#35 — James Gandolfini as Winston Baldry in The Mexican (Gore Verbinski, 2001)

I wonder if it’s all but inevitable that a proverbial “role of a lifetime” brings with it as many hardships as benefits. No matter the pleasures of the opportunity — fiscal, artistic, or, in the rarest of occasions, both — the resulting elevated notoriety of the performance is its own dire trap. Ahead of The Sopranos, James Gandolfini was the good actor who everyone confused with mediocre actor Tom Sizemore. Already typecast by his imposing figure, Gandolfini delivered acting that completely transformed what could be expected from a television performer and saw his constraints only loosen a bit, from thug to vulnerable thug.

It a measure of Gandolfini’s great talent and actorly ingenuity that he still managed tremendous performances within the narrow range he was usually afforded. On paper, many of his characters are markedly similar to each other, but Gandolfini’s execution was a whole other matter. He tinkered throughtfully with nuance, coming at role from surprising angles and with gentle deftness. At times, he leaned into audience expectations knowing those preconceived notions gave him another tool to construct the unexpected and the deeply humane.

In The Mexican, Winston Baldry begins as the sort of stock character Gandolfini could have spent his entire career playing. He’s a hit man who is hired to abduct Samantha Barzel (Julia Roberts), the combative girlfriend of a goof-up named Jerry (Brad Pitt), who is mixed up with the mob. The many convolutions of the plot place the film squarely in the preferred zone of director Gore Verbinki, a distractible, clumsy maestro of narrative mechanics. The film aims to be a raucous crime comedy, a less profane reverberation in the era of Taratino echoes. It serves that purpose well enough, but it is far more memorable when it slows down and allows Gandolfini’s performance to emerge.

Relatively early in the proceedings, Samantha realizes Winston is gay. He’s not closeted, exactly, but his line of work and typical occupational partners also make open expression of same-sex attraction a potential liability. The connection of unfamiliar truthfulness Winston makes with Samantha — ostensibly his captive, but eventually his cohort — allows him a level of self-expression that is usually denied him. Gandolfini plays his earlier scenes in the film with heavy authority punctuated by moments of sharp impatience when Samatha’s frazzle grows too pronounced. As the story progresses, shades of joy and possibility come into the performance. From the start, Winston is shown to be smart, even wise. The ingenuity of Gandolfini’s turn is showing how that intelligence is turned into a greater acceptance of his inner being, and then the inevitability of ill turns given the professional life he leads.

A sizable amount of Gandolfini’s time in the movie is essentially a two-hander with Roberts, and the pair has marvelous chemistry. The enduring fame of Roberts was built upon romantic comedies in the nineteen-nineties, but the hidden irony is that she rarely connected as strongly with her leading men as she did with other actors in the film, such as Hector Elizondo in Pretty Woman or Rupert Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding. The most resonant romances manifested in the warmth of spirited give-and-take in friendship, a scenario clearly at play in The Mexican. Watching Gandolfini interact with Roberts is as clear as expression of two people falling for one another as can be found in the most profound movie love stories. That actual romance will never come into play between the two characters is incidental, or perhaps what give their giddily enjoyable scenes a touch of the profound.

Giddily enjoyable with a touch of the profound is sort of the Gandolfini way. It’s what can occur in acting when a performer know to hit the entertaining beats of the surface of the material while simultaneously pushing deeper, to find the core truths. By all evidence, Gandolfini couldn’t do it any other way.


About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic

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