Another morning spent not preparing for pressing projects, and instead watching “Inside the Actor’s Studio” with James Gandolfini. Poor guy. Such an untimely passing in Rome at just 51. As you can imagine, the violence levels of his breadth of film and television work has deterred me from really having perspective on his talent. But after sitting with him and James Lipton, I can appreciate his process. “The Sopranos” is what he will be remembered for, alongside a variety of ‘tough-guy’ supporting roles in movies like “The Mexican” and “True Romance”.
“The Sopranos” is just one of those shows that I truly believe you when you say it’s excellent, but I’m probably not going to be able to hack it. I have such an extremely low tolerance for violence, and this show really seemed to have the market cornered on bloodshed. Of course, being a faithful cinephile, I’m aware of the character dynamics, the general premise, and the impact of the program on popular culture. My friend Jenna saw the series through, and one morning, too hung-over to go anywhere, I watched a few episodes, including “Employee of the Month”, when Dr Melfi is brutally raped in the stairwell of a parking garage. This was probably not the greatest introduction to the show, being sick and sleepless after a big night out. Otherwise, I’ve caught a few episodes and scenes here and there, but never braved the whole series.
After the earthquakes in Christchurch, my mother-in-law faced many sleepless nights. She remedied her insomnia with the entire series, which I found so peculiar. The show’s violent intensity would surely counteract with an already present stress level. Personally I’d have taken all ten seasons of “Friends” over “The Sopranos”, (look at them splashing around in that fountain, and that Ross is such a hoot. But she said that the program was so well-made, well written, that she was engrossed in the story, which took her far from the shaky ground she walked on. And a program like “Friends” doesn’t have that kind of transformative power.
Don’t you just want to know what’s happening in this picture? I’ve always felt such a reluctant interest in this series. The acting and writing is meant to be excellent. And I’ve read about the show over the years. I’d happily read the scripts, but then you’d miss out on the performances. And yes, it is just ‘make-believe’, nobody actually dismembers bodies, fires shots on a whim or I don’t know..beats a pregnant woman to death, but great lengths are taken to ensure it’s authenticity, and that’s just not my jam.
Nevertheless, I feel for the loss of Gandolfini. I highly recommend watching “Inside the Actors Studio”, he was humble, gentle and vulnerable. He came from a working class family, and sought to bring dignity to blue collar characters. He also touches on the emotional impact of playing those violent characters, especially when the violence was directed towards women. He references episodes like “University”, where a stripper is raped, and a pregnant woman is beaten to death with a metal railing–in a 22 second long scene–which would feel like a slim slice of eternity, having to watch that. The IMDB parent guide itemizes the violence and profanity, and concludes: “The violence against women in this episode is frequent and intense. Not for the faint hearted”. That’s me, faint of heart. That’s the kind of thing you’d make me watch if you were trying to punish me. But it sounded like Gandolfini struggled with those portrayals, that they are not easy things to enact, or to watch. But it’s a crucial part of this narrative–that it’s meant to be set as an example of how far on the spectrum these people can go. That’s their reality. But imagine having to play that? Gandolfini spoke about the lengths he went to get to that place of anger to play those scenes convincingly: excessive amounts of coffee, banging his head into a wall, forgoing sleep, a sharp rock in a shoe. That is a lot of energy being given to a character, a character that is in a sense immortal. But the ramifications of that kind of work takes a toll on the mortal vessel, and sometimes this big heart, so full of other people’s struggles, burdens and emotions, can’t tick another second, and just gives out from holding on to too much.