In the aftermath of actor James Gandolfini’s death, our look back at a warm light that led us through hearts of darkness.
As men, we are all actors. It is all part of the play.
It is all part of a role many men are trying to play.
James Gandolfini waded deep into dark waters, guiding us into the soul of a savage creature via an exploration of decayed masculinities. He played the iconic, modern day Frankenstein that was Tony Soprano: a character sewn together from equal parts childhood trauma, loving father, an obsolete code of manhood, playfulness, entitlement, disconnection and extreme violence. The Oath of Manhood that Tony and many others are sworn to uphold, is an outdated map towards a mirage.
A core element of the groundbreaking television show ‘The Sopranos’ is the ongoing one-on-one conversation between Tony and his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi. He hates himself for not being the ‘strong and silent type’ and being ‘reduced’ to discussing his feelings.
Here is a scene I have used numerous times in my talks: Tony is back on the job after a shooting left him in a coma. He found himself racing to heal wounds which exposed a vulnerability more threatening than the actual physical wounds. Being the top dog in the world of crime means asserting that you are the Omega of Alpha Males, every moment of every day. This scene shows a grown man make a childish decision in order to maintain fragile pillars of ‘fear and respect’.
Watch Tony scan the room and feel the weight of his vulnerability.
Watch him turn green, like a ten-year old boy having to go talk to The Principal.
Watch as Tony nurses his pinky ring while internally delivering a ‘Man Up’ chest-punch to his inner child.
Watch as, with a flick of a switch, he steps into character and becomes The Monster
Watch him kick the chair like he’s kicking tires… checking
Watch the adult boy glow in glee after the ridiculous ritual is completed…
Gandolfini rarely gave interviews or much insight into his portrayal of Tony Soprano. On ‘Inside the Actor’s Studio’ he said in regards to Tony:
“... he was a man in struggle. He doesn’t have a religion, doesn’t believe in the government, doesn’t believe in anything except his code of honour, and his code of honour is all going to shit… he’s got nothing left and he’s looking around, and it was that searching that I think a lot of Americans do half the time…he had no centre left… and I really identified with that.“
Soprano’s creator David Chase shared this story at Gandolfini’s funeral:
One day toward the end of the show — we were on the set shooting a scene with you and Steven Van Zandt. I think the setup was that Tony had received news of the death of someone and it was inconvenient for him. And it said, “Tony opens the [refrigerator] door angrily, and Tony starts to speak.” And the cameras rolled, and you opened the refrigerator door, and you slammed it really hard. You slammed it hard enough that it came open again. And so then you slammed it again, and it came open again. You kept slamming it, and slamming it, and slamming it, and slamming it. You went apeshit on that refrigerator.
And so we finally had to call “cut,” and we had to fix the refrigerator door — and it never really worked, because the gaffer tape showed, we couldn’t get a new refrigerator, and it was a problem all day long. I remember you saying,
This role, this role. The places it takes me to, the things I have to do. It’s so dark.”
And I remember saying to you, “Did I tell you to destroy the refrigerator? Did it say anywhere in the script, ‘Tony destroys a refrigerator’? It says ‘Tony angrily shuts the refrigerator door.’ That’s what it says. You destroyed the refrigerator.”
To play such a dark character, to walk the hallways of a toxic heart, required someone who knew the darkness, and knew what it was to struggle with an idea of being a man.
It was a masterful performance for six seasons. Playing a character who’s idea of survival only assured destruction. Gandolfini effortlessly maneuvered from being ‘The Monster’ to the ‘Adult Boy’ to a Father. There were numerous father-child moments, some endearing, some not so much. Then there is this unforgettable scene with Tony rescuing his son A.J. from a suicide attempt as he soothingly repeat “you’re alright baby…you’re alright…“
“We live in a society where manhood is all about conquering, all the time…and what we don’t realize is that definition of manhood ultimately destroys you”
– From Byron Hurt’s ‘Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes’
Gandolfini was executive-producer for ‘Wartorn 1861-2010’, a haunting exploration of the stories of soldiers wrestling with the demons of post-traumatic stress disorder. The documentary was a chance to walk very dark, lonely paths with the minds and ravaged souls of men who were now hollow shadows. Here is a clip of World War veterans who forever carried shame for simply being human.
Sopranos creator David Chase described how hard it was for James to shoot scenes where he had to demonstrate brute violence. Most accounts describe James as a gentle, sweet man, yet he clearly had an intimate understanding of darkness. How is it that, just like with Frankenstein, we have such an emotional connection towards the Beast? Maybe because we realize, we are all in part the mad Doctor who birthed the Monster.
On the screen, Gandolfini’s’ Tony Soprano was both Lion and Lion Tamer. Hearing of his death, Chase said “A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes.” There was such a grace and joy that Gandolfini kept just under a hardened, scorched surface of Tony Soprano. At the funeral, Chase said:
The image of my uncles and father reminded me about something that happened between us one time. Because these guys were such men — that was the point of it. Your father, and these men from Italy. And you were going through a crisis of faith, about yourself, and a few other things. Very upset. I went to meet you on the banks of the Hudson River, and you told me, you said:
“You know what I want to be?
I want to be a man.
That’s all. I want to be a man.”
Now, this is so odd, because you were such a man. You’re a man in ways many men, including myself, wish they could be a man. The paradox about you as a man is that I always felt personally that with you, I was seeing a young boy. A boy about Michael [Gandolfini]‘s age right now. Because you were very boyish. And about that age when humankind and life on the planet are opening up and putting on a show, really revealing themselves in all their beautiful and horrible glory. And I saw you as a boy, as a sad boy, amazed and confused and loving and amazed by all that.
People always say, “Tony Soprano. Why do we love him so much when he was such a prick?” And my theory was they saw the little boy. They felt and they loved the little boy, and they sensed his love and hurt. And you brought all of that to him.
So Tony Soprano never changed, people say. He got darker. I don’t know how they could misunderstand that. He tried, and he tried, and he tried. And you tried, and you tried, more than most of us, and harder than most of us, and sometimes you tried too hard. That refrigerator is one example. Sometimes your efforts were a cost to you and to others. But you tried.
This appearance on Sesame Street shows Gandolfini’s soft, sweet side. They said his young son found him in desperate need of medical attention at a hotel in Italy, he later went into cardiac arrest. Here’s hoping his son’s journey to manhood will be a clear path. James’ life journey ended way too soon at 51, but he left us with arguably the greatest television performance of all time, and blazed a path into the complicated core of harmful masculinities.
Here is the timeless scene of Tony while in that coma, I mentioned earlier, standing at the edge of life and death…heartbreaking to watch now
In a 2012 Associated Press interview, Gandolfini talked about how he gravitated to acting as an outlet, a way to get rid of anger. “I don’t know what exactly I was angry about,” he said.
As men, we are all actors. It is all part of the play.
It is all part of a role we are trying to understand.
R.I.P. James Gandolfini