The magnitude of the response to James Gandolfini’s death in Rome last Wednesday is clearly also a tribute to a fictional character and a television series created by David Chase and his writers. If Chase had picked someone else to play Tony Soprano back in 1998 (as almost happened), Gandolfini (1961-2013) would be remembered as a good actor with a knack for playing heavies. But it works both ways and the part of a lifetime miraculously found perhaps the only actor in the world worthy of it, as Chase implied when he called Gandolfini “one of the greatest actors of this or any time.” Then Chase raised the stakes: “A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.’ There would be silence at the other end of the phone.”
The outpouring of grief and adulation for this New Jersey native, a Rutgers graduate of the Class of 1983 for whom the state’s flags were flown at half-mast Monday, has been extraordinary. I can’t recall another instance where the actor and the role were so closely associated in the process of mourning. Friends and fellow actors knew him on another level, needless to say. Yet even they could not help but speak of Tony Soprano, a work of art in human form conceived by David Chase and embodied and brought to life by James Gandolfini. People clearly loved something beyond the racist, sexist brute who could and did kill with his bare hands. They loved his heart, his humanity, his anger, his misery, his wife, his children, the way he went out to the driveway in robe and slippers to get the Star Ledger like thousands of other New Jerseyans, his doomed efforts to deal with a nightmare mother, and a dangerous, highly profitable, but crushingly burdensome business.
The Mozart Factor
Or, taking the hint from Chase, you could say we loved his music. The reference to Mozart in connection with the mobster who towered like a stormy, despairing god over HBO’s monumental 86-episode series with its 60-plus murders and countless acts of violence apparently left some journalists scratching their heads. In the AP and ABC obituaries, among others, the Mozart remark was edited out. As if David Chase, of all people, should be corrected for thinking such a thing. This is someone who made music the sonic lifeblood of his series; he knew what he was talking about. And he knew enough to mention the “silence at the other end of the phone” — in case anyone doubted that Gandolfini himself still didn’t “get it.” The actor wasn’t being modest; he was behaving in character. For instance Tony’s reaction the time his lovely shrink Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) ventured into the lofty regions of “pain and truth” — “Pain and truth! C’mon! I’m a fat f-ing crook from New Jersey!”
If the Mozart quote seems over the top, how about Shakespeare? The Guardian obituary said “Shakespeare would have been proud to write for Tony Soprano” and the New York Post notice hailed “the Shakespearean grandeur” of his performance. In fact, what else but aesthetic hyperbole can explain the dimensions of Gandolfini’s appeal as Tony Soprano, and the seismic impact of his death on the media? Try to imagine anything comparable greeting the untimely passing of the brilliant actors who play Walt White of Breaking Bad, Don Draper of Mad Men, Jack Bauer of 24, Al Swearengen of Deadwood, or any other series figures who, as various obituaries have suggested, might never have happened without the example of Tony Soprano?
Music Hath Charms
From January 10 1999, to the sudden fade to silent black on June 10, 2007, the scene that marked The Sopranos and its unlikely hero for greatness, the scene essential to the dynamic that captivated audiences here and around the world, occurred in the opening episode when a family of ducks abandon Tony Soprano’s swimming pool. For the Mozart-minded creator of a series where the titular family’s last name has operatic associations, what better way to accompany such a transformative moment than with an aria for a soprano booming from the sound system during a family gathering? In the world’s first up-close and personal encounter with Tony Soprano, the big man is beaming like a proud parent at the beauty of the family of ducks splashing in his pool while Luba Orgonosova sings “Chi il Bel Sogno Di Doretta” (“Doretta’s Beautiful Dream”) from Puccini’s La Rondine. Here he is, the king in his domain, a big cigar in his mouth, a can of lighter fluid for the Bar-B-Q in his hand, friends and family gathered in his spacious backyard. Then, as first one duck, then another, then all go flying off, the light goes out of his eyes, his hand clutches his heart, his head drops, the cigar falls from his mouth, and down he goes, face first, the can of lighter fluid hitting the grill, which bursts into flame as his frightened wife and children run to help him. It’s the visual equivalent of a psychic explosion. “Panic attack” doesn’t do it justice, but that’s the clinical term that leads him to therapy with Dr. Melfi and that helped first-time audiences all over the world bond with the series.
Some of Tony’s most memorable and revealing lines are spoken in Dr. Melfi’s office (“what kind of a human being am I if my own mother wants me dead?”). The therapy sessions, as David Chase has pointed out, allow the writers to sound and develop their own themes and plot elements through the medium of an educated white-collar listener who also happens to represent a significant slice of the show’s viewership. It’s partly through his sessions with Melfi that Tony can be perceived as the “richly complex” mob boss mentioned in the original headline of the New York Times obituary (wouldn’t you know, someone edited out the “richly” in the online edition).
