He Made The Small Screen Huge: James Gandolfini Remembered
, June 20th, 2013 09:01
David Stubbs looks back at the life and legacy of James Gandolfini, who in his role as Tony Soprano changed our perception of television, and showed us not that criminals are just like us, but we are like the criminals SPOILER ALERT if you've not seen the Sopranos
As news broke on late Wednesday evening, June 19, of the death of James Gandolfini while holidaying in Rome, there was widespread shock and dismay, and for many a personal sense of bereavement, remarkable in that the actor famously fought shy of interviews and had very little profile as "himself". Equally, however, there was a feeling that this had been chillingly portended in the final scene of the last ever episode of The Sopranos, in which the screen cuts suddenly to black as Tony and his family share onion rings in a diner. Although many viewers were aghast, feeling that they'd been robbed of a resolution, series creator David Chase explained that this was no copout; Tony was undoubtedly whacked, by someone or other. This was the moment of his demise, and this is how it would be for him – the sudden switch-off of everything. No more Tony, no more Sopranos, end of. This series was like his solar system, and when he went, it was like the sun being snuffed out. It was as it should be, a masterstroke of television, in keeping with the great, expectation-confounding traditions of the series. By hideous contrast, the similarly sudden demise of Gandolfini is absolutely cruel, arbitrary and wrong. He was 51. Our world, our collective popular consciousness feels suddenly, conspicuously short of a hulking, humane presence, a man whose immense contribution was to make the small screen huge.
Born in New Jersey, the son of a bricklayer and lunch lady, Gandolfini's ability to generate such empathy, as the big/little guy, is partly due to his natural physical presence – his eyes, in particular, intent and swimming with unnerving charisma. However, it's also that he had a pre-thespian life, working as a bouncer and club manager, before he even considered going to acting classes. Once he did, he knew that was the life for him, though he never really understood the fascination with actors as celebrities and would-be soothsayers. "Why do you want to talk to me? Would you ask a truck driver about his job?", he once asked a journalist. As this deeply affecting piece shows, this wasn't the sulky standoffish-ness of a highly paid actor too grand to condescend to interviews. Even prior to The Sopranos, he mistakenly lacked confidence that he would have anything of interest to say, and would simply end up looking stupid. So it's only through the rare insights afforded by pieces like this that we have a sense of Gandolfini the man, by all accounts a gentleman. Just glimpses here and there - I recall that before the smoke had cleared on 9/ll, seeing a still image of Gandolfini having ridden down to the disaster scene on his bike, talking to firefighters, asking if there was anything he could do to help.
Ironically, the proof of his essentially decency as a human being was in his portrayal of the monstrous yet utterly compelling Tony Soprano, in a series that helped revolutionise the way we watch television and reversed traditional ideas about the superiority of big screen drama. As Seitz says in the piece linked to above, "his humanity shone through Tony's rotten façade. When people said they sensed good in Tony, it was James Gandolfini they sensed."
Inevitably, Tony Soprano remains the role for which he is most remembered, and there's not a trace of shame in that. As the mob boss whose panic attacks force him to undergo therapy, a secret which he must on no account reveal to his peers, he's a bristling, truthful study in troubled masculinity, an endlessly shifting mass of contradictions. He's clumsy and physically self-conscious, goofily so at times, brazenly hypocritical yet constantly, inwardly wrestling with some deeply suppressed part of himself. He's uncultured, crude, yet enormously shrewd, a bigot at times and yet better than that. He's a man of enormous and self-indulgent appetites, both culinary and sexual, yet there is a joyless selflessness about the daily stress he puts himself through to keep order in the mob and his family in the comforts to which they're accustomed, and his kids on the straight and narrow. He's a criminal without scruples yet abides unswervingly by a sworn code of honour. He inspires great fear but is himself a picture of terror when he's forced to flee from federal agents when they very nearly catch up with him. He lives day to day, shoulder to shoulder with men whom he will coolly whack the moment he feels it necessary to do so. As for women, he's a sexist who uses them as playthings but when in the company of his own mother, or his therapist, or wife, you sense his confines, his seething, helpless impotence. There's a wonderful scene in which Meadow, his daughter, interrogates him about whether or not he is in the Mafia. You can practically feel his buttocks squirm in the car seat as he improvises a makeshift denial. It's one of many moments when you empathise with him as he faces an awkward moment as a family man. Then we see him mercilessly and without qualm track down and strangle to death an informer in the witness protection programme. This is what he will do to those who turn against another sort of "family". It's all the scarier because of how much we've got invested in Tony by now. This could be our own Dad doing this.
