Like the rest of the world, we were shocked at the sudden death of James Gandolfini this evening. Sadly, The Sopranos is one of our pop culture blind spots, so we could never do justice to his body of work and what he meant to television and pop culture in general. So when our friend Anna reached out to us wanting to write about one of her favorite actors, we were more than happy to give her a venue to share her feels. Here are her thoughts on the passing of an icon… –Kim
One morning, I woke up in a panic, crying from a dream I barely remembered that had something to do with the fear that I would never really be able to emotionally connect with my dad before he dies. Not that my dad’s sick or anything – it was just a general fear of the inevitability of his death.
It was the morning after Mad Men’s Season 6 premiere, which was dripping with emotionally absent dads, existential fear and dread. Also, it was a Monday, which generally sucks.
Like…shit, the writing team who work on Mad Men and who’ve worked on The Sopranos really know how to yank out my deepest, darkest emotions and fears by the collar. But the root of my attention here could never have been the same without James Gandolfini, who embodied the father of all fathers (at least in my view) Tony Soprano. It’s kind of weirdly fitting that he passed away not so long after Father’s Day.
I can’t even remember the last time I cried over a celebrity death. I’m not sure if I ever even have. But Tony Soprano fucking means something, for better or worse.
I’ve had recurring dreams about my father being Tony Soprano. The sort of power that can only be wielded by privileged males, the aloofness, the immaturity, the erratic emotional displays/repression/instability, and almost above all else, the mysteriousness and implications of deception uncomfortably ring familiarly to me.
Of course, my dad isn’t a murderer, but it seems like every time I get together with older members of my family who remember him back in the day, I always find out the most surprising and sort of unsettling things. Kind of like when you read a book written in the ‘40s or ‘50s and it’s like totally normal for the main character to have lost their virginity to a hooker. Like, how would these people even function in the world of today? The answer is secrecy, self-absorption, near-comic displays of macho swagger, and self-repression. And sometimes murder too, I guess, in the case of Tony Soprano.
If the fact that I have a degree in Women’s Studies and my obvious curiosity in the world of mysterious men of the old school was my hook into The Sopranos, Gandolfini’s fucking brilliant and all-consuming portrayal of the morally suspect and yet somehow vulnerable Tony Soprano was the anchor, to mix maritime-based metaphors. It’d be easy to play Tony like a cartoonish Goomba dirtbag. And even if sometimes he acted that way, there was a lot more to it than just “gabbagool”-ing all the way through the show.
In watching The Sopranos, as I’m sure other die-hard fans have similarly articulated, we became somewhat passive participants in the fears, desires, anxieties (in my case, a paternally genetic inherited “gift” of a condition), and grim reality of Tony Soprano. We sympathized, laughed, felt conflicted, and other times all the way felt like utter criminals ourselves when he did something particularly cruel or horrifying. But we continued to be enthralled by the life Gandolfini breathed into this character. For fuck’s sake, Natasha Vargas-Cooper wrote an insanely convincing (and hilarious) Fuck/Marry/Kill argument in favor of MARRYING him – and I quote:
…in Gandolf[ini]’s multitudes we see Brando’s brutish Kowalski, the age-ravaged yet sentimental Paul in Last Tango, and even some sweaty forehead glimpses of the eccentric Island of Dr. Moreau. He is the ultimate Alpha.
You don’t really have to read too hard between the lines here. Fascination with Tony Soprano is ultimately a fascination with death and the nature of existence. And for me, those qualities are inextricably tied up in what I like to call the world’s oldest profession: the semi-unconscious performance of maleness. But enough gender studies mumbo jumbo — the point is that in terms of performers who’ve made me feel and fear for everyone’s existence on this planet, James Gandolfini is all there is. And now he’s gone and won’t even get to age gracefully and avenge the career nosedive of Robert De Niro for all Scorsese-esque Italian-American actors.
Edie Falco recently spoke about how she kind of had a mental breakdown on The Sopranos because of how much she took the heaviness of the work home with her, even experiencing a sort of jealousy with the actresses playing Tony’s mistresses. She remarked, in this amazing fucking oral history that you should all read right now, that “…usually, if you look deep enough when you’re doing a scene with somebody, you can see the actor, and I never saw anybody but Tony. Never.”
Tony is the most real character that has ever lived. The king is dead.
Long live the king…