James Gandolfini spoke to Americans in upheaval
The first time I saw James Gandolfini on the screen,as the comically pathetic heavy called Bear in the film Get Shorty,I felt a flash of recognition. There was something familiar about the weakness and vulnerability he carried with him beneath his bullying,macho airs. The hurt in his eyes hurt me to look at it. I later learned that we had grown up at the same time not far from each other in suburban Bergen County,N.J. On summer afternoons in the 1960s,my mother used to drop a friend and me off at the movie theatre in Westwood,Gandolfinis birthplace.
By the time he had established himself as Tony Soprano,a small-time gangster of mythic proportions,I knew it was Jersey speaking to me through the magnetic torment of his persona. Above all else,Gandolfini helped America understand Jersey,and Jersey understand itself. There is a poignant fatality about big,blustery men who try to hide a faltering interior,just as there is touching comedy in the fact that New Jersey legislators added the sobriquet Garden State to our licence plates in 1954,hoping to hide the bad odour of the states reputation as a dumping ground for garbage from other states. Dreams deferred and defeated characterise so much of the Jersey atmosphere,from Bruce Springsteens ambitious desperados dancing in the dark to Snookis manic flights of desperate ambition. Gandolfinis physical bulk made Tonys arrested will only more riveting,for all his brutality.
As all great artists do,Gandolfini created in Tony Soprano a particularity with a universal resonance. The native New Jersey actor imbued the native New Jersey fictional character with his own immediate experience,and then in vaulting Jersey style leapt in his performances towards the very heart of our time.
Gandolfini also had a purchase on the American psyche far beyond the Garden States borders. The tremors that grew into full-scale convulsions in 2008 class divisions,social anomie,economic panic were already being felt,under the media radar,by many Americans around the time The Sopranos had its premiere on HBO in January 1999. The middle class was being assaulted from all sides by a changing economy,outsourced jobs,soaring prices.
No wonder people were glued to Tony Soprano.
They watched him,this monster with a tender side,in a trance of horrified recognition. As our social life became reduced to considerations of the bottom line,the violence and humiliation Tony wrought in the name of just business to quote the famous line from The Godfather,a movie that haunts Tonys imagination spoke to Americans in upheaval. Here was a sociopath who now seemed like the guy next door,a Ward Cleaver for the 21st century.
Alongside this prophetic aspect to Gandolfinis portrayal of Tony,there was also a dimension that was powerfully nostalgic. During the shows span,from 1999 to 2007,the internet transformed
social relations. In this world of cacophonous confession,Tony was like an LP among digitally embedded playlists.
Thanks to Gandolfinis empathetic genius,Tony became an American creature teeming with an unmasterable inner life that could not be blogged,posted,updated or tweeted.
Gandolfinis artistic triumph was to create an asphalt monster with a tender,suburban side,to conjure up a gangster whose exposure of his own brutality offered a relief from our moment of increasingly impersonal social relations. Only in New Jersey.
Siegel is the author of Are You Serious: How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly
The New York Times