Mourning King James

James Gandolfini, who died at 51 on Wednesday, brilliantly disturbed our living rooms for the better part of a decade

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

by Virginia Heffernan

James Gandolfini, who died yesterday at 51, hated Tony Soprano. The monstrously significant role that made Gandolfini’s name—over eight long seasons on HBO—nearly destroyed him. He was sickened by the violent scenes in “The Sopranos”: the ice-cold ones, the operatic ones, all of it. Instead of sensibly fleeing his discomfort, though, Gandolfini squared off with it, built a totemic character around it, and set a new standard for virile dramatic performance—in an 80-hour movie that would have made mincemeat of Olivier or Marlon Brando in its first ten.

“He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time,” David Chase, who created “The Sopranos,” said yesterday. “A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.’ There would be silence on the other end of the phone.”

Gandolfini did not get it. But his eyes did—haunted, mournful, profoundly penitent eyes. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. Shot so as to dial up the whites, the eyes were terrified and terrifying. They may have seemed porcine.

That last word I use advisedly, because when I once described Gandolfini’s eyes that way in an article full of praise for him, Gandolfini shot me an email of thanks, but added, “Piggy eyes?!?!” He was right. That was off the mark. There was nothing flat or inscrutable in his Tony. In his every gesture and expression, in his lumber and laugh, Gandolfini’s Tony was all-too-human—fallen, pious, expansive, corrupt, ever hopeful of reform. A sublime pater familias who brilliantly disturbed our living rooms for the better part of a decade.

Before “The Sopranos,” Gandolfini memorably played the heavily sadistic thug Virgil in Tony Scott’s “True Romance” (1993) and the lightly sadistic Lt. Bobby Dougherty in Scott’s “Crimson Tide” (1995). Both characters have more power than they seem to want; they keep trying to get out from under it, to give it the hell away—by being ridiculous or tender or self-destructive—so they can just be plain men again.

Gandolfini was an actor and a man with broad shoulders. It was hard for directors not to put the weight of the world on them, or ordain—as in “Get Shorty”—that he was just a big old sweetheart. Only Chase, who considered Gandolfini a brother, determined exactly how to dramatize the actor’s fierce ambivalence about his commanding presence, and the horrifying responsibilities it kept bringing him. The best of their collaboration can be seen not only in “The Sopranos,” but also in Chase’s slyly gorgeous movie about trappedness, “Not Fade Away.” In that film, Anthony Lane wrote, Gandolfini “nails the image of a guy who hardly dared to countenance escape, and never left.”

In HBO’s “Cinema Verite” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” which he made in the last years of his life, Gandolfini seems naturally to have taken to the pops role. He played, respectively, a hippie documentarian and a CIA director, and neither character seems morally distorted by his responsibilities. Gandolfini, however, found something to regret. In a letter to Leon Panetta, the former CIA director and son of Italian immigrants who served as the model for his role in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Gandolfini wrote, “'I'm very sorry about everything. The wig, everything. You're kind of like my father. You'll find something to be angry about.”

This to Leon Panetta. I can almost hear Gandolfini reading the letter, a microphone close on his incomparable nose-breathing, the way David Chase used to do it. He’s sorry. He’s funny. And James Gandolfini—who for a time seemed like father to everyone—is asking his father for forgiveness. For everything. Everything, the wig, everything.

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