James Gandolfini’s Most Underrated Performances


Because he was too young, because he was so admired, and because he made possibly the first great television show of the 21st century, James Gandolfini’s untimely death is an enormous loss. I, like many others, will never shut up about what Gandolfini brought to The Sopranos. Yes, in the post-Goodfellas era, it wasn’t hard to see a big, dark dude with a North Jersey twang and suspend your disbelief. Gandolfini’s physicality and heft didn’t hurt, nor did the fact that he often appeared on screen surrounded by actors from the Scorsese canon. The man knew how to play a gangster, and there were moments in The Sopranos when he performed on the level of James Cagney.

If you’ve been thinking for the past 12 hours about why you loved James Gandolfini, you are in all likelihood thinking about that same memorable performance of Tony Soprano. But at 38, Gandolfini was hardly a tenderfoot when The Sopranos started, and he achieved a lot before and since. Here are a few of his best, most underrated roles.

The Last Castle (2001)

Playing the operator of a military penitentiary, Gandolfini faced off with General Eugene Irwin, played by the monotonously handsome Robert Redford, a decorated veteran who leads an uprising within the prison.

Best scene: Upon his arrival, Winter leaves the room to retrieve one of Irwin’s books for him to sign, only to hear Irwin in the other room surmising that memorabilia — even war memorabilia — is for wimps. Winter pretends the book was mislaid, and holds a heavy grudge.

Money for Nothing (1993)

Joey Coyle, a down-and-out longshoreman played by John Cusack, stumbles on a suitcase full of $100 bills. He struggles to keep it a secret from those close to him, including his brother, played by Gandolfini.

Best scene: A bucket of cash crashes from a hiding place in the ceiling and spills out into the corridor, compelling the Coyle brothers to shout it out.

True Romance (1993)

A rockabilly couple played by Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette rip off a drug dealer in Detroit and escape to California, where goons dispatched by Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) try to chase them down.

Best scene: In LA, Coccotti’s soldier Virgil (Gandolfini) stumbles on a toke-taking roommate played by the still-not-yet-famous Brad Pitt. Pitt offers to share a bowl with Gandolfini when he asks him where the happy couple has gone.

Get Shorty (1995)

Chili Palmer, a Miami loan shark played by John Travolta, wants to make a movie. His only Hollywood connection is through Harry Zimm, a B-movie director played by Gene Hackman, who owes money to Bo Catlett, a nasty drug dealer played by Delroy Lindo. Gandolfini plays Catlett’s henchman, Bear.

Best scene (spoiler alert): After Catlett threatens his daughter, Bear ends up in a contrived altercation that sends Catlett off of a cliffside balcony whose railing has spontaneously fallen apart. When Chili asks him how the balcony could have gone to pieces so easily, Bear produces a handful of missing nuts and bolts and answers, “Beats the shit out of me.”

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Ed Crane, a barber living in 1940s California played by Billy Bob Thornton, is convinced his wife is cheating on him with “Big Dave” Brewster, played by Gandolfini. Crane attempts to take revenge by anonymously blackmailing Brewster.

Best scene: A still-unsuspecting Brewster confronts Crane, foreshadowing the use of a cigar cutter as a murder weapon. “Oh Jesus. I’ve been carrying on with a married woman. No one you know. And now the chickens are coming home to roost. I got a note. A blackmail note, you know. Come across, or everybody knows.”

In the Loop (2009)

Hustlers and well-meaning patsies from the American and British political elite ponder an invasion of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Gandolfini plays Lieutenant General Miller, a war skeptic who enlists the help of a Karen Clark, an assistant Secretary of State played by Mimi Kennedy.

Best scene: Using a giant pink calculator purloined from a tween’s bedroom floor, Miller explains to Clark the number of troops necessary for an invasion: “Twelve thousand troops. But that’s not enough. That’s the amount that are going to die. And at the end of a war you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you’ve lost.”

Crimson Tide (1995)

Captain Frank Ramsey and Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter, two seasoned officers on an American submarine, enter a battle of wills after receiving an incomplete order to launch the nukes against Vladimir Radchenko, a Russian nationalist. Gandolfini plays Lieutenant Bobby Dougherty, an ally of Ramsey’s who believes the order was genuine.

Best scene: Losing his patience with Hunter, Dougherty shouts: “Radchenko is fueling his birds. Now why do you think he’s doing that? Why? You don’t put on a condom unless you gonna fuck!”

The Mexican (2001)

Brad Pitt plays a romantic gun collector who travels through Mexico to find an antique weapon. Worried for her safety, he dispatches Winston Baldry, a gay gunman played by Gandolfini, to protect his girlfriend, Samantha, played by Julia Roberts.

Best scene: In the process of being kidnapped, Samantha attempts to clear the air.

Winston: Do you want me to rape you?

Samantha: Are you gay?

Winston: Do you want me to rape you?

Samantha: You are gay.

Welcome to the Rileys (2010)

Doug and Lois Riley, played by Gandolfini and Melissa Leo, seek out the help of Mallory, a 16-year-old stripper played by Kristen Stewart, in an unpremeditated attempt to get over their own daughter’s death.

Best scene: Doug takes issue with Mallory’s language. “You know what? You want to parade around here in your birthday suit? If displaying your vagina’s the only way you can feel in control, well, you knock yourself out. But I’m tired of your language. Especially the word ‘fuck’ and all its various permutations. Now, I know it’s your only adjective, but it makes you sound cheap and immature and uneducated. And that may be the truth, but why advertise it?”