Over the course of contributing to Cynics Unlimited, I have written a number of obituaries. I have never, though, written about any actors (or actresses, for any reader not familiar with the gender-neutral term ‘actor’). I generally don’t find the lives of actors particularly interesting – and for those who do, there’s always Kitty Kelley. However, I feel I just have to say something about the recently deceased James Gandolfini. Gandolfini, of course, was the actor who played Mafia chief Tony Soprano in the hit series The Sopranos. He died at a relatively young age (51), perhaps not in the prime of life as Princess Diana at 36, but not at an advanced 92 as did former actress and swim star Esther Williams earlier this month.
Though wildly successful as head of the Soprano ‘family’ (double meaning here!), James Gandolfini came under fire in some quarters for his role. Some accused him of promoting stereotypes of Italians as gangsters. For example, in 2000 the editor of an Ottawa-based Italian-language newspaper urged CTV to cancel their planned broadcast of The Sopranos for that very reason (the station didn’t cancel it, by the way). The editor was disgusted that at a time when Giuliano Zaccardelli had just been appointed Commissioner of the RCMP and Julian Fantino head of the Ontario Provincial Police, Italians were still being depicted as members of the criminal underworld. Of course, not all Italians shared the editor’s opinion. One of my aunts, who was born in Italy, was outraged when she heard that some people wanted to ban the show. ‘But I want to watch The Sopranos!’ she said angrily. ‘We all know there are people in our community who do those things [i.e. crime].’
Being of partial Italian descent myself, I watched the dispute over The Sopranos with amusement more than anything else. I found it hard to see The Sopranos as an anti-Italian plot when so many of the people involved in the show were of Italian origin themselves, not only Gandolfini but Edie Falco, who played Tony Soprano’s wife Carmela, and Lorraine Bracco, who acted as his psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi (I was pleased to discover that the Mafia had socially progressed somewhat since The Godfather, the title character of which told his son Michael that ‘Fooling around is for women and children, not men’). Even the very WASPish-sounding producer David Chase’s real last name was DiCesare.
James Gandolfini defended his choice to play the role of a Mafia boss. ‘Sure, you can have movies about sweet Italian Americans, but do they make money at the box office?’ he asked rhetorically. His remark reminded me a bit of a statement by Black actress Hattie McDaniel, who played (and won an Oscar for) Mammy in Gone with the Wind. When accused of catering to racial stereotypes by taking on servants’ roles in Hollywood, McDaniel replied, ‘I can be a maid for $7 a week or I can play a maid for $700 a week.’ Like it or not, the entertainment industry’s raison d’être is not to defend oppressed minorities; it is, as Gandolfini insinuated, to make money.
It also seems a bit late to get all up in arms about stereotypes of Italians as mobsters after the spate of Mafia films we’ve witnessed over the years. Although The Godfather is still considered THE Mafia movie, it was actually preceded by The Brotherhood four years earlier (1968), starring Kirk Douglas and Irene Papas. (By playing an Italian, Douglas, a Jew, showed his ethnic versatility – a decade before The Brotherhood, he appeared in the title role of the film The Vikings). It’s fair to say, however, that it was The Godfather, and its sequel Godfather II, that spawned a series of Mafia features. Some were well-done and critically acclaimed, like Goodfellas or Scarface; others forgettable but – to their credit – unpretentious, like Married to the Mob; and still others forgettable and pretentious, such as Prizzi’s Honor. The Sopranos is merely part of a long line of such works. And it probably won’t be the last, because again like it or not, the Mafia has obviously gained a stranglehold over the American viewing public.
So rest in peace, James Gandolfini. And maybe 20 years from now the people who criticized you for acting in The Sopranos will be glued to their seats watching a TV show about the Russian Mafia.