The question of whether James Gandolfini was the greatest actor of his era will be settled sometime in the future. Commentators will have to decide whether an 86 hour performance as one character (plus 25 or so stellar supporting performances) required more of an actor, and delivered more from an actor, than did, say, twenty or so bravura film performances by Daniel Day Lewis.
Almost impossible to compare, right? Almost ludicrous to contemplate. Yet if critics and commentators do in fact, try to make that comparison, it will be because Gandolfini, and David Chase, along with the rest of the talents associated with The Sopranos, seized with their brilliance the cultural ground that cinema was abandoning like they were owners of residential property at Love Canal.
Once movies slew the novel in the sixties, film was considered the most culturally significant art form. Part of it had to do with the iconic power of the stars, part with the way fans and the media treated film, part with the depth and ambitions of the film makers, with what they were trying to say. There was a time when a film could influence the culture for two years. It would open in a downtown movie house and spread slowly throughout the country; if it was a hit, it would run in cities for months, and in parts of the country, people would be waiting for close to two years to see a major picture. Crowning that influence were the Oscars, honors that could cement the stature of a film or a performer for decades. And in that way, generations would contemplate the meaning of The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca, On the Waterfront, Nashville, Chinatown, and so on.
Now movies come and go so fast they barely register. They open wide and even successful films get moved out fast. The significance of the Oscar has diminished in a crowd of other award shows. But with ten or thirteen week runs (along with in-week repeats and off-season reruns), with the close analysis some series receive and the big build-ups to new seasons, and most importantly, with their greater ambitions and more serious content, it is TV shows like Mad Men or Game of Thrones or Girls that dominate the culture. At a conference in Hollywood ten days ago, Steven Spielberg predicted a coming “implosion” in the film industry, after which there will be price variances at movie theaters, where “you’re gonna have to pay $25 for the next Iron Man, you’re probably only going to have to pay $7 to see Lincoln.” He also said that Lincoln came “this close” to being an HBO movie instead of a theatrical release. Speaking on the same panel, George Lucas predicted that film exhibition would morph into a Broadway play model, whereby fewer movies are released, they stay in theaters for a year and ticket prices are much higher. His prediction prompted Spielberg to recall that his 1982 film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial stayed in theaters for a year and four months. Lucas called cable television “much more adventurous” than film nowadays.
Why is this happening? Technological changes, demographic changes, audience preferences—huge movements. But I believe it wouldn’t be happening now, and in the way it has been happening, if The Sopranos hadn’t been so damn good. And it was Chase’s writing and vision, and Gandolfini’s acting, that made it happen.
The Sopranos was The Death of a Salesman of our era: a vision of the way we lived and worked and the costs involved. At first it played as a comedy with a twisted undercurrent of violence; the very simple decision to play the mobster as a suburban family man created the comic framework that the show never shed. This must have horrified Chase, who each season thereafter made Tony an uglier, more violent, more selfish, more controlling and less in control character. But Chase continued to allow Tony elements of humor and especially humanity, and Gandolfini squeezed the compassion out of each opportunity. “AJ, you’re a good guy,’’ says a frustrated Tony to his son in one late episode, and breaking into Gandolfini’s delivery of that line was all of Tony’s anguished, desperate suspicion that AJ was in no way a good guy, not a good citizen in possession of a compassionate heart, and not even a good criminal, a stand-up guy in possession of the nominal capabilities of that profession. You felt sympathy for Tony in that instant, as in so many instants, when Gandolfini expressed a universal human emotion, in this case, a father’s terror that his kid might be a ne’er-do-well.
Gandolfini possessed an astonishingly expressive face, and it was constantly in motion. (It’s amazing what he did with his voice, too; it’s amazing to realize that Tony’s voice was not Gandolfini’s natural voice, that Gandolfini pitched it higher and altered his natural cadences and tuned his accent for the part.) In my favorite episode, the 12th of season 2, Gandolfini’s gifts and skills are on peacock display. Following the scene in which Janice shoots Richie Aprile, Tony registers fear, caution, shock, control, authority, fury, sarcasm, love, affection, exasperation—all in a handful of minutes. He calms his sister, he commands his men, he yells at his mother, he mocks his sister, and he opens himself, cautiously, to his wife. It’s just wonderful. And it is one of, I don’t know, ten thousand sequences that mark Gandolfini’s excellence, in The Sopranos and other pieces. (The wonderful In the Loop is Peter Capaldi‘s movie, but Gandolfini holds his own in every scene he’s in.)
The first episode of The Sopranos aired on January 10, 1999. I was working for Entertainment Weekly, and Ginny and the girls met me in Manhattan. Somehow we ended up at a restaurant called Mayrose, on Broadway near the Flatiron building. We were there early, maybe six o’clock., and the place was nearly empty, although by himself, right in the front, was a man I recognized as James Gandolfini. I almost never bother celebrities, but he was right there, practically underfoot as we waited to be seated, so I put out my hand and congratulated him, and wished him and show great success. I’m glad I did that. It was one of a tiny number of times in my life that I have shaken the hand of genius.