James Gandolfini and Tony Soprano are both gone - is it the actor or the character we’re mourning?

There wasn’t a shade of judgement in his performance as Tony Soprano, only a sympathy for the messy, disappointing business of trying to make life work

Tom Sutcliffe
Friday 21 June 2013 13:22
A photo of James Gandolfini taken a month before his death at the LA premiere of 'Nicky Deuce' in Los Angeles, 2013
A photo of James Gandolfini taken a month before his death at the LA premiere of 'Nicky Deuce' in Los Angeles, 2013

In a strange way we’ve rehearsed for this moment. For a lot of James Gandolfini’s fans the first instinct on hearing that he’d died in mid-career was to go back to an earlier ending, the very last scene of The Sopranos.

Tellingly it wasn’t a neat resolution but an abrupt caesura. The life of that series - so vital, engrossing and richly unpredictable - didn’t conclude (a word that has too much calculation in it). It simply stopped, cutting to black in mid-phrase. And it left behind it a pang very similar to that which a lot of us felt when we heard the news of Gandolfini’s death.

Brilliance had been truncated, and though in that case we knew precisely what was coming, we had no idea that we would be left with nothing but memories. “Try to focus on the times that were good,” AJ had said to Tony a few minutes earlier.

It was the kind of thing you say at a funeral, as if the series itself was offering condolences for our loss. And now we were feeling that sorrow all over again, at a different pitch. At Holstens, the diner where that great ending was filmed, someone put out a Reserved sign on the booth where the Sopranos sat for their last supper, in Gandolfini’s honor.

Is it the actor or the character we’re mourning? For those lucky enough to work with him there was no question that it was Gandolfini who was missed. Social networks and blogs filled up with tributes not just to his skill as an actor but also to his warmth as a human being, the modesty and generosity with which he assumed and carried his fame. But for those who only knew him on screen, and overwhelmingly through his role as Tony Soprano, I think it’s that character we’re grieving for a bit as well. The catch being that Gandolfini’s greatness as a screen actor was to intermingle self and fiction inextricably, so that it felt as if his New Jersey mobster really lived and felt.

In interviews Gandolfini expressed his admiration for Mickey Rourke above all. He respected the other screen greats of his generation but it was Rourke he really wanted to emulate as a young actor starting out. And in that I think he’d grasped a quality of vulnerability and self-exposure in his own talent, which was what transformed Tony Soprano from genre brute into a kind of everyman. He might have been a monster but he was also his own victim.

He was charming too. Other people had done volatile mobsters before. Think of Robert de Niro as Al Capone in The Untouchables, suddenly unleashing his rage against an underling. Or Joe Pesci shooting the waiter in Goodfellas. But the difference with those explosions was that you never trusted the characters again. It didn’t matter how charismatic they were or how solid their bonhomie felt. You felt only anxiety when they were on screen.

Tony Soprano was different. You never doubted that he could kill without compunction -- and the series regularly reminded you of that fact. He wasn’t in therapy because he was conscience-stricken; he went because he wasn’t satisfied with what his life gave him any more. But Gandolfini made it possible for you to like Tony too, to understand why people were drawn to him.

After every atrocity you worked at getting to like him again. That’s because there wasn’t a shade of judgement in the performance, only a sympathy for the messy, disappointing business of trying to make life work. It’s why Gandolfini had no problem at all in shedding the mobster when he played the doveish general in In The Loop.

Watch him play the scene in that film where he locks antlers with Malcolm Tucker and both men trade threats of violence: you don’t for a moment think of Tony, only that this is a man who could win the fight but doesn’t really want it to start.

It’s genuinely sad to think that we’ll never see Gandolfi lose his temper again. Even sadder to think we won’t see him recapture it, and give that low chuckle at the absurdity of the world.

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