After meeting James Gandolfini on two occasions—for Romance & Cigarettes (2005) and Lonely Hearts (2006)—and watching as he struggled to build on the success of The Sopranos, it's heartening to see that in his second-last movie, Nicole Holofcener's middle-age rom-com Enough Said, he's delivered an understated tour de force. This final leading role is not unlike his lovable turn in Jake Scott's little-seen 2010 gem, Welcome to the Rileys, where Gandolfini took a young Kristen Stewart under his wing, both on screen and off. In Enough Said he likewise helped television's Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Seinfeld, Veep) feel comfortable as she made a major leap into movies.
I had a couple of moments where I couldn’t believe I was looking into this face
“It was such a dream,” Louis-Dreyfus says of co-starring with “one of the great American actors. I had a couple of moments where I couldn't believe I was looking into this face —because what a face! Jim was incredibly hardworking, very self-effacing and with a lot of insecurities that I found endearing. We didn't know each other particularly well to begin with, but we liked each other a lot and as the couple in the movie gets to know each other we communicated more and more frankly. In the kitchen scene towards the end, we talked a lot about the layers that went into that. It was a very exciting creative journey to take with him and I'll never forget it.”
Holofcener, a New York Jewish writer-director known for women-centric movies usually featuring her friend and muse Catherine Keener (Please Give, Friends with Money, Lovely & Amazing, Walking and Talking), has often been compared to Woody Allen. She grew up on Allen's sets so it makes sense. Her set designer mother, Carol, worked on many of Allen's films, while Carol married his long-time producer, Charles H. Joffe, when Nicole was eight. Nicole appeared as an extra in Sleeper and Take the Money and Run and eventually worked as a production assistant on A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy and was apprentice editor on Hannah and Her Sisters.
While Allen's wry humour and cynicism have clearly exerted an influence on Holofcener, her films are sweeter. She draws on her own experiences far more than Allen. As she headed towards 50—“49 was tough”, she says—she wanted to reflect on the relationships in her life. In Enough Said, Gandolfini assumes the mantle of both the ex-husband she still resents and the new boyfriend who adores her. When her two alter-egos become friends (Keener's ex-wife Marianne hires Eva as her masseuse), they are unaware that they have Gandolfini's Albert in common. The weight that contributed to Gandolfini's sudden death from a heart attack last June is an issue in the film, which makes it a little eerie. As Marianne moans to Eva about their lousy sex life, Eva has learnt to love roley-poley Albert, though is turned off him by Marianne's disparaging remarks.
“I think the women are worse in the movie; I mean we're wretched,” Holofcener says, while noting that if you make a movie for a low enough budget (at $8 million, this was her largest ever) you can have unlikable characters.
“Watching the scene where Eva is tearing Albert apart at the table with the guacamole and the calorie book shows how harsh women can be on men —and I include myself in that. I like admitting that and saying that I'm still critical—but at least I know it.”
Gandolfini took the on-screen criticism in his stride. “Jim came to the film wanting to do his best and wasn't going to phone in the performance,” Holofcener recalls. “It was his combination of being very focused and serious and also acting like a crazy, foolish clown that we all fell in love with. He improvised but was scared of coming to a comedy with Julia, as he had a very slow pace and she does not. I think he felt he had to match wits with her and be as fast. But once he realised everyone was appreciating exactly who he was and what he was bringing, he would relax and be hilarious in his own way.”
Holofcener encourages her actors to draw on their own personalities and we have the impression that as Albert, Gandolfini drew on his own good nature more than ever. Toni Collette, who plays Eva's friend Sarah, got to keep her Aussie accent.
“When anyone does an accent I think they're losing part of their focus, so I didn't see the point in Toni being American,” explains Holofcener. “It ended up being kind of funny because Julia kept mimicking her and we kept one mimic in the movie.”
“I'm so used to playing American characters with other American actors, so when I first watched the movie I found it slightly jarring,” Collette admits. “It was fun working together and in an atmosphere where you felt free because as an actor it allows for unexpected real moments. The film is about people feeling a new vulnerability in their lives. They're unbalanced, and then they're even, and then they're unbalanced again. That's life.”
As for Gandolfini's death, she says, “when anybody dies it contextualises life and it's a reminder of our short time here.”
The difference with actors, however, is that we can see their performances forever on screen. And Gandolfini has left some gems behind. He had worked with Australian director Andrew Dominik on last year's Killing Them Softly, playing yet another heavy, the hitman Mickey, as he had done so many time before, most famously as the henchman Virgil in True Romance (1993) and as the enforcer Bear in Get Shorty (1995).
My most enduring memory of the actor, though, was at The New York Film Festival's presser for Lonely Hearts where he sat alongside his old friend and co-star John Travolta. (They also appeared in Get Shorty, She's So Lonely, A Civil Action and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.) While as buddy cops, the burly stars could have played heavies, they were determined to bring their softer sides to the roles in this independent movie. In person, they had an obvious closeness as two guys from working class New Jersey made good. Interestingly, while Travolta lost considerable weight soon afterwards, Gandolfini only put it on and at one point admitted to being 295 pounds (134 kilos).
Does Holofcener view Enough Said, which is dedicated, “For Jim”, as an epitaph to Gandolfini's talents and to the lovable man himself?
“No,” she replies briskly. “I feel that's too grandiose. I do feel this is an actor playing a part in a movie and I was honoured and blessed to work with him. And yes, he hadn't played a part like this before, but I don't feel comfortable with that burden on the movie. You know, his kids lost their dad. This is just a movie.”
Enough Said is released in cinemas November 14.