NAVA BRAHE: When The Sopranos premiered on HBO in January 1999, it was a very interesting time in my life. That same month I was fired from a job for the first time, I was three years removed from losing my father, and I had just gotten married six months earlier. Add to that contending with an aging mother who could no longer live alone or maintain the family house, and my plate was overflowing. I wasn’t watching much television back then, but when my older brother described The Sopranos to me, my interest piqued. “Watch it,” he told me, “and tell me who Livia reminds you of.” He was referring, of course, to our mother. After that, I was hooked.
I remember reading that the cast and crew of The Sopranos compared the filming of each episode to filming a feature film. I also remember hearing that James Gandolfini worked the hardest of all of them, since he was in virtually every scene in every episode. The show revolved around him and his roles as husband, father and boss. You needed an actor of his stature to embody all those archetypes because he played them in not one, but two families. Tony Soprano could not have been played by anyone other than James Gandolfini; it’s as if he was born to play that role. His stage and film performances were well-received by critics prior to the creation of the series, but it was The Sopranos that elevated him from actor to icon.
What set The Sopranos apart from other television series for me, was the emotional investment I made in it. We are all born into varying levels of dysfunction, but something about the dysfunction The Sopranos depicted resonated strongly with me. It wasn’t just the similarities between Livia and my own mother, but the struggles Tony endured that I related to. He felt his mother favored his older sister, just as I felt my mother favored my brother; he struggled to please his mother, yet he knew that deep down, she was incapable of providing the maternal affection he craved. There was so much that was so real, it was impossible not to watch. Even in the years since the series ended, I find myself going back and re-watching my favorite episodes. Despite the violence and the discomfort the storylines elicit, The Sopranos comforts me, because the themes are familiar. It’s cathartic knowing that even though the characters are fictional, their basis is in a reality I know all too well. The show forever changed the television landscape, spoiling me, and I’m sure countless others, for the inane, insipid drivel that populates our cable and satellite receivers. As selective as I was prior to watching the series, I am even choosier about what I invest my time in because it raised the bar so high.
James Gandolfini’s untimely death at the age of 51 has hit me hard. I’ve felt genuine sorrow hearing about the passing of other celebrities, but not what I am feeling now. He was a singular talent who brought to life a character no other actor could have embodied. Sure, it helped that he was born and raised in New Jersey, and that he was Italian. But, he excelled at portraying someone we can all relate to. In a society where the illusion of having it all is so important to so many individuals, Tony Soprano showed us that having it all is impossible. We can’t have success without insecurity; we can’t have material wealth without paying a price above money; we can’t be perfect in every area of life. His role as mob boss was a metaphor for the Jekyll and Hyde in all of us; he could have been anything, but as a Mafioso, he was the epitome of profane. Deep down, we all wish we could behave as he did when someone crossed him, but most of the time, we manage to refrain. Still, it was thrilling to live vicariously through Tony, even if a lot of what he did horrified us.
Whenever a public figure or a celebrity dies, we immediately begin to assess that person’s legacy. James Gandolfini will be remembered as a major talent, even though he resided well under the radar of contemporary fame. His name never appeared in any of the online gossip rags, nor were the paparazzi constantly hunting him as if he were prized game. You were always aware of his body of work, yet you were never aware of him.
Before I sat down to write this, I watched his appearance on Inside the Actors Studio. My favorite part of the interview was his answers to the Proustian questionnaire each guest is asked by host James Lipton. When asked, “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?” Gandolfini responded, “Take over for a while, I’ll be right back.” He was joking, but Lipton would not let him change his answer. If he did indeed arrive at the pearly gates, I’m sure God gladly stepped aside. After all, not even God can refuse Tony Soprano.
HOWARD MEGDAL: Well said, Nava, and I don’t disagree with any of it. I just wanted to add my thoughts on just how much range I believe Gandolfini had as an actor, above and beyond the extraordinary set of emotions he deployed as Tony Soprano.
One of my favorite films over the past decade is the criminally underrated Romance and Cigarettes, a John Turturro-directed film starring basically everybody you’ve ever heard of. Gandolfini plays Nick Murder, but don’t let the name fool you: he’s no mobster here, just a working-class husband striving for something more exciting in his life.
When Gandolfini showed emotion in The Sopranos, he had the advantage of letting it play off of the extreme violence his character was capable of. The task was much harder in Romance and Cigarettes. And somehow, even as Gandolfini makes choices guaranteed to turn us against the character, we care about him. That’s a harder lift than caring about him in emotional scenes while compartmentalizing what he’s done in other scenes, as so often happened on The Sopranos. It’s astonishing acting.
We also saw just how much Hollywood missed out on by not casting him in more comedies in Armando Iannucci’s “In The Loop”, for my money the best comedy of the last decade. As a general eager to slow the rush to war, Gandolfini projects power and weakness, usually simultaneously within the same scenes. And he did this in The Sopranos, with laughs coming as an ancillary part of the scene. In this film, the laughs are the whole point, and he carries it off brilliantly.
Are there overlaps between these characters and Tony Soprano? Sure. But that’s part of his brilliance, too. He was best known, by far, for playing a particular character. And yet, in similar situations, he managed to convey utterly different circumstances and emotions while maintaining that inimitable look.
I will desperately miss watching him work.