I feel wrong opening an In Memoriam with a personal anecdote but it's so appropriate and so weird that it happened that I feel I have no choice. It goes like this: on Sunday morning, without going into significant detail, there were important things I needed to be doing. Except they really weren't that important (even though they were) because the most important thing I needed to be doing was finally getting around to removing my "Zero Dark Thirty" DVD from my (holy) DVD shelf and christening it. So I did.
There is a scene when our red-headed Osama Hunter Maya (Jessica Chastain) and a fellow agent at the CIA (Mark Duplass) are about to pitch the idea that America's Enemy #1 is hiding in a compound in Abbottabad to the CIA director. The door to the room opens and in march - well, trudge - a bunch of men in suits, including the CIA Director himself. He is played by James Gandolfini. The very first thing he does upon entry into that room is release a sigh. It is a noisy sigh - a noisy sigh that is part irritation, part sleep deprivation but mostly for show. It is a noisy sigh that simply says: "This better not be a waste of my fucking time. But it's probably going to be waste of my fucking time, isn't it? Everything's a waste of my fucking time."
Well, I was so taken by that moment - that second, that instant - that I yearned to construct a post completely around it. I actually typed up three paragraphs and then set it aside, intending to return to it later. I mean, that single sigh bursts forth with a whole world of insight. You can feel the endless meetings, the cavalcade of late nights, the smell of the antacids he carries in his briefcase. You would know that his character is vital since he is played by James Gandolfini but even if you had no inkling who James Gandolfini was then the sigh would clue you into his vitalness.
James Gandolfini was a master at playing irritated. Most citizens likely know him as Tony Soprano, front and center and in charge of David Chase's New Jersey mafia family on HBO's long running "The Sopranos." I confess, I did not watch "The Sopranos." Oh, I caught an episode here or there, sure, and I have no doubt it was worthy of the innumerable superlatives that came its way over the years, but, as I have stated many times before, I would always rather be watching movies than TV shows.
So I knew Mr. Gandolfini pretty well at the movies. And man, could that guy that play pissed. He'd assume that......smile. No, no, no, no, no. Not a smile. A smirk. You know the smirk. It was an all-around smirk. It was bemused, annoyed, incredulous. Mostly, though, it was a smirk that simply said: "Can you believe this fuckin' guy?" He had that smile in "Crimson Tide" when Denzel Washington was trying to take over the submarine. He had that smile when he was chatting with a stoned Brad Pitt on the sofa in "True Romance." He had that smile as an American general dealing with the exorbitantly awe-inspiringly obscene Peter Capaldi in "In the Loop." He had that smile in last year's under seen "Not Fade Away" when his wannabe rock 'n' roller son came home from college wearing Cuban heeled hoots.
This makes it sounds like all Gandolfini did was smirk but that is not true nor my intent. I merely hope to convey just how expressive he was as an actor. He could yell and punch and kick and what-have-you, sure, but what he could really do was imbue his characters with the whole weight of the varying situations they were facing. He always ably demonstrated how much he felt the moment.
He gets the smirk in "A Civil Action".....but just for a second. And that's not really what interests me most in his supporting performance in that under appreciated legal drama. That was the based-on-a-true-story account of a sprawling case of environmental pollution potentially contaminating the water supply of a Massachusetts and causing residents to contract leukemia and cancer. Gandolfini plays an employee at the plant responsible for the pollution and, critically, the one person willing to testify against them.
One scene involves him at the dinner table with his family - his wife and his six kids. There is no true dialogue and Gandolfini does not say a word. He just watches as wife dispenses water from a pitcher into the glasses of his children. He takes a bowl of mixed veggies and doles them out. That's the whole deal, really, but Gandolfini undergoes a crisis of conscience without showing off. He just lets the moment be itself and then plays off of it. He is the personification of a dad at a dinner table who loves his kids and is genuinely concerned for their future. It breaks my heart.
James Gandolfini passed away yesterday. That breaks my heart too. He was all of 51 years old. Which seems so weird. He memorably played a few self-destructive men but the man himself seemed indestructible. He had so much left to go, so many more movies to make, so much life to live, a daughter to raise. So it goes. I like to imagine he arrived at the pearly gates yesterday, got let in, saw a few angels and God at a conference table ready to give him a celestial briefing, and then......sighed. "This fuckin' Guy? Already?"