wise guys. Beginning with his memorable fight scene in True Romance, he continued taking on similar heavies in Get Shorty, The Juror and Terminal Velocity. He also gave what humanity he could to awful guys he played in The Mighty and She's So Lovely.
He was born to play Tony, clearly, but he was also great as cops, politicians and military leaders. One of his most underrated gigs is surely Lt. Gen. George Miller in Armando Iannucci's hilarious In the Loop. I'd been hoping more people would discover that sharp political comedy thanks to Iannucci's HBO series Veep and had been begging for Gandolfini to make a guest appearance if not come aboard in a regular role. In the Loop showcased his talent for comedy, which was unfortunately a rarity throughout his career (he once said he was more like Woody Allen than Tony Soprano in real life).
Gandolfini could overcome typecasting like no other actor in decades, as we've seen with the aforementioned post-Tony crime films Killing Them Softly and Violet & Daisy. But he was also full of surprises. His endearing voice work as Carol in Where the Wild Things Are, his singing patriarch in Romance & Cigarettes, his ailing patriarch in Not Fade Away, his father-figure stint in Welcome to the Rileys (he has a similar role in V&D). Sure, some of these on paper seem like a new form of family-man typecasting, but his performances in these movies is hardly comparable.
I don't feel bad saying this on a movie site, but I've never really seen The Sopranos. I didn't have a TV during the years it was on, and I just still haven't found the time to marathon through the six seasons yet. So, while I'm aware that he's best known for that gig, his film roles are what pop into my head when I think of Gandolfini. To me he's really first and foremost Virgil from True Romance and best in In the Loop. But one that's less often cited is Big Dave Brewster in The Man Who Wasn't There. Whenever I watch the Coen brothers' film I'm shocked at how little he's in it, because it's a role and performance that really sticks in your brain.
It's heartbreaking to think what other films he might have stood out in.
What is James Gandolfini's best performance in a movie?
Here are some responses received so far via Twitter: