At one point in David Chase's coming-of-age movie “Not Fade Away,” the young protagonist — a New Jersey boy who dreams of breaking free of 1960s suburbia and his towering, disproving father, played by James Gandolfini — looks at a film with Orson Welles.
It isn't just any picture, but “Touch of Evil,” the 1958 noir in which Welles cast himself as a great ruin, a corrupt cop named Hank Quinlan. Chase holds on Welles just long enough for you to see this big man looming in the frame, this colossus of the art, long enough to set off a relay that links Welles' image to that of the boy's father and that of another titan played by Gandolfini, Tony Soprano.
In that single delirious cinematic moment, Chase illuminates the Oedipal undertow that helped make “The Sopranos” a pop cultural sensation. Tony Soprano was at once a terrifying mob boss and doting suburban dad, and Gandolfini, who died in June, inhabited both roles so thoroughly that they become indistinguishable. That was the point, memorably so, of the episode in which Tony takes time away from looking at colleges with his daughter to strangle an FBI informant. Nothing was as nail-biting as waiting to see which Tony would emerge. And while playing TV's scariest dad (father kills best) could have turned into a trap for Gandolfini, over the years it became clear that his talent transcended the medium.
“The Sopranos” turned out to be not a cage for him but a path to other roles. That's partly what makes his role in Nicole Holofcener's comedy of manners “Enough Said,” which premiered this month at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened in some theaters last week, so moving. He plays a divorced father who begins a tentative, hopeful relationship with a divorced mother played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It's lovely and bittersweet to see Gandolfini playing a romantic lead, because in this performance you see the post-“Sopranos” career that might have been. Watching him seduce a woman, you also realize how desperately American romantic comedies need more grown-up men.
Gandolfini's movie career, which had started to gather momentum before “The Sopranos,” can be divided into two epochs, simply because every time he appeared on the big or small screen after the series, he brought Tony Soprano with him.
Breaking free of a famous role can be hard for an actor, particularly for one who was as closely associated with a show as he was. This isn't necessarily a question of range, but of the rhythms and intimacy of episodic television, which, week after week in our homes, connects performer and roles until they feel interchangeable, inseparable.
Part of what pulls you into his performances is the play between that beautiful slab of a face and the micro and macro movements that continuously ripple across it, creating changing — sometimes clashing — emotional textures. One minute, the face opens out to the world like a child's, the next it's closing like a man's fist. The divide between that face and what his characters were thinking behind it was part of what made him such a convincing villain — and his characters often led with a smile, an invitation that became a trap for his victims.
There was more to him than his bad guys, though. He appears only in gruff, tender voice for one of his finest performances as Carol, the most fearsome of the creatures in Spike Jonze's “Where the Wild Things Are,” based on the Maurice Sendak book. Muting and blowing his signature nasal voice, Gandolfini magically transforms Carol — who on screen is a lumbering beast with horns, a tail and a melancholic smile — into an exquisitely soulful being who's by turns child and parent, the wild thing who makes you laugh, the one who makes you cry, the one who will hold you tight in his arms and who, as you sail away, will howl his love from the shore.