The Fini: A Salut'

If famous deaths come in threes -- as they do, and also do not; it's the thinking about it, counting up, that we need, to manage the world with a hole in it -- then imagine the panicked, protective thought process of the New Jersey native as she braces for the next impact. First, Frank Lautenberg, senator aeternus, whom we honored not just for his meritorious service but also the many cheap jokes its length inspired: that he took office in the Johnson administration (…Andrew Johnson); that he was for Prohibition before he was against it. Et cetera.

Now, James Gandolfini, who of course isn't Tony Soprano but who inhabited that icon of the suburbs of God's Little Acre so fully that, for the natives, it's as though one of the blue-dinosaur ship-loaders of Kearny has gone missing. Or all of them. Everyone knew at least one kid with a dad like Tony, a dad with jewelry and unspecified job duties who appeared in a robe, gingerly, at 4 PM and called us "hon" and "chief." We recognized Tony immediately. Part of that is David Chase, Matthew Weiner, Terence Winter and the rest; part of that is the set design, the enormous expense for the cheap effect, the resolutely fugly polo shirts. Most of it was the Fini. The Sopranos's mob chic made Jersey, if not cool exactly, a place to take a minute with, to try to understand for what it is instead of shortcutting out of state with a joke about exits. The Fini added the "or else," while also presenting as your friend's mysterious dad and as the embodiment of the attractions of power and danger. Fuckable, and not to be fucked with -- two duly respected states of being that those of us who call Six Flags "Great Adventure" had waited years to try on.

Lautenberg arriving at his final station; Gandolfini's premature demise in the old country. Both men enduring, determined to give us their best work always and until. Who is our third? What other beloved saint in the Garden State's catalog fits that description? A guy in tight black jeans who plays seventeen-hour shows until he's more throat polyp than man? Indeed. I'm imagining Bruce Springsteen looking out his window at an approaching posse of fans, holding their E Street vinyl like a Roman testudo formation and preparing to escort the Boss to a bunker in the Watchungs for his own safety. (Van Zandt can come too.)

The Onion will roll that story out to "it's funny 'cause it could be true" acclaim, no doubt. In the meantime, I'd like to talk about Gandolfini's work in The Last Castle, a movie that despite a respected cast gets more reductively terrible every time you watch it -- except for the Fini as Colonel Winter. Winter is the commandant of a military prison to which Robert Redford's character, Lt. Gen. Irwin, has been sent, and the script does its best to shorthand him as an adenoidal Queeg. He's never seen combat, a sore point he overhears Irwin snark on. He's a collector -- of military artifacts, but still. Only in late-season Sopranos did Gandolfini's sinus-y breathing occupy more of the foreground, but here, it's not a symbol of Tony Soprano's bear-like menace; it's everything petty, nerdy, and less-than about Winter.

The character on paper has maybe a dimension and change, and a story that pits Winter against Redford and his tank top, muscling huge rocks around the exercise yard like a man 30 years younger to make a point while Mark Ruffalo Greek-choruses around on the periphery, would clearly prefer that you not sympathize with the snuffly dictator our hero is bent on pantsing. But it's a riveting performance by the Fini, undignified, unlikable, uncomfortably pitiable, and a power of ten more interesting than anything else predictably unfolding onscreen; a few months before the film came out in 2001, Gandolfini had had his most powerful Tony turn yet in the third season, but he wasn't afraid to dig into Winter, to make him more than the bluff cartoon the movie seemed to call for. He was willing to snivel. Gandolfini's been called a "generous" actor by many in the last 18 hours, and having never acted with the man, I can't speak to that part of it -- only that he was generous to the projects, too, to writing that only hinted at the depths he brought.

As Jersey as a jughandle, but he made more sense. I miss him already.

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