It's been said of The Sopranos, as revealed in the therapy sessions and elsewhere, that it shows that criminals are just like us – they are not the dark, 'Other' social forces as so often depicted in popular drama, but have their own, interior lives. True, but there's a corollary to that - 'we' are just like criminals. The Sopranos is endlessly involving, endlessly watchable not because it's an accurate depiction of a lifestyle alien to us - in fact, it's not a very authentic picture of mob life in New Jersey at all, some have suggested, but no matter. It works at a more metaphorical level. There are a great many in society whose concern for others extends to family and love ones alone; anyone outside that bonded circle can be screwed. Moreover, the grim pragmatism of Tony's criminal operations is reflected in the way nation states work. Terrible, brutal things have been done, are done by powerful men to keep us cosy, fed and sheltered – and, as with Tony's wife Carmela, for whom her husband's criminality is simply not a topic of conversation, this is a subject on which most of us would prefer not to reflect.
All of this, plus the brilliant supporting cast of dependants in The Sopranos, means that it would take a great many episodes and series to unfurl. This was not really a story about the hunting down and elimination of a bad man, even if that was what eventually happened. This was more on a par with a 19th century novel, a whole world in its own right, reflecting in its own way the world as it is.
TV on such a maximal scale – rich, multi-faceted, with no "end" in sight - was kind of new thing back in 1999. Like many people, I initially resisted the series because of the prodigious viewing challenge it represented, but also because its release happened to coincide with that of the Robert De Niro film Analyse This, which also dealt with a Mafia boss in therapy. It seemed like The Sopranos was doing something in the more modest TV form that had already been done by Hollywood, thanks. That pitiful assumption was scotched when I was given the first series, on VCR, as a Christmas present. Having watched the opener, I watched the remainder of the series there and then, curtains closed, taking only brief toilet and food breaks. Others, I'm sure, have had the same experience.
After The Sopranos have come The Wire, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Six Feet Under, Game Of Thrones and many more. The Sopranos introduced a new way both of making great television drama and altering our viewing habits. Hollywood continues to pale by comparison, with its handsome, central characters and predictable, often contrived dramatic arcs and too-satisfactory moral resolutions. Hollywood's continued, bland fixation on celebrity and photogenic beauty as the be all and end all aside, 90-120 minutes now feels like far too absurdly constricted a time scale to deal with the sort of narratives to which viewers of HBO have become accustomed. Take last year's Oscar-winning Argo, starring the handsome Ben Affleck. Yes, it was was a gripping enough piece of adrenalin candy, albeit one that played fast and loose with historical reality and appeared only to be set in the 70s largely so that the stars could get to smoke on screen, an important consideration these days if recent Hollywood output is to go by. However, it felt morally shallow, with most characters given little room to breathe or impact on our consciousness, a small, blown-up tale of heroism surgically snatched from what was a botched, shameful episode in American geopolitics. It felt so because, thanks to The Sopranos, we are used to screen drama that is more layered, complex, unresolved, rich in character(s), with plotlines containing all manner of tripwires designed to foil our expectations rather than pander to them, episodes and series crammed with micro-incident yet which tell the sad, saga of the human condition in the epic, ambitious, Shakespearian manner. Small wonder that actors including Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino are migrating towards HBO and TV drama – this is where the stories are being told, stories a great deal more interesting than Hollywood's continually rehashed one that Good Looking Americans are Best.
James Gandolfini was absolutely central to all of this. The big screen was too small for Gandolfini. Even after the success of The Sopranos, he was under-used by Hollywood, typecast, or reduced to subordinate roles. He was always brilliant in movies – as the psychotic woman beater in True Romance who gets his comeuppance, as the General in In The Loop, or as the CIA director in Zero Dark Thirty. Hollywood, however, could not handle his appearance, his slow-burn charisma, his immobile, dominant physicality. Hollywood should have rebuilt itself to accommodate Gandolfini but its structural inability to do so is one reason for its present undoing.
What might the future have held for Gandolfini? Perhaps he would always have been overshadowed by Tony Soprano. He was a physical match for the real-life model for Nucky Thompson, central character in Boardwalk Empire but maybe, as a piece of casting, that would have been too "on the nose" - better to let Buscemi handle that one. It's absurd to think, however, that such a one-man range of an actor, so brilliantly informed by an undertow of humanity kept invisible from the public, would not have further enriched our lives had the screen on his life not faded, far too suddenly, far too soon, to black.