Clive James: Gandolfini the greatest: his smile could threaten a room
Legendary TV critic pays homage to the ultimate gangster
The untimely death of the great, hulking, utterly invulnerable-looking James Gandolfini has robbed us of the chance to see what the rest of his career might have been like.
In 2004, when there was still another season of 'The Sopranos' to come, I wrote a piece in homage to its accomplishment. Some of the show's fans thought that the final season was a let-down, but my younger daughter and I have just finished watching the whole thing again and we are united in the belief that it was great to the end.
And for all the skills of its wonderful cast, the greatest thing was Gandolfini. An actor has come a long way towards monumentality when his merest smile can seem to threaten a room full of grown men with death. What you never really believed, however was that death could threaten him.
I got the sense that he was watching me as I wrote, so I tried hard to get it right; while always trying to remind myself, of course, that he wasn't really a gangster, just an actor.
In the dark night of the soul, it is often three o'clock in the afternoon on the pool terrace of a mobster's house in New Jersey. The rule of law exists only to be flouted; power to be flaunted; any scruple to be parodied. It's appalling. I love it.
Love it more, in fact, than the 'Godfather' movies, which are supposedly the superior achievement, the fons et origo from which the mere television serial draws and dilutes its inspiration. We shouldn't let the size of the picture fool us. In the little picture, a lot more is going on, and it's a lot more true.
But every Soprano-related male character has a frame of reference drenched with Godfather minutiae. Whether sitting out front at the Pork Store or lurking dimly in the depths of the Bada Bing bar and strip-joint, they conduct long symposia in which Corleone family scenes are alluded to by the line and sometimes recreated almost in full, with sound effects.
This is the kind of media-cultural fallout that gives Italian community leaders the hump: Italo-Americans defining themselves as the heirs of gangsterism. But these characters are gangsters, so why shouldn't they? Every American, of Italian extraction or not, knows the Godfather films by heart; and the rest of us do, too.
My own candidate for an epic predecessor to 'The Sopranos' would be 'I, Claudius'. Should you set out to draw a picture of unfettered violence shaping the destiny of an extended family, you would end up with something like the Roman Empire after Tiberius consolidated the dubious achievement of Augustus in subordinating all law to the leader's will.
In the last episode of the fourth season, the reliably psychopathic Ralph (Joe Pantoliano, barking and cackling) has his brains beaten out by Tony in person. The even more psycho Christopher is whistled in as a cleaner, and we get a shot of him holding Ralph's hand. Unfortunately for the viewer's peace of mind, the hand is no longer attached to Ralph.
Tony and Christopher are both shocked to discover that Ralph has been wearing a wig throughout the series. Neither is shocked by the process of cutting Ralph up.
The wise guys work their Thing by intimidating each other from the top of the hierarchy down, and maintain the cash-flow of their Thing by intimidating everybody else. When the soldiers toe the line and the civilians keep up their payments, life can go on peacefully from episode to episode.
But if, God forbid, one of the subordinate wise guys should get ambitious, or some innocent citizen should get the idea that there is a real law beyond the one that the wise guys impose, hell briefly but effectively breaks loose.
It hardly ever does, because every member of the crew, whether a made man or not, has proved in his youth that he will go on kicking and hitting until the victim expires.
Of the gangster movies, 'GoodFellas' and 'Donnie Brasco' probably give the truest picture of the way the Mob works: an average deal is a couple of slot machines being broken open in the back room, and a big deal is three machines. A Mob boss gets rich from his lion's share of the stolen and extorted money passed up to him by the lower ranks. Mobsters are opportunist hoodlums, not business geniuses. In The Sopranos, this mean reality is much more realistically portrayed than in the Godfather trilogy. People can be friends of the family and still be soaked.
Artie, the restaurant owner foolishly borrows money from Tony. Artie's hard-working wife, brighter than he is, is outraged. Tony guesses it's a scam, but he only warns Artie against getting into debt: he doesn't refuse the money.
The moral here is that Artie, who might have got rich slowly, should never have tried to get rich quick. Once he defaults, his restaurant belongs to Tony. Artie's grieving face is an emblem for the show. He is still Tony's friend, but now it is no longer a case of doing Tony the occasional favour. Now, Artie must do nothing but favours.
And this is what Tony can do to a pal. What he can do to a mere acquaintance, let alone to a stranger, happens often enough per episode to remind us that his hulking charm adds an extra meaning to the word "irresistible". Far from helping the little guys, Tony gets the little guys in his power. He does it by terror, or its mere sugges tion.
How does he feel about that? Bad enough to need an analyst, the reass uringly husky Dr Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco. Theoretically, she is on the side of the law, but there are complications and Tony lusts after her. She is suitably revolted. Then she gets raped in a basement car park by a pizza joint's Employee of the Month. The cops are useless. She admits the attraction of Tony's power when she tells her sympathetic but powerless ex-husband what would happen if she tipped off Tony about the rapist: her patient would "squash him like a bug".
Her feelings for Tony's macho strength would give a strict feminist the horrors, but they are surely plausible, and therefore disturbing.
As for Tony, his anxiety attacks abate, but he has told her little about the truths that matter most. He has told her what was done to him – violent father, scheming mother – but tells her nothing about what he has done to other people.
A leitmotiv of his reluctant testimony to her is the question of where the ducks go in winter. This reminds us of Holden Caulfield, who wondered the same thing about fish. But Tony is no young intellectual in the making. Mixing bright broads with his usual diet of rudderless goomahs, he is spiritually drawn towards higher thoughts, but profundity can be undone in a moment by news that some idealistic agitator on a construction site needs straightening out with a baseball bat. Tony's clever brain is just another muscle.
The abiding complexity of Tony's character lies in the way he must bring into balance two different considerations. Outside the house, his powers are unlimited. Inside it, he can affect the behaviour of others only to a certain extent, because they know he won't kill them. Vivid as it is, this is a real conflict, genuinely subtle and complicated.
Tony Soprano takes us back to the primeval forest; to instincts. It's a different kind of holiday from the everyday drag. If you want to know just how exciting life would be if there were no law, here it is. (© Daily Telegraph. London)