JAMES GANDOLFINI’S DEATH at the age of 51 felt like a double-edged shock to those of us who had witnessed the unfolding of his extraordinary talent. On the one hand, there was the sudden, tragic curtailment of a gifted actor’s life. On the other, there was the more illusory, if equally powerful, reality that Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano — his signature creation and irreducible alter ego — still felt so alive to the countless viewers who, week in and out, watched The Sopranos with fascination and occasional revulsion. Tony’s own immortality was, of course, famously preserved in the show’s blackout finale, reinforcing our sense of the actor’s lingering presence.
The Sopranos opens in a therapist’s office, with Tony rhapsodically proclaiming the belatedness of contemporary American life, like the keenest of cultural critics: “Lately, I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” Yet, the show quickly reveals how Tony’s thoughtful-sounding observations are mostly a means of rationalization and prevarication, rather than sincere attempts at self-understanding. The North Jersey mobster’s inherent contradictions are exposed within the first few episodes, in which Tony laments the loss of traditional, working-class values while indulging in the myriad excesses of free-market America; extols the virtues of the “Gary Cooper strong and silent type” in a noisy rant to his therapist; tenderly nurses a family of ducks in his backyard pool while neglecting his own wife; and further entangles himself in a web of mother-issues.
What distinguished The Sopranos — what made it into our generation’s defining morality play — was the critical distance it took from the huckster charisma of the lives it depicted, undercutting the potentially positive identification we might have assumed with its characters. In this capacity, the show positioned itself somewhere between its two great influences, The Godfather and Goodfellas. In the former, the baroque portraiture of gangster life seemed partly to invite the viewer’s romanticization of power and corruption — as Tony and his crew themselves demonstrate by gleefully reenacting their favorite moments from the trilogy of Godfather films. In Goodfellas, by contrast, the unremitting ugliness of both the characters and their violent deeds served to keep the audience at a far greater remove, limiting the possibility of deep emotional connection.
The Sopranos bridged the divide between these two approaches by holding in check both aspects of Tony’s character — his undeniable charm and his underlying monstrosity. But the persisting, conflicted relationship we form with the show’s seductive sociopath has everything to do with the brilliant depiction by James Gandolfini. His Tony Soprano is a man of unbridled appetites, the constant indulgence of which seems a tempting fantasy to those of us whose ids are held more firmly in check. There is a boyish, delinquent appeal to Tony’s ceaseless acting-out, as well as a pleasure to be had in the sophomoric, often hilarious, justifications he makes for his own behavior.
It is a tribute to the show’s complexity — and Gandolfini’s skill — that Tony’s charisma is gradually dissipated by the mounting disgust we begin to feel for him. One can’t help but notice how this mob boss, a killer to the core, gradually chokes out the lives of those he is closest to. It is a deeply ambivalent affection, if any, we end up feeling for Tony. And yet, it is difficult to entirely let go of our attachment to him, the way it would be difficult to detach oneself from a toxic family member.
The use — or misuse — to which Gandolfini puts his body in depicting Tony Soprano hastens our disabused response to his character. In the course of the series, Tony goes from portly to obese, inhaling food with a wild abandon. Tony’s bulging exterior becomes the surface expression of the character’s defensiveness, a kind of protective padding he wears against the world. So too, his increasingly distended waistline and labored breathing becomes part of the show’s larger indictment of the gluttony that had overtaken America’s economic and social life.
Gandolfini’s performance is critical to uncovering the sordid depths of Tony’s self-delusion. Take the scene, for example, where Tony is confronted by his daughter Meadow, still distraught over her former boyfriend’s murder. In defense, Tony gives a stirring account of his past attempts to straighten out the young would-be gangster. The exchange is revealing of the intelligence and psychological acuity that Gandolfini brought to his acting. Strained notes of self-pity seem to creep into Tony’s voice, as though he can’t help but conflate the tragedy of the situation with his own distorted sense of heroism. The pathos of the moment is heightened by Tony’s cunning awareness of what upright behavior might look like and his apparent belief in his own integrity. Still, despite the basic accuracy of what Tony tells his daughter, his speech is marked by conspicuous omissions — most notably, the fact that it was he who ordered the hit on the young man in the first place (after he became too much of a liability to Tony’s mafia cadre).
Another of Tony’s recurring delusions involves his image of himself as an American Everyman. There is indeed something about Tony that fits the stereotyped notion we have of the average American male: his sharp though underdeveloped intellect, his valorization of old world family values and work ethic, his reflexive racism and misogyny. Yet Tony’s sense of mobster exceptionalism, to say nothing of his mansion and yacht, make risible his claims to ordinariness. In the face of this, it is again a tribute to Gandolfini’s skill that Tony’s Everyman status remains somehow credible throughout the series. This may have had something to do with Gandolfini’s lack of movie-star looks, but it is also the result of the actor’s ability to imbue a brutal man with perceptible, authentic vulnerability. Not entirely incidental in this regard was Gandolfini’s own down-to-earth off-screen persona. He seemed the rare actor who genuinely detested the spotlight — declining almost all interview requests and shrinking from the heightened aura that came with his celebrity status.
In the end, relatively little was known about Gandolfini to his legions of fans. One would read now and then about how difficult he could be to work with as well as of his drug and alcohol abuse. It clearly could not have been easy playing Tony Soprano, and one was left at times with the impression that among Tony’s many fictional victims was one real victim — Gandolfini himself. The role, which brought great fame and fortune, also consigned the actor to a decade-long sentence of sorts. The extreme physical abandon and emotional rawness it required, as well as the ruthless volatility that Gandolfini had to project in scene after scene, must ultimately have taken its toll. It was enough to make the performance feel like an act of martyrdom, if not outright masochism. It was even possible to wonder whether Gandolfini’s enormous weight gain was entirely an accommodation to the necessities of the character, and not the other way around. Whatever the case, Tony’s various excesses provided Gandolfini with a means of laying bare the ravages of his own soul so that, despite the differences between character and actor, Tony Soprano became for Gandolfini a kind of channeled confession.
At rare moments, Gandolfini would reflect on his own neuroticism, once calling himself a “260-pound Woody Allen.” But the vulnerability of a Goliath is hardly as evident as that of a (bespectacled) David. While Allen’s cinematic personae always functioned as neurotic self-advertisements, there was an essential tension between Gandolfini’s imposing exterior and inner fragility — one he shared with his most famous character and used to brilliantly enrich the lives of the men he depicted throughout his career.
It was a career that neither began nor ended with Tony Soprano, though it was hard to imagine the actor ever fully escaping the heavy shadow cast by the mobster. In the past year, Gandolfini portrayed Leon Panetta in Zero Dark Thirty and the father in The Sopranos creator David Chase’s moving coming-of-age Rock n’ Roll story, Not Fade Away. This latter role seemed itself to serve as an elegiac nod in the direction of Tony Soprano, with Gandolfini softening his familiar onscreen rage with a greater display of paternal tenderness. Well-received, too, were the documentaries he produced for HBO on Iraq war veterans and the history of post-traumatic stress disorder. One can only wonder what further directions his career might have taken.
Gandolfini, tragically, is gone. In his wake remains Tony Soprano, forever at large, a heavy-footed revenant haunting both our memories and his fictive North Jersey.