To know me, is to know that I’m a fanatical devotee of The Sopranos. I received enough condolences today from friends and even people that I’ve never met expressing their sorrow at the passing of actor James Gandolfini, that anyone would think I knew him personally (though, of course, I didn’t). I was first made aware of him as Bear in Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty (1995), a stunt man who moonlights as muscle for a gangster, involving his three-year-old daughter in his operations. Though initially an antagonist to Travolta’s character, Chili Palmer, Bear became an ally, and my young heart swelled for this bear-like person, this brute, yet compassionate, criminal.
I didn’t catch onto the Sopranos craze until about 10 years later when I was 17, electing (unlike the majority of my year 12 colleagues) to study this show over Degrassi Junior High for our media class. At the same time, in my literature class, I was studying W.B Yeats’ poetry and a correlation between the two had been well established before the Dr. Melfi uttered the prophetic warning “the falcon cannot hear the falconer” (from The Second Coming) during a therapy session in season four. The show became, for me and thousands of others, the great serial poem about of the end of civilisation, or as a friend describes it, the great American novel of the 21st century.
I should also admit, although it is well known to many, that I have obstinately refused to watch the final episode of the series that first aired six years ago on HBO. My reasons hardly make sense to me anymore, aside from the promise that there is another chapter waiting, that I’ve denied myself, 59 final minutes of drama with my loved ones. I am not deaf to the glory or, for some, the disdain of the show’s final moments, but perhaps this tragedy, which would incontrovertibly offer some of Gandolfini’s finest work, is a reason for me finally say farewell to Tony and the Sopranos.
In the pilot episode, Chase and Gandolfini are still working out some tonal kinks in regards to the basic structure of show. The Tony Soprano voice isn’t yet the buttery, gargled, thick-tongued Jersey brogue that Gandolfini perfected by the time The Sopranos was picked up. He was already an intimidating figure, and memorably a character actor whose roles were mostly of an underworld variety and filling the shoes of a mafia boss – the sort of characters that have turned the great performances in American history from Brando, De Niro and Pacino – was a relatively seamless step for the heavy-footed, little known performer.
Gandolfini was met with a challenge early in the third season, when actress Nancy Marchand, who played his reproachful mother Livia, died during the hiatus of the show, causing a major story restructure and the need for a graceful cover-up, so that the show may continue without interruption. Tony visits his mother to discuss her recent arrest for trying to use stolen airline tickets that he had given her. Gandolfini has a conversation with a body-double in a chair, and a digital patchwork of Marchand’s shining moments attempt to gather some semblance of her absent being. It isn’t entirely a success, but Gandolfini is still marvellous. Tony’s anxiety at the possibility of his own mother testifying against him is conveyed with abrupt despondency from the actor. He is rushed, flustered, pacing and grabbing for all kinds of props and conversation to fill the voids. It is also just another destructive encounter for Tony, and it is carried off with true reverence, considering the mournful circumstance.
Early in season six, Tony is shot by his uncle several times and goes into a coma. Usually actors do little more than play dead when this fate befalls their vessel, but Tony wanders a dream state as a different person. Gandolfini drops the accent, he looses the brooding impatience, or causal indifference, that Tony has with the service industry, and becomes a polite, though somewhat frustrated salesman who forgets his name and is mistook for a guy named Kevin Finnerty. That a television actor should have the opportunity to demonstrate an out of body experience, is a situation that is commonly associated with sitcom, or soap opera, and (while The Sopranos is largely a soap opera) audiences grimaced at the absence of their boss, instead of watching, with wonder, this new and totally alien incarnation.
There is always an immense pleasure in learning and recognising Tony’s tells. He is a prolific liar, to everyone he knows – and as Gandolfini raises that dough-eyed, lazy-jawed expression to Hawthorne’s words, “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true,” it is perhaps a little early in the program for Gandolfini to grasp precisely the proliferation of this performance in his career or in motion picture history, but he like Tony, was an excellent liar and most particularly when viewers were in on it, when we knew the truth, whether Tony did or didn’t. Tony understood Hawthorne’s words. His look was not one of confusion, but of a concealed fear at his impossible situation. He realises that his centre of deceit cannot hold in every aspect of his existence. What truth those lies revealed about the character was headily immersive, only because Gandolfini was able to lie convincingly and unconvincingly simultaneously.
Where we would follow him, Gandolfini would lead, and in the final episodes of The Sopranos, when the laughter had long ended, and Tony’s monster was slowly revealed and then abruptly banished from Dr. Melfi’s office; a harsh, bitter farewell that finally tore the veil from our eyes, that forced us to engage the criminal, the animal, the beast. Gandolfini made the transformation seamless, as though all these feelings toward this sociopath had been dormant within us, glimpsed on several occasions but hidden, seen through the eyes of those that loved him much stronger than those who felt nothing but aversion.
It is difficult to distil such an enormous performance into a few paragraphs. Gandolfini was the best opposite Edie Falco and Michael Imperioli, all altercations and sentiments shared between them are easily his finest work. Those breaths between words, when his eyes would gaze down at either of these actors, these strong, fleeting moments of silence – brimming with sound and fury – truth striking, truth wounding, are when Gandolfini’s sad eyes could hold the entire room in orbit.