Many people have followed the character of Tony Soprano through marital crises, intrigue and psychiatrist sessions. Now actor James Gandolfini is dead.
James "Tony Soprano" Gandolfini in 2006. photo: dpa
"Douchebag." Asshole. With James Gandolfini, this vocabulary has seeped into my English vocabulary, and with it a particular way of speaking, half-slurred and mumbled. With Gandolfini, the soft "th" becomes the hurdle of a "d," and a clear "s" becomes something that sounds like "sh." This voice, this way of speaking belong inseparably to the character of Tony Soprano, this mobster from New Jersey who carried the six seasons of the HBO series "The Sopranos" effortlessly on his broad cross.
David Chase, the creator of the series, had the brilliant idea of having this burly man suffer fits of weakness and send him to a psychoanalyst. So there he sits, spreading fear and terror in New Jersey’s underworld, in the wood-paneled consulting room of Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) and ponders why the sight of wild geese paralyzes him.
Rarely have power and powerlessness entered into such a dazzling mix as in this character, and rarely has anyone embodied that mix more forcefully than James Gandolfini. On Wednesday, he died completely unexpectedly in Rome, presumably of a heart attack. He was just 51 years old. He was on his way to a film festival in Taormina, a small town on the east coast of Sicily.
For those who love the series – which was made between 19 – this is very, very sad news. Because if you have accompanied Tony Soprano for 86 episodes, through all his marital crises, love affairs, deals, intrigues, murders, brawls and – above all – through the phases of self-reflection at Dr. Melfi, then you gain a great familiarity. Then you know how his eyes grow cold when Soprano intimidates an adversary, and how the corners of his fleshy mouth lift into a smile when he rejoices.
Spellbound and disgusted
The seductive thing about TV series, after all, is that the characters become companions over time, even if they are anything but sympathetic. And "douchebag" isn’t just a word Tony Soprano likes to use, he’s one himself. That’s why it was a coup by David Chase to create a stand-in for the audience with the character of Dr. Melfi. As spellbound and disgusted, as repulsed and fascinated the analyst listens to Tony Soprano, so does one when sitting in front of the television. And just as she eventually comes to depend on Tony Soprano, so does the audience, who is entertained by the doings of the mobster.
Whether you can also see Dr. Melfi resembles that she keeps Tony Soprano’s criminal system running through her therapeutic work is then yet another question that belongs to the smartness of the series to raise. Of course, James Gandolfini didn’t just play Tony Soprano. He filmed, for example, with brothers Joel and Ethan Coen ("The Man Who Wasn’t There," 2001) or with Alex de la Iglesia ("Perdita Durango," 1997), he participated in the Los Angeles production of Yasmina Reza’s play "God of Carnage," and last year, in Andrew Dominik’s "Killing Them Softly," he played a contract killer whose legendary reputation is out of proportion to his alcohol consumption and sex obsession.
It was hard not to see a Tony Sopranos revenant in these characters, albeit a rather jaded one. The distance is best achieved in Spike Jonze’s "Where the Wild Things Are" ("Wo die wilden Kerle wohnen," 2009), the film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book. It doesn’t feature Gandolfini, but he lends his distinctive voice to the wild guy Carol. After the hero, little Max in his wolf costume, has raged and raged, Carol says with appreciation, "Weird little thing, I like the way you destroy things." James Gandolfini I call out sadly, "Weird big thing, I liked the way you destroyed things."