Saturday October 25, 2014
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25.10.2014
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Ruthie Blum

The Gandolfini phenomenon

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gave an order for all flags on government and office buildings in his state to be flown at half mast on Monday. This was Christie's tribute to actor James Gandolfini, who died of a heart attack last week in Rome. Gandolfini, known across the globe as the star of the hit HBO drama series "The Sopranos," was a native son of New Jersey, where the bulk of the show was filmed.

In response to this grandiose gesture, some critics argued that, as wonderful as he was in his role as mob boss Tony Soprano, Gandolfini was merely a TV star. He was not a military hero; he did not invent a cure for cancer; and, though tragic for his family and friends, his death did not warrant gubernatorial attention.

This is a valid claim. But Americans' attitudes toward Hollywood are similar to those of the British to the royal family. In fact, the cover stories of supermarket tabloids in both the United States and the United Kingdom this week dealt with the recent birth of Kim Kardashian's baby and the imminent birth of Kate Middleton's.

It is not surprising, then, that the news of Gandolfini's death caused more of a stir in many circles than the terrorist murder of four Americans in Benghazi last September.

What is surprising, however, is the apparent lack of awareness on the part of Gandolfini fans about the nature of their grieving in this particular case. Indeed, with all the carry-on about the greatness of both Gandolfini and the character he played, little has been written about the real root of our attraction to him.

Because it is not self-evident that an overweight, philandering, sociopathic, narcissistic, ruthless criminal could cause audiences to become enamored with and addicted to his machinations, explanations for the success of "The Sopranos" have abounded since the show first aired in 1999. The show's final episode, in June 2007, generated more discussion and debate at water coolers and on the Internet than a presidential election.

It is true that "The Sopranos" is a work of genius, with a cast to match. It is compelling, riveting, suspenseful and witty. It provides something for everyone, from chase scenes to love scenes, mafia family dynamics and suburban family life. It deals with drugs, sex and violence, alongside conventional marital and parental problems.

But its grip on the American psyche goes deeper. Tony Soprano is not just an anti-hero viewers hate to love. He embodies a kind of moral code that we secretly wish we could be governed and protected by. He represents a strict interpretation of right and wrong, of loyalty first to his immediate loved ones, then to his extended mafia relatives and only after that to the rest of the world.

The best example of our appreciation of this quality, which earned him a prominent place in TV Guide's list of the 50 sexiest men in America, can be seen in viewer response to the 30th episode of the show, titled "Employee of the Month."

During this episode, Tony's psychologist, Dr. Melfi, is attacked by a man who grabs her in the parking lot of her clinic, drags her into the stairway and rapes her. Though he is apprehended by the police, he is released on a technicality. Melfi then sees a photo of him on the wall of a sandwich shop, as "employee of the month."

Throughout the episode, the viewers are dying for her to tell Tony about the rape. Despite being tempted to do so, she refrains. She opts, instead, to keep her professional ethics intact, and not turn to a patient she knows is a mob boss to avenge her emotional and physical scars. She, like the viewers, knows that Tony would gladly have come to her rescue. He would have jumped at the chance to be her -- our -- knight in shining armor.

The mass frustration and disappointment on the part of the viewing public at Melfi's choice was deafening. This is because hunger for moral clarity is so rampant among the American people that they are even willing to champion an immoral character to sate it.

It is this very clarity, so brilliantly portrayed by Gandolfini, that was being bidden farewell by the residents of New Jersey when they lowered their flags on Monday. And it will be the same kind of sadness felt at Gandolfini's funeral on Thursday.

Ruthie Blum is the author of "To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the 'Arab Spring.'"

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