Chas­ing the monster in­side the mob­ster

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Re­becca Harkins-Cross

Gan­dolfini: The Real Life of the Man Who Made Tony So­prano By Dan Bischoff Scribe, 280pp, $27.99 WHEN James Gan­dolfini died sud­denly last June, aged 51, it was the sec­ond time fans had farewelled the ac­tor. In 2007 the am­bigu­ous fi­nal scene of HBO se­ries The So­pra­nos in­ferred it might have been the end for Gan­dolfini’s most un­for­get­table cre­ation Tony So­prano, the be­guil­ing, so­cio­pathic mob­ster who al­tered our ex­pec­ta­tions of tele­vi­sion pro­tag­o­nists.

Dis­en­tan­gling this larger-than-life char­ac­ter from the ac­tor who played him is the bi­og­ra­pher’s pri­mary task, and Dan Bischoff prom­ises to do just that in Gan­dolfini: The Real Life of the Man Who Made Tony So­prano.

For many years Bischoff was a jour­nal­ist at The Star-Ledger, the New Jersey news­pa­per that we so of­ten saw Tony shuf­fling down the drive­way to col­lect. This mid­dle-class sub­ur­bia on the fringes of the great me­trop­o­lis is a place where Bischoff says high and low cul­ture col­lide; he sees New Jersey as an at­ti­tude, lo­cals shar­ing “a sort of sad-sack, also-ran, sec­on­drate pho­bia as their birthright”. And as a New Jersey na­tive son, Bischoff seems to find more cor­re­la­tions be­tween Gan­dolfini and his crooked al­ter ego than di­ver­gences.

Af­ter im­mi­grat­ing from Italy to the US, the Gan­dolfini fam­ily chased the Amer­i­can dream across the sprawl­ing sub­urbs into Park Ridge. His fa­ther be­came a school cus­to­dian, his mother a lunch lady. Child­hood friends paint the young Gan­dolfini as a gen­er­ous ras­cal. He was voted big­gest flirt in his grad­u­at­ing year, yet many say he en­joyed soli­tude too.

No amount of fame would make Gan­dolfini turn his back on these hum­ble ori­gins: ac­cord­ing to Bischoff’s sources he re­mained “the reg­u­lar Jersey guy” and “work­ing-class hero”, never en­tirely ac­cept­ing the trap­pings that came with celebrity. “I’m still grumpy and mis­er­able,” Gan­dolfini said later, “but in a good way!” The ac­tor’s late-ish suc­cess may have had en­gen­dered this mod­esty too. Gan­dolfini didn’t get his break un­til the Hol­ly­wood-el­derly age of 32, play­ing an­other volatile gang­ster in the Quentin Tarantino-penned True Ro­mance in 1993. It wasn’t un­til he was 38 that he landed his first leading role: as Tony So­prano, a char­ac­ter by turns en­chant­ing and chill­ing.

So­prano al­lowed Gan­dolfini to demon­strate his as­tound­ing range, yet like many Ital­ianAmer­i­can ac­tors, he found mob­ster type­cast­ing hard to shake. Even at the height of his ca­reer, Bischoff ar­gues that Gan­dolfini never tran­scended the in­se­cu­rity of that Jersey mind­set; the ac­tor would rou­tinely try to quit ev­ery role, al­ways of­fer­ing the di­rec­tor a list of ac­tors who could do the job bet­ter.

An ad­her­ent of the in­va­sive Meis­ner tech­nique (an act­ing method that draws heav­ily on per­sonal life ex­pe­ri­ences), Gan­dolfini strug­gled as The So­pra­nos went on to plumb what se­ries cre­ator David Chase saw as Gan­dolfini’s own “tur­moil … pain and sad­ness”. (Bischoff’s best in­ter­views are those with Gan­dolfini’s act­ing teach­ers and long-time coach.)

Gan­dolfini be­gan to dis­ap­pear from set for days at a time and was re­ported to have drug and al­co­hol prob­lems. Bischoff sug­gests Gan­dolfini’s ge­nius lay in “his abil­ity to find sym­pa­thy with the devil within the char­ac­ters he played”, yet the “monster” in­side, the one that Bischoff claims drove the ac­tor to his heights, re­mains frus­trat­ingly ob­scure.

Pub­lished a year af­ter Gan­dolfini’s death, it must have been a rush to get this bi­og­ra­phy to print. It shows. The al­ready-slim vol­ume re­peats sev­eral quotes and ob­ser­va­tions ba­si­cally ver­ba­tim, and it is pep­pered with clunky syn­tax and bizarre sim­i­les: talk­ing about the rise of the drink­ing age to 21, Bischoff says “cam­pus pubs shrank back to their lar­val stage as if they’d eaten magic mush­rooms”, and Gan­dolfini’s fame hap­pens “like a pile of old news­pa­pers fall­ing on a hoarder”. Bischoff spends co­pi­ous

The So­pra­nos pages de­scrib­ing Gan­dolfini’s var­i­ous roles, but his pow­ers of in­ter­pre­ta­tion are limited.

In Bischoff’s de­fence, he must have had his work cut out for him. Gan­dolfini was no­to­ri­ously me­dia shy, de­flect­ing per­sonal ques­tions with a cry of “Bori­i­i­ing!” Friends, fam­ily and col­leagues hon­our that pri­vacy, leav­ing Bischoff mostly pe­riph­eral fig­ures to in­ter­view, such as col­lege ac­quain­tances or the Park Ridge mayor.

Still, a more nim­ble writer could have over­come, at least to some ex­tent, these is­sues. GQ cor­re­spon­dent Brett Martin’s Dif­fi­cult Men, a study of the long-form TV drama that The So­pra­nos kick-started, be­gins with a lu­cid scene de­scrib­ing one of Gan­dolfini’s long­est dis­ap­pear­ing acts, when the ac­tor ab­sconded for four days from a shoot that had re­quired an en­tire air­port to be shut down. This one episode of­fers a more vivid snapshot of Gan­dolfini’s vo­latil­ity than Bischoff’s en­tire book.

It is Gan­dolfini’s role in Ni­cole Holfcener’s Enough Said (re­leased posthu­mously) where we glimpse what he is ca­pa­ble of, play­ing a frag­ile ro­man­tic lead poles apart from So­prano’s brutish charms. Bischoff’s ac­count, in con­trast, fails to un­cover such hid­den facets of the man who was Tony So­prano, but also much more.

James Gan­dolfini as Tony So­prano in HBO’s

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