It’s impossible to mourn James Gandolfini without also mourning Tony Soprano, so perfect was this blending of actor and character. From 1999 to 2007, Gandolfini’s extraordinary, full-bodied embodiment of this fractured soul — gangster/suburban dad, monster/sad clown — towered above anything else on TV. The Sopranos made HBO, Gandolfini made The Sopranos, and prime-time dramas have never been the same.
Tony was an audacious, brilliant creation; he seduced viewers into identifying with, rooting for, someone who was ruthless, vicious, selfish, boorish and cold. Gandolfini was fearless when it came to portraying Tony’s darkness, yet he also made us care about this outsized bastard with finely-etched strokes of vulnerability. The key to our complicated affections for Tony lay in Gandolfini’s eyes, which were as sorrowful as they were icy. Like his Baby Boomer peers in more upstanding occupations, Tony was grappling with the uncertainties of middle-age. His identity as head of families both criminal and nuclear was under assault from within (his anxiety and depression, his lost-boy yearning for the love withheld by his ferocious mother) and without (rival bosses, restless underlings, the Feds, his unhappy wife, screwed-up son and disapproving daughter). In the indelible first episode of the series, Tony welcomed a family of ducks into his New Jersey swimming pool, and for the rest of our time with him, he struggled to keep his ducks in a row.
Gandolfini was one of those rare actors who carried an innate integrity into every project he tackled. And he was much, much more than Tony. Post-Sopranos, he acted in movies as varied as Where the Wild Things Are, Zero Dark Thirty, In the Loop and his reunion film with Sopranos creator David Chase, Not Fade Away. It’s obscene that his career was so short, that his life was so short. But the stunning intensity of the reaction to the news of his death today illustrates how deeply fixed James Gandolfini is in our consciousness and culture. There is real grief out there tonight for the loss of a man who was by all accounts sweeter and gentler than he looked. I’m feeling that grief too, but I’m also wondering how much of it is a delayed reaction to the series finale of The Sopranos. That famous cut-to-black ending, with no clear answer to the question, “Did Tony get whacked or not?,” left a lot of unfinished emotional business between viewers and the show. It also allowed us to simply avoid letting go. But it’s time to accept it: Tony Soprano is dead.
© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape. 2013