Thursday, June 20, 2013


A bad week for deaths, already -- Michael Hastings, Kim Thompson, Chet Flippo. And James Gandolfini. Gandolfini was a journeyman who got noticed by the Times (thanks @johnmcquaid) apartment-surfing in 1988 ("Mr. Gandolfini, 26 years old, has never had his name on a lease, never paid more than $400 a month in rent... 'Moving, to me, is no big deal,' said Mr. Gandolfini, whose calling is the theater but whose living comes mostly from bartending and construction...") and built a career before and after The Sopranos. Tony Soprano was his world-class achievement.

As @Mobute observed, "It's not his fault impotent suburban WASPs fetishized a sociopath and made the Tony thing kinda creepy." Much of the show's, and the character's, popularity was based on all that funny Bada-Bing bullshit. And Gandolfini's great gift for showing Tony's monstrously childlike glee at what he could get away with was part of the pleasure that drew us into the show. But his other appetites and his sufferings were equally childlike and monstrous, and as the bodies piled up and the walls closed in Tony became less likable. But still we watched him.

I talked about this a bit during the last Sopranos season -- how the endgame that revolted some people then made perfect sense from an artistic and a moral point of view. Gandolfini's contribution to this was very important. Chase didn't give him the sentimental glimmers that post-Code Hollywood gangsters got -- and Gandolfini, bless him, didn't try to stick them in. When Tony found something pleasing in a woman, or a sushi restaurant, or a big score, it eventually soured in his mouth, but he didn't stop to think about it -- he just went on looking for something else to devour, encouraged by custom, crap psychotherapy, an absurd caricature of family feeling, and the dream we are accustomed to call American.  Tony took every excuse not to notice that he had to change or die, and Gandolfini was given the task of showing us how a man could live that way. That he was a gangster made that life superficially exciting, but at bottom Tony was a small-town success who might intuit enough to despise, Babbitt-like, the cheap glow of his short horizons, but never found the courage to climb over them.

Gandolfini didn't sentimentalize this in the least. Over the course of the show Tony's life became a painful thing to watch. But we stuck with him. When Tony looked for an easy exit, we hoped he would find it. Like enabling relatives we ceased to wish for his redemption and came to wish only for his deliverance. Maybe Olivier or Gielgud could have sustained that over six seasons, and maybe they couldn't; Gandolfini did. It was a great piece of work.


  1. parsec12:54 AM

    Couldn't watch the show very often but what I did see was impressive. Gandolfini made that character work, and that was no mean task.

  2. marindenver1:01 AM

    Every bad thing you can say about Tony Soprano is true. And every good thing you can say about him is true too. And James Gandolfino brought all of that to life. He was an extraordinary actor. I loved him as if I knew him and I'm grieving his loss like I did the loss of my husband. RIP Tony.

  3. Great tribute, Roy.

    I saw Gandolfini on stage in God of Carnage a year or so ago. He and the rest of the cast were great. He always gave a very natural, grounded performance. The nuances, shifts and tiny beats in his longer speeches – normally with Dr. Melfi – really were a joy to watch. He made it look easy. (In the Loop is another of my favorites.)

    Tony Soprano was smarter (and definitely shrewder) than most of his fellow gangsters, but it was the little touches of insight – along with the refusal by Chase and Ganolfini to truly sentimentalize the character– that really made him great. Tony was in the bulk of the scenes in almost every episode. Gandofini had to carry the series, sell it, and boy, did he. It's not as if he was 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. (Damn, it must have been nice to work with him.) 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. Many great actors never get a chance like that, but we're all lucky Gandofini 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.

  4. Tehanu1:55 AM

    Of course Tony was his big achievement, but there were many other wonderful performances; I've always loved the character he played in "Get Shorty," the bodyguard with the little daughter. There should have been so many more great parts for him. What a terrible loss.

  5. Derelict6:39 AM

    Well said, Roy.

    While the Sopranos was a great show, I hope that we get some more exposure to the rest of Gandolfini's body of work. He was great in Get Shorty, not good in that prison film he made (the name of which evades me).

  6. sorrowful for every human and world animal.

  7. Bill Hicks6:51 AM

    His part in the magnificent "True Romance" is also terrific, if overshadowed by the Hopper/Walken tango that precedes it.

  8. Halloween_Jack10:03 AM

    I've never watched The Sopranos (I know, OK?), but the bit about "impotent suburban WASPs fetishiz[ing] a sociopath" rings quite true WRT Breaking Bad's Walter White; America loves her villains.

    Also, I'm glad that you mentioned Kim Thompson, co-publisher of Fantagraphic Books. Thompson not only walked the walk WRT elevating the state of comics in America for at least three decades running, but also acted as a sort of damping field for the perennial bomb-throwing of fellow co-publisher Gary Groth, who seemed to have picked fights with about half of the people in comics at one point or another, plus Harlan Ellison. I really can't overstate the importance of Fantagraphics in broadening my taste in comics beyond adolescent power fantasies.

  9. dstatton10:53 AM

    The director of God of Carnage said last night that he anguished over that role, fearing he wasn't good enough to be on the same stage with the other actors. No arrogant star turn for him.

  10. dstatton10:57 AM

    And Slim Whitman! "I am calling yoooooouuuu..." OK, shouldn't make fun. He had a wonderful voice and a lot of fans; "more than Elvis and the Beatles!"

  11. dstatton1:14 PM

    The only thing in the movie that made me laugh out loud.

  12. Mamou Victor3:55 PM

    Awesome Roy, Haim


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