The movie was directed by David Chase, who created “The Sopranos,” so it was only natural—almost obligatory, you might say—that he should once again call on his main man. The setting is still New Jersey, after all, though the period is the nineteen-sixties. The hero is a kid named Douglas (John Magaro), who wants to start a rock and roll band; Gandolfini plays Pat, Douglas’s father, who disapproves of pretty much everything about his son, from the racket of the music to the cut of his coat. A dinner is arranged, and Pat lays down the conditions: “The haircut is too much to ask, but you show up at that restaurant without a tie and a jacket—you and me are gonna tangle, my friend.”
The threat in those words is unmistakable, and, even if you haven’t seen the film, you can imagine them being uttered in the Gandolfini tone—that chewy, chopped-off delivery, suggesting a wad of flavorless gum stashed away at the back of his molars. Not that Pat, at such moments, is being big and scary; he’s playing big and scary, because deep down—maybe an inch and a half below that tough hide—he loves his boy. Pat is no retread of Tony Soprano; rather, he shows us what the Tonys of this world—the thousands upon thousands of them, in fawn cardigans, reading their newspapers and raking their lawns—could have become, or might have remained, without the wits, the wherewithal, the firearms, and the family connections to commit crime. So what is left, beached and unused, within that whale-like frame? Rage, of course, and blunted ambitions, and mortal fear. Pat needs therapy no less than Tony does, but, what with working down at the store five days a week, and till nine on Fridays, he doesn’t have the moolah. Also, I guess, shrinks are for pussies and Reds.
When they do have a meal together, father and son, it’s quite something. Pat is dying, slowly, and he takes the opportunity to reveal the chance that he once had to do a Douglas—fall in love, follow the instructions of his heart, and take it from there.
His great worry, we now realize, is not that the kid will lose himself to guitars, or girls, or another part of the country, but that he won’t: that he will stick around, give up, and turn into Pat Mark II. Gandolfini has only a handful of scenes in the film, but each of them shows a different facet of these failings; the sight of Pat, hunkered down in frustration, fixing the wiring for the Christmas tree, would freeze the fireside smile on Bing Crosby’s face.
And then, there’s “Bali Hai.” Near the end of the film, Pat and his wife are in the living room, watching “South Pacific” on TV. Now, that is not a great movie. How Joshua Logan managed to turn Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most glorious work into the cinematic equivalent of a lava lamp I have never understood; nevertheless, though lurid and embarrassing, it is a fixture on our moviegoing map, and the songs retain their unforgettable lure. “Here am I, your special island, come to me, come to me,” Bloody Mary pleads, and that does it for Pat. He slumps on the couch, in the musical’s sorry glare, his lumpen body already winding down, weeping like a child into his ice cream. The only special thing about his island is that he never got there.
Now, there are all sorts of ways in which pathos like this could strike us as cheesy or cheap. Fat guys, like old-school operatic tenors, are half-expected to burst into tears, and Pat was not the first working stiff to limp into middle age and mislay his illusions along the way. But this was Gandolfini, and he brought his own equation: he was never too weak, but he was never completely strong. Whichever aspect of him, the daunting or the crumpled, was uppermost in the moment, catching the dramatic spotlight, the other one lurked in the shadows and bided its time. That was even the case with Mickey, the executioner whom Gandolfini played in last year’s “Killing Them Softly.” Here, surely, was a fellow for whom there was no excuse; he flew into town, insulted a waiter, whacked people for money, and, when he hired whores, refused to add a tip. Plus, he wore smoked spectacles.
Yet nobody came out of the film thinking, “What a monster.” Such was Gandolfini’s skill that he had you wondering, instinctively, about prelude and aftermath—about the tracks that might have led from young Michael into Mickey, and about how long he could possibly continue like this, denuded of conscience and care, and stuffing cocktail olives down his craw. It was not a question of an actor’s hunt for redeeming features, because Mickey is irredeemable; it was, more simply, a matter of handing us a bad life at full burn. From the how came the why, and the wattage.
And what of Gandolfini’s own wake? What will remain? Well, “The Sopranos” is memorial enough, by any stretch. As for “Not Fade Away,” I’m less sure. It did scant business when it opened at the tail end of last year—an odd season in which to release it, since smaller pictures tend to get drowned in the yuletide flood. There have been months, this past spring, when critics—and, who knows, audiences—might have been thankful for so pensive and personal a slice of work. But there was another hitch, too, in that the movie lost power at its core; the teen-agers who filled the bulk of the action were more like becomers than beings, and that is why Gandolfini, who was, as usual, right there—solid with existence, and about as insubstantial as meatloaf—stole the delicate tale with such dangerous ease.
So, could he have handled a leading role at the movies? All too well, and you wouldn’t have wanted to argue otherwise to his face; nonetheless, for ironists, there was a singular deliciousness in the dimensions of his fame. Gandolfini was writ large, body and soul, on the small screen. So large, sometimes, that you felt Tony’s ideal response, when confined to a tight spot, would have been not to pick up a baseball bat, or to yell at Dr. Melfi, but to bust his way out of our televisions, in a shower of plasma—kind of like Bruce Banner, but marinara-red. It is because of “The Sopranos,” indeed, and especially because of James Gandolfini, that television has muscled its way back into the dead center, or the living agora, of our viewing lives.
How many performers of Gandolfini’s vintage can now hope to nab a role as enduring, or as engulfing, as that of Tony in a major film? To put the matter at its starkest: intelligent grownups, herded like zebras around the water-cooler, have no cause to muse upon the subtleties of “Man of Steel,” which has none, when they can bicker and bray for hours about Carrie’s latest mental melt, in “Homeland,” or about the Bryan Cranston character in “Breaking Bad, ” and to what extent he, or at least his mustache, is based upon Ned Flanders, in “The Simpsons.” Those types of conversation owe so much to Gandolfini; when he sat down, in the first episode, in front of Lorraine Bracco, and tried to tell her how it was—how everything felt—he wasn’t just talking to her. He was talking to us. That sound will not fade away, not for a long while, and, as we mourn his passing, we should ask, with a different sadness: the movies drummed up these days, and released with much fanfare by the studios, may be as noisy as hell, but do we listen to them, in dread and affection, as we did to Tony Soprano? Do they still talk the talk?