Thursday, 20 June 2013


James Gandolfini wasn't just cast perfectly as Tony Soprano, he inhabited the role. He was Jersey-born, Rutgers-educated, New York-trained. Those New Yorkish roots were true of most of the Sopranos cast--born in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Mount Vernon, Hoboken. Dominic Chiasnese, Tony Sirico, Vincent Pastore, David Proval, Jerry Adler, even Frank Vincent, all felt real as Jersey mobsters. Gandolfini worked as Tony because he felt real too, but there was something else there, an extra bit of shadow, an ingratiating appearance, that meant the audience could believe in him both as a gangster and as David Chace's character.

Tony could be a softie and mean it, and then order Big Pussy killed. He could then dream-talk to Pussy, through the mouth of a dead fish, and it was believable. The show was based on Tony's being just slightly off the mould.  He once called himself a 260-pound Woody Allen, and that's what came through as Tony. Plus, although there are any number of Wesleyan references in the show, I always figured it was Gandolfini who got Mangenius into Arties for dinner.

Where this worked best was possibily with Nancy Marchand, as his mother. Marchand (born in Buffalo, which might as well be Wisconsin in New York terms) was Tony's Italian Jewish mother, and if their interaction sometimes veered between classic Greek drama and every sitcom on TV since the 1950s, she had the same kind of slightly hidden special thing that brought out the real Tony. It works with Edie Falco (another New Yorker) partly because she works to escape the mould as well.

I still think Gandolfini's role as Bear in Get Shorty may be his best (though lots of people like Virgil, in True Romance, which may have got him cast as Bear anyway). It's fascinating to see how far he came from that part to the Sopranos, but also how he didn't go much farther. He's excellent in any number of films, but it's always in the same sort of supporting role, as a blustry figure of crude authority: the CIA boss in Zero Dark 30, the general in In The Loop (playing straight man for a Brit, no less); the mayor (and best thing) in the remake of Taking of Pelham 123 (he made Travolta look handsomer in five different movies--supposedly Gandolfini was voted best-looking in his high school class, which really lets you know all you need to about New Jersey); and as Robert Redford's punching bag in The Last Castle. He relies the same mannerisms he employed as Tony, the twinkle in ther eye, the look of surprise, the knowing tilt, but on the big screen they were less effective. It was as the anti-hero on the small screen that Gandolfini worked best.

It made a huge impact. The Sopranos marks a turning point in TV drama--the creative energy moved to cable TV, and deeper darker series and more ambitious films were the result. Without the success of the Sopranos there might not be a Mad Men, or Justified, or Breaking Bad. On the other hand, there might not be a Lilyhammer either. But Gandolfini didn't let it rest there. He was a producer on three HBO films; as executive producer and presenter of Alive Day Memories, about soldiers returning from Iraq, as producer of the Prism-award winning War Torn, about the psychological damage of combat, and again as a producer on Philip Kaufman's Hemingway and Gellhorn, with Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen epically miscast as ill-matched writers.

If you can find it, go back and watch Showtime's 1997 made for TV version of 12 Angry Men (which went back to Reginald Rose's original teleplay). It's a good cast, with Jack Lemmon in the Fonda role, George C Scott as Lee J Cobb, Ossie Davis, Hume Cronyn, William Petersen, and Gandolfini as Juror 6 -- the Edward Binns part in the movie made 40 years before. He nails it, and he moe than holds his own in an excellent cast. And it reminds you of what talent in New York is like. We saw the cast of the Sopranos in Scorsese films, in episodes of Law & Order, maybe in theatre if we were lucky enough. But read this article from the 1988 New York Times, about when Gandolfini was doing the thing generations of actors had done before him. He found his unlikely success, playing a Jersey character, and every time you heard that music play, and watch Tony Soprano and his car and cigar drive up to that exit, count yourself lucky you are watching. RIP.

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