Opinion: An appreciation James Gandolfini and his cultural legacy
The passing of James Gandolfini is a tragedy for both his family and the world of entertainment. We can only be thankful that in Tony Soprano, he left behind a monumental cultural legacy.
When James Gandolfini was the GQ cover star for their Men of the Year issue at the end of 2004, the accompanying feature offered more than a little poignancy. Reflecting on another season wearing the tortured skin of Tony Soprano, Gandolfini gave a slightly tetchy interview over a fish dinner (the journalist put much of the actor’s mood down to his own rather rubbish line of questioning). Judging by the photographs chosen for the spread, the magazine’s picture editor was clearly going for gruff and tough, to match the feature’s tone.
Except for one image. In that one, Gandolfini wears a light, soothing smile, gazing slightly sideways out of the frame at another person. We see that other person’s hand touching Gandolfini’s face: a baby hand belonging to his then five-year-old son Michael. It was the teenage Michael who last month found his father in the bathroom of a Rome hotel, suffering the aftermath of a heart attack that would end his life just one hour later.
While Michael, and his little baby sister, who will never know her father, have lost their dad, the world of film and television has lost a giant. In the eulogies which followed his death, people spoke of this regular New Jersey guy sharing a talent with the greats -- ‘the Brando of television’ concluded one obituary. Broadway dimmed its lights and Springsteen dedicated the entire Born to Run album to Gandolfini while playing live in Coventry. The Sopranos creator David Chase gave an interview which managed to be simultaneously moving and unsentimental in its memory of an actor and friend he called ‘my brother’.
It’s been said before but it’s worth repeating: without The Sopranos there is no Wire, no Shield, no Breaking Bad, no Boardwalk Empire and no Mad Men. And without Tony Soprano, it’s unlikely we would ever have known Stringer Bell, Vic Mackey, Walter White, Nucky Thompson and Don Draper. All leaders in their own way, but each one suffering from a hefty responsibility, already burdened by long-term psychological bruising.
As Tony Soprano, the mobster with a heart which bled for dead animals but froze over when he needed to recover a gambling debt from a lifelong acquaintance, James Gandolfini delivered a succession of towering performances for the best part of a decade. It had to finish sometime, of course, and while fans spent several years predicting various endgame scenarios, the one Chase plumped for was unguessable.
While Tony ate onion rings with his family, listening to Journey on a diner jukebox, an abrupt darkness brought 86 episodes of modern Shakespearean drama to a brave and ballsy conclusion. Debate may well continue for years as to whether he was wiped out by an assassin in his booth, but for James Gandolfini, his own final scene is tragically uncomplicated. There will be no more talk of a Sopranos movie -- all we are left with is hour after hour of monumental television and a central performance that will surely never be matched.