What James Gandolfini and Tony Soprano had in commonby Matthew Wolfson / June 24, 2013 / Leave a comment
James Gandolfini, who died last week aged 51, was an average-looking character actor from New Jersey who, at age 38, became the central figure in the first and perhaps most remarkable series of what is now called television’s golden age—The Sopranos. Gandolfini and his definitive character Tony Soprano both showed an acute awareness of being placed in situations that would tax them beyond their resources.
The Sopranos was an unselfconscious presentation of the first postwar generation’s anxieties and disillusionments, as its members began to recognise the trade-offs between the lives they were living and the assumptions they’d grown up with. The series was the angry, authoritative statement of one near-baby boomer, the television writer David Chase (b. 1945), who’d intuited these trade-offs early thanks to his accumulated experiences growing up in a traditional Italian family and choosing a career in a quintessentially modern medium.
Chase released a statement about Gandolfini on the day after his death, calling him “one of the greatest actors of this or any time.” This may or may not be the case. But what Gandolfini undoubtedly was, through his portrayal of Tony Soprano, was an emblem. This was probably the more important and certainly the more punishing role. So The Sopranos was a presentation of hard reality, but Chase wasn’t front and centre every week doing the presenting—Gandolfini was, and the burden of this position wore on him.
It also wore on Tony Soprano, the mob boss who lived in an upmarket suburban enclave in New Jersey next to doctors and investment bankers and sent his daughter to Columbia, but who confronted the numbing realisation that these totems of his success were also the symbols of his irrelevance. You can’t have the suburbs and the Ivy league opened up to you while also guaranteeing the four-generation Italian deli and the submissive family. Instead you get fast food chains and a daughter who wants to specialise in human rights law. This is a hard cognitive dissonance to live with each day, especially if you don’t have a way to explain it and so ease your own adaptation. Tony Soprano didn’t have Adam Smith or Karl Marx or JM Keynes telling him that this is what happens in diverse commercial societies—that you trade a comfortable…