Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

James Gandolfini (1961–2013)

I was sad to see that James Gandolfini had died at the relatively young age of 51. To expand on what I've written elsewhere, I saw Gandolfini on stage in God of Carnage in 2011. The play is slighter than Yasmine Reza's other hit, Art (a comedy with moments of depth), but both plays are fantastic actor showcases. Gandolfini and his costars (Jeff Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden, and Hope Davis) were all great. Gandolfini always gave a very natural, grounded performance. The nuances, shifts and tiny beats in his longer speeches in The Sopranos – normally with Dr. Melfi – really were a joy to watch. He made it look easy. (In the Loop is another of my favorites.)

Justifiably, his most famous role was Tony Soprano, the crime boss and central figure of David Chase's TV show The Sopranos, which became a cultural phenomenon. The character Tony Soprano was smarter (and definitely shrewder) than most of his fellow gangsters, but it was the little touches of human insight – along with the refusal by Chase and Gandolfini to truly sentimentalize the character – that really made him great. (Roy Edroso writes well about this.) Tony was in the bulk of the scenes in almost every episode. Gandolfini essentially had to carry the series, sell the whole affair, and boy, did he. It's not as if he was just playing himself, either – he famously said, "I'm a neurotic mess. I'm really basically just like a 260-pound Woody Allen." To perform at the level he did – and sustain it – requires a serious dedication to craft along with superb intuition. The Sopranos became such a hit it might be easy to underplay or even forget how much of a coup it was for an actor who wasn't terribly well-known and didn't look like a typical leading man to get that part, and how uncommon the role itself was.

Let's take a look at two scenes. You can consider them and everything below minor spoilers. Several people linked and discussed this one (alas, the image is slightly distorted):

What's your reaction? For me, I'm drawn in, even seduced, and then pushed out. The beats/shifts are well-written, and Gandolfini hits them beautifully. This is a quintessential Tony-Melfi scene. He tells a story, it's somewhat funny but has a hard, even cruel edge, yet he shows surprising insight… only to undercut that at the end. The structure even mimics that of a joke, with Melfi giving the setup for Tony's topper at the end. If there's an audience surrogate in the series, it's Dr. Melfi; like us, she's observing Tony Soprano, and thinks she understands him, and may even become sympathetic, but may just be getting conned by a sociopath. (This becomes an explicit concern of hers late in the series.) Tony often shows these moments of striking insight into human nature and his own past conduct, and as an audience, we can marvel at this, even admire him, and think that he might change. But Chase and Gandolfini don't let us off that easily. What's Tony's last jab about, mocking Jimmy? Is he just regressing, unreflectively slipping back into familiar behavior, and making a joke he's made dozens of times before to get a laugh? Is this covering behavior, Tony rejecting his momentary vulnerability (but also his own insight)? Is there any real change, let alone progress? Laugh at the last gag, and you've become complicit. More likely, you feel disappointed in the briefly-insightful Tony mocking Jimmy again – and that means you've been seduced, perhaps conned, and complicit in a slightly different way. Either way, most of us keep watching.

"God is a luxury I can't afford." It's a fantastic character line in Woody Allen's great film Crimes and Misdemeanors, and it fits many of the characters in The Sopranos, perhaps most of all Tony and his wife Carmela (Edie Falco). Many critics (especially Emily Nussbaum) have commented on the scene where Carmela seeks counsel from a psychiatrist about their marriage, and is sternly warned to take her children and leave her current life, one of comfort built on evil. ("One thing you can never say, that you haven’t been told.") It's a striking, memorable scene. But not surprisingly, Carmela balks at this advice. She's willing to make some sacrifices, perhaps, but not that much. She wants to make a bargain. She's very much like her husband in this respect. In the very first episode, and for the bulk of the series, Tony Soprano doesn't truly want to change his way of life, certainly not to abandon his life of crime – he just wants his panic attacks to stop. Similarly, it's arresting to see the mafia dinner late in season 1 after seeing the entire series; so many of the characters are eventually killed off. This life takes its price. And Chase and Gandolfini don't let us completely off the hook as viewers, either.

Here's another great scene from late in the series:

Again, it's a well-written scene (and that shouldn't be overlooked), but it's also simply a superb performance. Straightforward emotion is relatively easy to play, but emotion under restraint, a character in true turmoil, wrestling with something, switching tactics, bargaining, anger at his son and Melfi but also self-loathing and guilt, losing it briefly and pulling himself back – that's really something. As an actor, Gandolfini is grounded, real, in the moment, fully present, and this makes Tony Soprano dangerous, sympathetic, and human. Not every episode had a scene this strong, but more than a few did, and most of them had scenes that came close. The Sopranos could boast a fine ensemble cast, and had some superb writing and directing, but it depended on James Gandolfini pouring himself into the role of Tony Soprano and selling us on it throughout 86 episodes. He was the real deal.

Many great actors never get a chance at such a role, but we're all lucky Gandolfini did. (And by all accounts, he was very grateful for it. I've heard several stories about the lavish gifts he got his fellow actors after his big contract.) RIP – he left us far too soon.

Other articles and tributes:

Roy Edroso.

Slate: "The Longform Guide to The Sopranos. A useful compilation of good articles.

Matt Zoller Seitz: " A Great Actor, A Better Man."

Gandolfini on Sesame Street.

GQ: "The Night Tony Soprano Disappeared."

Emily Nussbaum: "How Tony Soprano Changed Television."

David Remnick: "Postscript."

LA Times: Obituary, appreciation 1, appreciation 2, industry reactions, and remembering his stage work.

NY Times: Obituary, reactions, and a 1988 piece about "apartment gypsies" with Gandolfini before he made it big.

Condolence threads by Lawyers, Guns & Money and Balloon Juice.

Finally, the blog Master of Sopranos has "the definitive explanation of the end" of the series. This is exhaustive and very well done. (Honestly, when I watched the end, I thought the visual syntax of the sequence strongly pointed in one direction, and the only reason I found myself second-guessing my reading was because I thought David Chase was trying to achieve an ambiguous, open ending.) In any case, a memorable piece of work.

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