Gangster movies, I mean the classic ones from the Hollywood studio-system days, now seem (at least to me) rather quaint, the same way that old Westerns do. Guys in fedoras with Tommy guns, snarling threats at the “coppers.” Back in their time, though, movies like Scarface and Little Caesar and White Heat had more than a touch of scandal about them. They were highly controversial, attacked by censors because they were considered dangerous. And the reason they were considered dangerous was basic and primal: They showed really bad guys doing really bad things (stealing, beating up rivals, smacking women around, killing people), but all those activities were staged with so much style and verve and movie-star glamour that they were made to look like things that the audience might want to do too. Sure, a movie like the 1932 Scarface doesn’t come right out and “advocate” crime. Yet Al Capone, or at least a character based on him, is the movie’s hero. And if we’re not rooting for him, who are we rooting for? When James Cagney shoved that grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face in The Public Enemy, it was brutal, harsh, ugly — but the whole point is that it was Cagney doing it, so the brutality (and, yes, the misogyny) had a certain twisty-lipped 1930s early-rock-star bravado. These are movies that took the last men on earth who should have been role models and, in effect, dared to turn them into role models.
It’s easy to think of the gangster films of the contemporary era — or at least the great ones, like Bonnie and Clyde or The Godfather or Mean Streets or GoodFellas — as a lot more artful and serious and tragic and morally complex. In many ways, they are. For the first time, we really saw the blood, the horror and the pain of violence, and what that violence could do not only to the victims but to the people committing it. And yet, just because no one would want to be the broken, megalomaniacal Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather, Part II doesn’t mean that modern gangster movies don’t, on some level, seduce and enthrall us with their brutality, their lionization of raw power, just as the ’30s gangster movies did. In Mean Streets, Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy is a reckless, taunting, homemade-bomb-tossing sociopath — and he is also very, very cool. And in The Godfather, Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone is a courtly monster who only makes you wish that your family would protect you as much as he protects his.
Then, of course, there’s The Sopranos, the sublime and game-changing HBO television series that was spiritually spun off from the gangsters-as-hedonistic-middle-class-working-stiffs comic essence of GoodFellas, but which the show’s creator, David Chase, raised to a whole new level of dark complexity. When we talk about The Sopranos, it’s common to say that Tony, a ruthless and hungry Mob captain who works, officially, as a waste-management consultant and lives with his wife and kids in a McMansion in Jersey, is two things at once: a vicious criminal and outsize bully who has his “office” at a strip club, considers it his unholy right to sleep around, and will terrorize anyone who gets in his way, from his criminal rivals to a neighbor he doesn’t like; and also an “ordinary,” bathrobe-clad suburban schlub with whom we can all identify because he’s dealing with the same family issues, the same spoiled-kid behavior problems and American suburban consumerist appetites. The Tony who squabbles with Carmela, or reaches into the refrigerator for another bite of prosciutto, or barks at his kids to do their homework is all of us. The Tony who goes on a college tour with Meadow and then sneaks off to garrote a former stool pigeon is someone else: a monster with ice in his veins who is very much not us.
Yet part of the beauty of The Sopranos is that a lot of what Tony does in his context as a criminal — the stealing of stuff off of trucks, the sitting around eating and drinking, usually for free, the erotic adventures with leggy goomahs, even the routine smack-down intimidation of those around him, be it Christopher and Paulie or the good-hearted civilians who make the mistake of getting in his way — was something that the show, at least in its brain, always showed you was pathological and destructive, yet it also portrayed those things as something that you, deep down in some part of your heart, might also want to do. Linking back to the anti-social audacity of the ’30s gangster films, and to the ambiguities of The Godfather and GoodFellas, The Sopranos didn’t just show us bad behavior — it dramatized the lure of it, the whole attraction of license, of doing what you want to do when you want to do it. I’m not talking about this as anything that’s morally defensible; I’m talking about the charismatic rock & roll vandal’s logic of the movie (or television) gangster. He does things that we know we shouldn’t want to do, but that’s part of the reason we’re watching him: to live (at least, vicariously) that fantasy, to know what the stakes are and to know what the thrill is. (When Michael Corleone emerges from the bathroom of that Italian restaurant and shoots Sollozzo and McCluskey, one of the reasons that it’s one of the greatest scenes in movie history is that it’s totally, existentially badass.)