Family Above All
When Dr.Melfi hears about the flyaway ducks and Tony’s collapse, she tells him, “You’re afraid of losing your family.” As the reaction to James Gandolfini’s death indicates, the Sopranos family dynamic works brilliantly. Just give the brute a house in a monied North Jersey neighborhood, his castle to protect from FBI surveillance teams and the occasional black bear. At the Bada-Bing and Satriale’s, it’s essentially power and business. In bed or on the floor or up against the desk with various women, it’s power and pleasure. At home, he hangs out, stuffs his face, watches TV, sustains an alliance of sorts with Carmela (Edie Falco), the complicated woman he’s married to, and does his best to be an old-school father to his teenage kids, A.J. and Meadow (Robert Iler and Jamie-Lynn Sigler). He can be oafish, foolish, sometimes pathetic, sometimes surprisingly charming (he has a smile to die for, sly and seductive). Mozart, he’s not, but when he’s in the family element he’s “one of us” more believably than, say, Archie Bunker ever was.
There are plenty of laughs in The Sopranos, but not the canned sitcom variety. It’s the human comedy that prevails in Chase’s world, and while Tony’s casual racism is never funny, only ugly and benighted, it’s also perfectly true to life, as is his clueless way of dealing with the attitudes his kids bring home from school. Like the time A.J., in the midst of being scolded, calmly tells his parents, “Death just shows the ultimate absurdity of life,” upon which his father (“Are you trying to make me angry?”) threatens to throw him through the window. Unintimidated, A.J. nails it: “See. That’s what I mean, life is absurd.” When Carmella shouts “God forgive you!” A.J. doesn’t miss a beat: “There is no god.” Which raises a shocked “HEY!” from both parents. Where is this coming from, they wonder? Could it be that new English teacher Mr. So-and-so from Oberlin? At this point Meadow, now a student at Columbia, lays it on the line: “You want him to read something other than Hustler? You want him to be an educated person? What do you think education is? You just make more money? This is education.” During the stunned parental hiatus, A.J. continues waxing philosophical, “Do you ever think why you were born?” while Meadow quotes Madame de Staël (“In life one must choose between boredom and suffering”). Stick a fork in the parents, they’re done, nothing more to say, until Tony tells Meadow, lamely, “Go to your room.”
It’s called putting Tony in his place, and no one does it like his family. Meadow does it. Carmela does it. Not so much A.J., he just breaks his father’s heart, over and over. Whenever Tony’s in the hospital fighting for his life, his family’s there pulling for him. If you love Carmela and who cannot love Carmela (when she tells off the freeloading young priest, you feel like cheering), it reflects on Tony. And what a work of art is that battered and bewildered marriage, and how real it became to the actors, witness Edie Falco’s comment on Gandolfini’s death, “The love between Tony and Carmela was one of the greatest I’ve ever known.” When Jamie-Lynn Sigler heard the news, she referred to her “father” for eight years and his ability “to make you feel like everything would be alright if he was around.” On his Facebook page, Robert Iler wrote: “I haven’t cried in years and now I can’t stop …. Please tell me this is all a bad dream … I love you so much james and always will.”
The movie never ends/It goes on and on and on and on.
—Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin’
During the last four minutes and 32 seconds of Tony Soprano’s television life, each time someone walks into Holsten’s Ice Cream Parlor on Bloomfield Avenue, a bell rings and he looks up. His looks are neutral, watchful, but not excessively so. He’s expecting his wife, son, and daughter, who will enter the place, one by one, in that order. When Carmela comes in and sits down across from him, the look that passes between them is at once comfortable, affectionate, and knowing. The song Tony has chosen to play on the tabletop jukebox selector, “Don’t Stop Believin,’” is likely one they shared when they were dating back in the early eighties. A few seconds later A.J. comes in on the heels of the man in the Members Only jacket some inventive viewers have deduced is there for the express purpose of killing Tony (Chase picked for this key role of “phantom killer” a non-actor who owns a pizza parlor in Bucks County; go figure). When the bell rings for the last time as Meadow rushes in (we never actually see her enter), Tony looks up (shown above), the music stops and the screen goes black.
Does what happened or didn’t happen at Holsten’s six years ago this month matter now? When the owners heard the news from Rome, they put a Reserved marker on Tony’s table.