Lead Soprano in a Heavenly Choir

It’s been nearly a month since I last posted and there’s been no shortage of news about American television in the meantime but there was never any doubt what my first post back would be about. On June 19th 2013, actor James Gandolfini died unexpectedly and prematurely in Rome at the age of 51. Any fitting obituary to the man would talk about his scene and film-stealing roles in some of Hollywood’s best (and worst) movies of the last couple of decades, so this won’t be that. Instead, I want to talk about the man he left behind, Tony Soprano.

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano

Gandolfini’s short, generous life outlasted Tony’s, or did it? Since David Chase accidentally lost the footage of The Sopranos’ final scene, we’ll never know if Tony was destined for the big sleep or a courtroom TV movie, if those two things aren’t already the same. Whether or not he survived his namesake, Tony had already suffered a living death in the ignominy of a bullet wound inflicted by a frail, banana-deprived relative and a two-episode dream sequence. Had Gandolfini come back from the other side, he would have had something less banal to impart than ‘Every day is a gift’.

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Gandolfini was by all accounts a kind, humble man. Tony saw kindness as part of a transaction, one demanding recognition of the benefactor’s gesture from the recipient. On the rare occasions Tony acted selflessly towards his friends, his patented system of exchange was so ingrained in their minds that it was impossible for either to escape. It also made him impossible to escape. When Tony’s wife Carmela left him to pursue a meaningful relationship with another man, she was tainted from years with a husband who never gave without expecting. Tony was the only man she could do business with.

Edie Falco as Carmela Soprano

People liked Tony and people like people like Tony. Gandolfini reminded us of that. Tony resented being seen as the stock figure mobster in a late 90s Hollywood farce. Analyse This is in his Roger Ebert-with-Tourette’s estimation ‘a fuckin’ comedy’. But he was always happy to take the laughs. It’s fine that his therapist lets her façade of objectivity crumble following his comeback to her suggestion of a prostate exam: ‘I don’t let anyone wag a finger in my face’. He readily plays up to his daughter’s roommate’s fandom of his one-liners. But when push comes to beating he’d rather be feared than liked. When Tony perceives he’s losing respect to laughter, the humour darkens considerably. One hint of ridicule by his Wonderbread Wop neighbour Cusamano and Tony’s leaving MacGuffin packages for him to ‘hold on to for a little while’ and to sweat over his paranoid mob movie-derived fantasies.

The Wonderbread Wop

Gandolfini made great sacrifices to his temperament and sanity to show us what Tony was capable of. Instead of carving out an adequate career making Tony Scott movies seem better than they are, he committed himself (in every sense of the word) to participating in acts of violence that turned his stomach and pushed him to the edge, even when he wasn’t asked. Sopranos creator David Chase’s eulogy at Gandolfini’s funeral spoke of a moment in filming where Gandolfini as Tony destroyed a fridge door without any prompting from script or director. According to Chase, Gandolfini cursed the show and its crew for putting him through such torment at which time Chase had to remind him that the act of violence was his creation. Maybe he and Tony weren’t so different after all; two men who both felt obliged to resort to extremes without ever recognising it was their choice.

James Gandolfini remembered by David Chase

Gandolfini was not a TV actor, he was an actor who used TV to create a character more vast, complicated, contradictory and textured than we had ever seen. Because he had eight years to do it? It probably helped. Gandolfini knew more than anyone that Tony could not be defined by a single moment. He wasn’t afraid of omitting the empathy required for any fleeting viewer to know and like Tony on first encounter if the situation warranted a Tony that was far from agreeable. He would catch them next time, and they would know and like Tony for real. There was a time where television was in the eyes of many an illegitimate cousin of virtually every narrative art form out here (with the possible exception of video games). By the time Gandolfini had got through with it, television was considered the best that American culture had to offer.

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