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Goodbye, James Gandolfini -- “No Character Captured the Longing and Melancholy of American Life Better Than Tony Soprano”

The actor's transfixing blend of gruffness and vulnerability breathed life into most memorable TV protagonist ever.

There’s a scene from the last season of “The Sopranos” where Tony, Carmela, Janice and Bobby are playing Monopoly together and everyone’s drinking too much. Janice launches into an anecdote about her dad shooting a hole in her mom’s beehive hairdo, and Tony starts to look visibly sick. “I can’t believe you never told me that story!” Carmela laughingly yells at Tony. “Yeah, what’s the big deal?” Janice says to Tony. “Because it makes us look like a fucking dysfunctional family!” Tony growls. A few minutes later, though, after Tony insults Janice, Tony and Bobby are trading blows. And then, Tony is laying on the floor, covered in blood. (I guess the cat’s out of the bag on the dysfunctional family thing, huh, Tone?)

In another actor’s hands, that scene is just your typical snapshot of a hotheaded patriarch in denial, an Archie Bunker or a Rabbit Angstrom or a “Great Santini” for the new millennium. James Gandolfini, though, knew just how to tease out the storms raging inside Tony Soprano. His bullying always had this faint hint of self-consciousness to it, suggesting the vaguest whiff of guilt behind that surly mug. When Tony felt anxious, Gandolfini made us feel anxious, too. We could hear Tony start to breathe through his nose, like a bull growing agitated at the sight of the color red. His words got percussive and clipped as his heart raced faster.

But just as he could snort and paw at the ground, Gandolfini’s raging bull could also sit quietly and sniff the flowers just like Ferdinand the bull from Munro Leaf’s classic children’s story. In the Monopoly scene, Tony’s growing shame over Janice’s tale becomes palpable thanks to a heavy sigh, an impatient rub of the eyebrow, a tiny twitch of the nose indicating that his fury is about to spill over and spoil the night. Then there’s that glowering look out of the corner of Tony’s eye, like he’s not sure who to blame for this yet, but he’s about to explode regardless. Even when Gandolfini delivers lines that are turgid with a tragicomic denial (Who doesn’t already know this family is dysfunctional?), we believe every word out of his mouth. And at the end of the scene, when Tony has been shamefully bested by Bobby, and Bobby comes to the doorway to say he’s sorry? Gandolfini makes Tony look truly pathetic but also so pitiable, hunched and frowning like a small child. But there’s also stiffness in his shoulders, demonstrating the shame of a prideful man who doesn’t know how to apologize, who can’t face the truth about himself, and who can’t let bygones be bygones.

Gandolfini took Tony Soprano — one of the darkest, most malevolent characters to grace the small screen — and he transformed him into a flawed human who might annoy or even disgust us, but who always felt worthy of our forgiveness. No TV character captured the longing and melancholy of American life better than Tony Soprano, and no actor could bring those emotions to the surface better than Gandolfini. The actor had genuine love and empathy for his character, and it showed. Instead of flattening Tony into a cartoon (and mob bosses are usually cartoons, let’s face it), he made Tony more vibrant and real than any TV antihero before or after.

Any trial that David Chase set before Tony Soprano, from panic attacks to guilt to nerves to rage to vengeance, Gandolfini rose to the challenge, fleshing out the tragic shortcomings of the American patriarch. When Tony had a favor to ask, Gandolfini would temper his swagger with a little bashfulness, some embarrassment at needing something from another human being. He knew how to telegraph Tony’s lack of comfort with being beholden to anyone. When Tony made jokes, Gandolfini knew how to half-bungle the punchline, reminding us of how inflexible and awkward this man could be, menacing but still as unsure of himself as a jittery boy. And Gandolfini could turn a kind of porcine smugness into bewilderment in a matter of seconds. One minute, Tony was out by the pool, pouring lighter fluid on his barbeque, chomping on a big cigar and chuckling to himself as the ducks frolicked in his pool. The next minute, the  ducks were flying away and Tony’s face went dark. His eyes darted back and forth and then he tumbled sideways like a fallen tree as a mournful aria played.

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