Gandolfini brought a poet’s sensibility to a mobster role

By Kathleen Geier
June 21, 2013

In the end, I think what sucked me in were those damned ducks.

I’ve been thinking about James Gandolfini, the actor who died on Wednesday, and whose performance on HBO’s The Sopranos became iconic. That series revolutionized TV drama and ushered in what has been described as a golden age of television.

Gandolfini was cast in the difficult, crucial role of Tony Soprano, and from the outset the show’s fate rested largely on his broad shoulders. But the actor grappled with a dilemma. Play the role too sympathetically, and you’d have a show that was sentimentally dishonest about organized crime and the capacity of a sociopath to redeem himself. Play it too harshly and you’re left with a far less complex and dramatically compelling character.

The brutal side of Tony was never going to be a reach for Gandolfini. He’d made his bones as an actor playing killers in movies like True Romance and The Juror. A sense of smoldering danger was palpable in those performances; Gandolfini could convey it with his lumbering, imposing physique, and in his eyes as they narrowed into terrifying slits. But bringing to life the sensitive side of Tony — the loving dad, the introspective analysand — was a more formidable artistic challenge.

The moment it became clear that this show was going to be something special, and when Gandolfini’s performance became unforgettable, was in those lyrical scenes with Tony and the ducks. Bathrobe-clad Tony shuffling to his pool to feed the ducks that swam there, or to fret like a mother hen when they’d vanished — these were images that rooted Tony in a distinctly suburban milieu and established his gentle side and his instantly relatable every guy-ness. It seemed plausible that within the breast of this killer there might beat the heart of a poet. There was a soul there that seemed worth saving.

The warring sides of Tony’s psyche made for viscerally compelling drama, and established the antihero prototype for important TV shows that were to follow. But none of those subsequent characters managed to be as dramatically rich as Tony, or as compulsively watchable.

Contrast Tony with Mad Men’s Don Draper. Unlike Tony, Don has never shown any real desire to change, and so we know he never will. That has diminished the show’s dramatic stakes and our emotional investment in Don as a character. Or to take another example, there’s Breaking Bad’s nebbishy teacher-turned-drug lord, Walter White. Unlike Tony, the humorless Walter seems to have no capacity for pleasure, and the character is such a drag you wonder why his family sticks around.

With Tony, you never wondered why. Tony was fun and charismatic, and there was that aching vulnerability. Americans have long identified with pop culture gangsters. Depression-era films like The Public Enemy gave moviegoers a subversive thrill, and The Godfather recast the gangster film as a majestic family drama. But those movies kept the audience at an emotional distance.

Tony, however, was someone we knew intimately. We were granted access to his childhood memories, his secret dreams, his worst fears. We cared about him, even when he was strangling a man with his bare hands or kicking another one senseless.  Gandolfini’s actorly genius was what made us care — a lot. This implicated us morally. It also lent The Sopranos a psychological depth and complexity that left every other series in the dust.

After the show‘s 2007 conclusion, Gandolfini never landed another role as significant as Tony Soprano (though he did memorable supporting work in films like Where the Wild Things Are). But maybe another high-profile role wasn’t what he was after. There are indications that Gandolfini was uneasy with the fame that Tony Soprano brought him.

Like Tony, Gandolfini, was a mass of contradictions. He was both a world-famous actor and a working class guy from a small town. Gandolfini grew up in northern New Jersey, in the shadow of one of the world’s great glittering metropolises. By comparison, Jersey can seem like a dull and shabby place. Yet there is a sense that, just across the river, an enthralling new world beckons. He once noted, “A large number of actors and musicians are from [New Jersey]. We are overrepresented in the culture. You have a blue-collar, middle-class sensibility right next to one of the greatest cities in the world, which can make for some interesting creative impulses.”

Such circumstances can create a productive tension that is the making of many an artist. The wider world is something that you can’t see around you, and yet it is so close you can almost touch it. So you have to imagine. And from that imagined evidence of things unseen, dreams are born — and dreamers.

Tony once described a peyote-fueled vision, in which, he says, “I saw for pretty certain that this, and everything we see and experience, is not all there is.” That was Tony the soulful seeker, who inhabited the same body as Tony the savage thug. For millions, Gandolfini’s schlubby Jersey mobster came to embody the contradictions that are at the heart of our human condition. I don’t know if James Gandolfini ever reached a truce with his own inner demons. But he surely made countless viewers feel less alone with theirs, like a mother duck with her lost flock.

PHOTO: James Gandolfini arrives on the red carpet for the film “Violet & Daisy” during the 36th Toronto International Film Festival, September 15, 2011. REUTERS/Mark Blinch 

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