During his “Personal Segment” on “The Factor” Thursday night, Bill O’Reilly said that he believed James Gandolfini did too good of a job humanizing Tony Soprano; that this was bad for our country and culture. In O’Reilly’s opinion, the ideal way to portray a gangster is Robert DeNiro’s approach to Al Capone in Brian DePalma’s “The Untouchables.”
This is an argument that goes back 83 years to Jimmy Cagney’s charismatic (and star-making) performance as Tom Powers in 1931’s “Public Enemy.”
My opinion, though, is the polar opposite of O’Reilly’s.
DeNiro’s Al Capone is very appealing because it is a nihilistic character; an unfeeling character driven only by selfish impulse. Emotionally he is free as a bird, feeling no remorse — just doing what he wants, when he wants. Justice might come at the end, but in the meantime he lives life on his own terms and with absolutely no moral or emotional complications or consequences.
Who wouldn’t find that attractive?
On the flip-side you have Tony Soprano, a man who could never find emotional or moral peace. In ways big and frustratingly small, from both his real family and his crime family, Tony could never enjoy a day or a meal or even a movie without paying for who he was, who he associated with, what he did, or the awful children he and his hideous wife brought into the world.
The consequence of being Tony Sorpano didn’t end with the clang of a cell door or at the end of a gun, it was constant and everywhere. Tony was a man being pecked to death 24/7; a man who paid for every single thing he did because whatever it was — a murder, mistress, or even a kindness — in the end it only complicated his life all the more.
Tony Soprano was a man made so miserable by his choices, he had panic attacks and had to see a therapist. The beauty of the moral layering of “The Sopranos” was that in his chosen life, panic attacks and seeing a therapist only made him look weak, which meant having to do more evil, which meant he needed therapy all the more.
It was the most vicious of circles.
Tony’s very humanity became his tormenter. What a living hell. DeNiro’s Capone, however, has no such burden because he is a one-dimensional character stripped of his humanity. What a gift.
And let’s not forget that as “The Sopranos” moved into its later seasons, Tony Soprano, in both girth and action, became an even bigger monster. By the end of the series, he was something much darker and crueler — much less sympathetic — than the man we first met.
This, obviously, was intentional — the price creator David Chase wanted us to pay for feeling anything sympathetic towards something so evil.
Evil portrayed realistically is much more chilling and off-putting than the one-dimensional kind.
Tony was fascinating, not appealing. Sure, we rooted for him, but only for him to leave the darkside. And again and again, he broke our hearts.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC