Monday, June 24, 2013

The flags at half-mast for James Gandolfini. an extraordinary talent

They lowered the flags to half-mast in New Jersey on Monday to honor an iconic actor whose  51-year-old life ended in Italy last week not as a bullet-riddled mob boss but rather as a soft-hearted human being in real life.  Acknowledging the deep impression that James Gandolfini has left on the viewers of the TV series, The Sopranos,  Gov. Chris Christie defined him as "a fine actor, a Rutgers alum and a true Jersey guy."

I'll leave it to the voluble governor to tell us more about  generic "true Jersey guys,"  but we do know this much: It is quite doubtful that America's unwavering fascination with the mob as art will ever find a more compelling character than Tony Soprano.  Unlike so many of his predecessors in the mob genre, the role expanded the dimensions of gangland dons to give us a ruthless killer, who also was on Prozac,  hallucinated,  sat uncomfortably through sessions with his shrink and came home each day to an often contentious wife and a couple of unruly kids who drove him nuts as a father who wanted so much more good from them.

The New York Times found Tony to be a "complicated actor who made a complicated mob boss indelible."

Alessandra Stanley noted in her TV Watch column that Tony had said of the role as a "more violent version of Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners".

Those of us who followed Tony's monstrous moments (even the lighter times)  in the TV series were never sure that we could explain our own addiction to the man.  I had to tell myself that, after all,  I was pulling for a murderous mobster.  Tony, with a superbly-drawn script and an outstanding cast, all came together in our living room, some of the scenes so vividly explosive and bloody that we were never prepared to consign them to  fiction.

As one who  considered the first  Godfather film as the gold standard for mob art, a comparison with Michael Corleone (piercingly played by Al Pacino) was inevitable.  To a point.  Michael was forever sullen and sinister.  Even believed that his brother Fredo had to go.

With Tony Soprano, there was a an occasional merry glint in his eye, an attempt to be a regular guy, a boyish grin, an impossible yearning for his psychiatrist who fearfully strained to maintain her professional task in her sessions with Tony.

These were the facets of character that we didn't find in Michael Corleone, who single-mindedly obsessed about klling his enemies and nothing else.

 I will miss Tony,  and not apologize for it.  It's never right to dismiss such unique talent in a human being. The series led us on with squeamish suspicion that something awful was about to happen at the next turn. With James Gandolfini gone, there will be no more scary plots arising with this gang, nor a quick smile from a bear of a bully.

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