That’s the great thing about the movies. … After you learn – and if you’re good and Gawd helps ya and you’re lucky enough to have a personality that comes across – then what you’re doing is – you’re giving people little… tiny pieces of time … that they never forget. James Stewart, quoted in Peter Bogdanovich, Who The Hell’s In It? Portraits and Conversations. Faber and Faber, 2004.
Towards the end of the tour de force first season Sopranos episode ‘College’, there’s a scene between Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) that has always stuck in my mind. Tony has been away overnight, taking daughter Meadow around a series of colleges in New England that she may attend the following year. Anthony Junior has also been away overnight, staying with a friend. After greeting his wife and during his search for food in the fridge, Tony is told by Carmela that their priest, Father Phil Intintola (Paul Schulze) stayed the night. (There isn’t time to go into detail here, but what we have seen unfold between Phil and Carmela is just as poised and sharp as what is about to unfold between husband and wife.)
At first, Tony dismisses the information with a ‘Yeah, right’, not even bothering to turn to face Carmela. But the tone of her ‘O-kay’ makes him take notice. At first, we see Tony struggle to compute the situation:
TONY: The priest spent the night here? What happened?
TONY: Where was Anthony?
CARMELA: He was, uh, sleeping over at Jason’s.
TONY: The priest spent the night here, nothing happened, and you’re telling me this because…?
CARMELA: You might hear something, take it the wrong way. His car was out front all night.
A huge part of The Sopranos, and of the huge pleasures it offers, is anticipating how Tony will react to a series of (exquisitely crafted) dramatic scenarios, and then watching how he actually reacts. A high-ranking member of the New Jersey mafia must spend a large portion of his life engaged in often labyrinthine social mind-reading, if he is interested in holding on to that life. Even the perception or the possibility of betrayal or weakness can lead to fatalities (hence the significance of the detail of the car parked out front all night). Such a man who also keeps mistresses, visits a shrink and is trying to be a husband and father must extend such mind-reading to his private sphere too.
However, in this case, Tony’s reaction to the mild cognitive dissonance he is feeling in trying to envisage a scenario in which ‘the guy spends the night here with you, and all he does is slip you a wafer?’ is not anger, but humour. ‘You know what?’ he declares, ‘This is too fucked up for me… even to think about.’ (Tony is not entirely wrong, as it happens, in this assessment; when Carmela declares that ‘nothing’ happened, she is of course talking about sexual intercourse, and that the scenario sketched did not involve sex is what a man of Tony’s appetites and mindset struggles to comprehend. However, both Carmela and her priest are shown to gain complex gratification from standing at and stepping back from that particular precipice.) Galdofini plays the scene with a contained mirth which, especially given this scene’s position at the end of an often-tense episode, offers a great humour pressure valve for the viewer as well. Edie Falco, too, has a smile in her eyes when she reproaches Tony’s wafer comment with a ‘That’s verging on sacrilege.’
It has been said perhaps too many times already, but if Tony were merely a monster (the kind of monster that Michael Corleone becomes by the end of The Godfather Part II), The Sopranos’ eighty-six episodes would probably be unbearable. But we often see the childlike, the playful and the tender come through (as we do in the moment I have just pointed to), in ways that (without absolving the character) complicate Tony’s actions and our reactions to them. It is James Gandolfini who gave us an amazing number of amazingly rich little tiny pieces of time, and it is hugely sad that we will not receive any more.