The sudden, saddening death of Sopranos star James Gandolfini has inspired rolling waves of tributes from all over. Many have been deep-dish pieces on the place of Tony Soprano and the show in art and pop culture, the larger society, and the secret compartments of ourselves (mostly the ones in the basement, toward the rear, where the wolves and lizards live, that only God really knows about).
For those of us for whom movies are a pleasure beyond analysis, and whose viewing devices may be locked on to Turner Classic Movies, the 1999 debut of The Sopranos and the rise of James Gandolfini and his equally homely fellow goombahs, family, and friends, represented something else—the happy resurrection of a film tradition that seemed to be rapidly fading into irrelevance, sliding toward extinction.
The tradition of the character actor.
BY THAT WE MEAN . . . .
If you regularly watch any movie or TV show made before 1980—or even earlier—you know whom I’m talking about: those faces in the background, the men and women standing around or behind the handsome sturdy star.
They were snaggle-toothed sidekicks, wise aunts, wisecracking best girlfriends, gold-heart hookers, poncy servants, bumbling uncles, fussy bankers, drunken doctors, or, often best of all, the Bad Guys and their grizzled, snaky armies of thugs and murderers.
If you’re like me, you probably have a few favorites. Off the top of my head leap Frank Morgan, Una O’Connor, Edward Everett Horton, Harry Davenport, Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price, Elisha Cook, Whit Bissell (I’ll explain someday), and Lee Van Cleef. There are many more; you likely have your own list.
They very rarely ever became stars, or stars in major A pictures (though Humphrey Bogart did), though they won supporting actor awards. Some, like Edward G. Robinson, actually started out as major stars, but as they aged, they accumulated greater texture—wrinkles and gray hairs, a gleam of experience in the eyes—that mark the best character actors. Their sex appeal dwindled, but another spirit, often a better one, twinkled to life in that empty space.
Each actor played within a narrow range of strongly identifiable types. They were rarely versatile chameleons in the manner of say, Robert de Niro or so impossibly dominating, you couldn’t imagine (or want) them in the background of anything, such as John Wayne.
Ordinary looking—even homely--they were often less than the stars, more like the man and woman on the street, or down the road; meaning, like you and me, lumpen proles. Sometimes, they acted as witnesses, providing a bridge between the movie and the audience. They were stand-ins for us. They made for comic relief and charming, homey familiarity, a family of sorts.
They were also, too often, the only things worthwhile about otherwise bad, boring movies. (This is notable, to me at least, in villainous Lee Van Cleef’s appearances, where my interest in the movie often slumps once he takes the Big Bullet and the danger to the hero dies with him.)
HISTORY, WITH DECLINE
The heyday of the character actor started when the movies began and lasted until the big studios did their slow dissolve in the late 1960s. These studios, Warner Brothers, MGM, Twentieth-Century Fox, and others, employed large stables of them and kept them busy year around, often for decades; for example, MGM’s Frank Morgan was kept so busy (playing among other things, The Wizard of Oz), he even earned his own large fan base. Character actors didn’t get rich in Hollywood, but if they found a niche, they could make a living.
But with the studios gone, those faces, those personalities, lost their means of support and began to disappear. The old ones faded away and no one rose in their place—the old factories to employ them were no longer there.
Many, like Lee Van Cleef, became “gypsy actors” overseas, often hustling for whatever scraps they could find to support their families. (This relates, I suspect, to the general hollowing out of Hollywood movies over the last four decades; that feeling they give of being rolled down a steep, rocky hill inside a loud and empty drum.)
The faces in the background became blander and scripts started making less room for that rich palette (and the movies became dull, too). If they appeared at all, it was mostly in the films of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, two true believers in the canonical history of the movies.
Then I saw David Chase’s The Sopranos. In addition to my joy at its skill, imagination, and artistry, my thoughts flashed on the 1930s Warner Brothers genre movies, especially the musicals and gangster pictures. Behind Tony Soprano, Christopher, Paulie Walnuts, Big Pussy, Silvio, and many others, mugs and molls both, lurked those doughy ugly faces of the past like great ancient ghosts: not only Robinson, Cagney, and Bogie, but Aline McMahon, Ned Sparks, Hugh Herbert, and many others.
And one of the best and the most exciting things about The Sopranos was that these “supporting actors” and their characters were no longer pushed to the edge of the screen to lug the hero’s water—they were now front and center. Character and actor got their moment in the lights, often many moments. Thanks to the expansive format of the long-form series, they were given the time and space to shine in ways they rarely could before, even in the best Golden Age movies.
They were, collectively, the Stars.
My favorite Sopranos moments? The beatific shine from Tony Soprano’s face as the ducks fly away from his backyard pond, an unhappy thug seeing beauty for the first time in his life; the “Pine Barrens” antics of Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) bumbling around the freezing New Jersey backwoods like a psychopathic Laurel and Hardy; not even Walter Brennan had that much fun.
Since then, cable TV series have brought us a new era that can be rightly called “golden.” And it includes some broad galleries of faces and performers.
For another example, you could have set the best supporting actors from any western made from the 1930s to the 1960s in David Milch’s Deadwood and have a great show (one that John Ford, Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, and Sam Peckinpah all might have been proud to helm, cussin’ and all).
We didn’t get those guys, but what we got was also perfect: a tremendous and tortured villain in Ian McShane; fine complicated heroes in Timothy Olyphant and John Hawkes; pungent portraits of frontier shit-birds and gnarly prospectors, as played by William Sanderson and Jim Beaver; and foul-mouthed female gunslingers and tough-minded hookers, as played by Robin Weigert and Kim Dickens. They gave life to every word and gesture. As actors, they’d roped in the roles of their lives and rode them for all they’re worth.
Time forbids elaboration here, but take a look at everything from Veep to Breaking Bad to Justified (also featuring Olyphant and the estimable Mr. Beaver). Note how almost no one in these shows looks like what we nowadays consider a movie star.
(It’s possible that cable TV series can’t afford to not hire actors with both skill and genuine personality. An amiable fellow like Sam Worthington (Avatar), would be steamrolled by most of the cast of Game of Thrones, a show where even little people stand way taller than they used to. Errol Flynn would have to work even harder now (and take much better care of himself, bless his raffish soul).
James Gandolfini and The Sopranos opened the gates to this new, but familiar, world of film. They resurrected an old style of film acting that seemed lost, and broadened and deepened the craft. With the dramatic space provide by the form, clichés and reflective tics will no longer do. They have to echo something deeper.
With Gandolfini leading the way, the experience of watching narrative film, long or short, is now richer, more exciting, more pleasurable than ever. Watching these shows makes me feel like a child again, in the company of a family of a familiar faces.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield