This may possibly not be the place to put an extravagant eulogy to James Gandolfini, the immortal Tony Soprano, who died yesterday from a suspected heart attack. For one thing, he wasn’t British, for another, the bulk of his most notable work was on American shores. But, as with anyone that followed The Sopranos, anyone who saw him on screen, British audiences were entranced by his astounding ability to convey complex emotional turmoil with the flick of a worried eyelid. And, just from reading social media feeds and newspapers today, I can tell you they’re paying tribute today, so we shall too.
Let’s not forget, when The Sopranos first came out, the international reputation of American TV was not particularly great. The great run of astonishing American dramas, of the sort that would be pored over on DVD boxsets, was just getting started, and it was The Sopranos (alongside the more mainstream ER and The West Wing) that came to define that era, in much the same way that a skyscraper defines a city horizon, by towering above it. And who sat front and center on all of those DVD cases, looking appropriately uncomfortable and short-tempered? James Gandolfini.
Here was an actor who physically portrayed a particular kind of manhood — animalistic, cornered, brutal and disengaged — by making these emotive states appear entirely human, vulnerable, tender and involved. Oh sure, Tony Soprano whacked a few guys, and could be a beast to his loved ones, but he also suffered panic attacks and demanded the support of friends and family (and his therapist) at all times. Selling both extremes of a character like that, without ducking the full horror or alienating the audience, is a tough job, requiring a lot of discipline to sell those shifting feelings effectively.
Also, it’s not as if he never appeared in a British production. Here’s my favorite. James as Lt. Gen. George Miller facing off against Malcolm Tucker in Armando Iannucci’s BBC Films production In The Loop, an alternate take on the political satire and swearword Olympics The Thick Of It.
(Naturally, the language is unbelievably ripe, so headphones on, if you’re in a public place.)
It’s all in the eyes and the smirk.