Sunday, June 23, 2013

James Gandolfini: An Actor Who Challenged Himself

Like most of you, I became aware of the late James Gandolfini through The Sopranos. But the moment when he most impressed me was in a crappy movie called Terminal Velocity. I can't even remember the plot, but I saw it on a bus. That's right, not even on an airplane, a bus. Charlie Sheen was the star which shows you how long ago this thing was made. Sheen plays some kind of daredevil and Gandolfini was a lawyer or agent or some kind of desk jockey who is supposed to seem bland and ordinary next to the dashing Sheen. The only thing I remember about the movie was one moment when Gandolfini says to Sheen, "Flashy guys like you don't think very much of regular guys like me and that's okay." He was so honest, simple, and direct that he totally stole that scene and the movie from the handsome, but shallow Sheen who has since descended into a sitcom version of himself. (Winning!)

Gandolfini's tragic early death robs us of more detailed, truthful performances. On The Sopranos he created a complex man who was a sensitive seeker after his inner self as well as a brutal killer. I'll never forget the episode where he says to his Uncle Junior, "Don't you love me?" and Dominic Chianese just looks at him. Every hurt and slight in the twisted Soprano family history is written on both their silent faces.

Two weeks ago I saw a small film cast with big-name actors looking to stretch themselves in similar ways. The Iceman starred Michael Shannon as a real-life hired assassin with Wynona Ryder as his wife who is ignorant of his true profession, Captain America Chris Evans as a fellow murderer, James Franco as a victim who only shows up in one scene, and David Schwimmer as a minor-league gangster. The picture did not have much of a release, but each actor did interesting, challenging work. (I want to see Shannon's General Zod in Man of Steel.) Then last night we saw World War Z which basically consisted of zombies chasing Brad Pitt through airports, hospitals, and highways. There was so much action and so little context, I didn't know what was going on until half-way into the picture. With the decreasing coverage of the arts and increasing quota of explosions and mayhem in movies, this is the future. More mindless zombies chasing movie stars through a video-game landscape. (Though I give Brad Pitt credit for doing Terence Malick's Tree of Life.) Cable TV will have to be the home of complex, adult drama like The Sopranos.

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