The deep attraction of bad behavior, as well as the toll it takes, was all embodied, with a nearly unprecedented brilliance and complexity, in James Gandolfini’s performance as Tony. And part of what it made it so electrifying to watch him is that he so consistently acted out both sides of the equation — the excitement of doing whatever you want, and the soul-killing psychotic danger of doing whatever you want — at the exact same moment. In the days since Gandolfini’s death, I’ve read several quotes from David Chase talking about the actor’s eyes, the sadness he saw in them, and certainly, there were depths of melancholy in Tony that came out in that moody, accusatory stare. Yet when I think about Tony/Gandolfini’s eyes, the haunted look there goes beyond anything that you can nail to a single emotion. Tony’s eyes often twinkled with pleasure, but seconds later they would narrow, become beady and concentrated, and you would see the threat, the cold fury, the promise of broken limbs. That’s the kind of thing that De Niro, in his glory days, back when he played men of violence for Scorsese, used to do, and it’s pretty mesmerizing. But in Gandolfini’s case, when his eyes darkened with rage, that other sense — of sadness and despair, of underlying depression — didn’t go away. What Gandolfini communicated was that the one was fueling the other, that Tony’s violence was an escape from his despair.
During the first few seasons of The Sopranos, Gandolfini, living in the meatpacking district of the West Village, frequented the same video store that I did, and I’ll never forget once standing on the sidewalk and seeing him come out of there with his then close to 5-year-old son. Gandolfini, with a blue kerchief on his head (his frequent quasi “disguise”), stood there in the doorway, and I realized that I’d never registered just how tall he was. His presence was imposing — he truly loomed. And the look of feral suspicion in his eye was a major part of it. At that moment, my honest thought was: My God, he looks even more menacing in person than Tony Soprano. And I think that’s because Gandolfini was incredibly ambivalent about his stardom and created a “Back off!” vibe around himself. My sense is that it wasn’t just that he didn’t want to be bothered; it was that, on some level, he didn’t totally think he deserved it. I believe everyone who says that he was a lovely and generous guy, but it’s also clear that there were demons there — of rage, ego, self-doubt, maybe self-destruction — and I bring it up not to detract from him as a performer but, on the contrary, to pay tribute to the confessional daring of his acting genius. For on The Sopranos, Gandolfini’s artistry was personal in the highest sense. His performance as Tony was a kind of ongoing everyday torn-from-reality gangster-as-normal-guy Method psychodrama. Gandolfini put his demons out there, and used them, and fused them with the character he was playing in a way that made Tony seem as large as a planet, as rich and interior as any character in a novel.
And that’s how his performance as Tony heightened the canvas of what acting on television could be, in much the same way that Marlon Brando, starting in the early ’50s, turned his brooding brand of confessional Method performance into a one-man acting revolution that changed Hollywood — and, in an Elvis-like way, the very rhythm of life in the Western world. Brando, too, in films like The Wild One and A Streetcar Named Desire, acted out a kind of license. His sensuality and danger transcended the artifice of earlier screen acting, and they were an exhortation to the audience. But the way that his acting liberated movies stayed, for the most part, in the movies (or on stage). The great actors on television — Carroll O’Connor or Jean Stapleton; Mary Tyler Moore or Ed Asner; Peter Falk or Roseanne Barr or the NYPD Blue crew — were more contained. No one on network was spilling their guts. As Tony, Gandolfini spilled his guts and then some, so it was no wonder that in doing so he changed the landscape of television. Gandolfini’s emotions spilled over the sides of Tony as a character, and he scorched the earth with those emotions.
It is a paradox, perhaps, that he never rose to that supreme level of acting in the movies. (Though he may have come close last year, in his overlooked great performance in the criminally underrated Killing Them Softly. If you love Gandolfini, I urge you to see it.) The explanation for that may be that he was so often cast as thugs, and as the sort of lunkish characters you tend to get big burly actors to play, that he never really found roles that tapped his extraordinary intelligence the way that Tony Soprano did. The Sopranos may seem, at times, to be a brilliant show about dumb hoods, but in fact much of the show’s appeal is that its characters, even when they seem unworldly or downright thick, possess the street cunning of super-smart predators, none of them more so than Tony, whose speech always grew more rapid-fire and articulate the angrier he got. He was a hothead who could pin somebody to the wall with his words, because he saw and sliced through every last weaselly civilized layer of cowardice and duplicity. And that was the other dominating dimension of Gandolfini’s eyes: the way that on The Sopranos, they seemed to take in everything. He commanded us, in part, with the power of what he saw, and an actor can’t do that unless he is given as much as The Sopranos gave Gandolfini to see. In the end, this may well be the only role that he’ll truly be remembered for, but in his case there’s a kind of perfection to that. He made it the role of a lifetime, and made the role so large that that was enough to make him the Brando of television. It was his The Wild One, The Godfather, and Last Tango in Jersey all rolled into one.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman