Since the Roaring Twenties Hollywood has been fascinated by gangsters, for the most part depicting them as glamorous, pinstriped rogues, if not quite lovable not altogether horrific. Consider the screen treatment of Al Capone, where at one time or another, some of the cinema’s most formidable talents including Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Edward G. Robinson, Rod Steiger, Jason Robards, and Paul Muni have all played Scarface or at least a character loosely based on him. Yet some unwritten Hollywood decree must hold that no matter how great the actor, shameless overacting in that particular role is mandatory, since each of those greats abandoned his craft and chewed the scenery when it came to the Chicago crime lord.
Which brings us to the late James Gandolfini and Tony Soprano. While he had the undeniable advantage of television and more time to devleop the character, unlike those playing Capone before him Gandolfini, whose career has been cut tragically short, took a nuanced approach to the role of a New Jersey mob boss and created a much more complex and interesting character - ruthless yet sensitive, morally obtuse yet introspective.
Credit must certainly go to David Chase, the creator and brains behind The Sopranos, but Gandolfini avoided the temptation to make the conflicted Tony Soprano just another cardboard cutout capo. Naturally, Tony inspired in everyone the fear and respect that are the two obligatory dimensions of any good screen gangster. But viewers perceived in Gandolfini’s Soprano a subtle third dimension that not even the ne plus ultra of actors, Marlin Brando, could bring to the screen as the ultimate mob boss, Don Vito Corleone of The Godfather saga (which the fictional Tony loved).
If there is a legitimate critique of Gandolfini’s superb portrayal, it might be that he makes the gangster a sympathetic figure by downplaying, but certainly not eliminating, his evil nature. Real gangsters are not people to sympathize with, yet who cannot feel a twinge when Tony bears his soul to his psychiatrist or toasts his family? This is because Gandolfini sees Tony Soprano, despite the gruesome violence and profanity, not so much as Gangster but as Everyman.
Gandolfini once said of his interpretation of Tony Soprano, “It says a lot about a lot of people. It’s a man in struggle. He doesn’t have a religion. He doesn’t believe in the government. He doesn’t believe in anything except his code of honor and his code of honor is going (away). So he has nothing left, and he’s looking around and there’s that searching that I think a lot of America does half the time. You can go buy things, you can do whatever, but he had no center left, and I really identified with that. Then you got to be funny on top of it.”
A remarkable approach to the gangster especially in the context of television, because Gandolfini describes not only Tony Soprano but his forbearers of past decades in the medium, patresfamilias including Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) in the 1970’s, Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) in the 1980’s, and even Homer Simpson (Matt Groening) in the 1990’s. Unlike Tony Soprano none of these television fathers was a hoodlum, but each certainly had his flaws and vulnerabilities. And they, like Tony, all searched their inner worlds occasionally as if there was no center remaining.
This dramatic conceit is certainly not new; the tragedy of loss of faith goes back at least as far as the Ancient Greeks and Sophocles; the suggestion of classical drama is unmistakably present in The Sopranos.
Fast forward. Divorced from his gangster persona, Gandolfini’s unparalleled portrayal of Soprano (and the portrayals of the other aforementioned fathers) was best expressed in the poem Dover Beach by the 19th Century poet Matthew Arnold. Written to his new wife during their honeymoon (ironically the television fathers also have behind them long-suffering but loving, tolerant wives), the poet bemoans the loss of order and sanity in his changing world of England during the Industrial Revolution. Religion, once a safe haven, no longer offers a bulwark against the encroachments of a harsh new society.
And for Tony Soprano, the crime syndicate chieftain that James Gandolfini fleshed out, the immortal closing words of Dover Beach are especially fitting, “the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain , Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night”.
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