THEY LAUGH, they cry. They love, they hate. They whine, they whack.
Gangsters do it all.
From Edward G. Robinson's '30s dying wiseguy wail, "Mother of mercy,
is this the end of Rico?" to the "Godfather"flicks of the '70s to the
current favorite, HBO's comedy-drama "The Sopranos," we've long been
mesmerized by the mob. How come?
"Wiseguys aren't radicals, they are not serial killers, and they are
not political," says "Sopranos" creator David Chase. "They're very
bourgeois, in a sense. So I think, in a way, people get satisfaction out
of seeing people who are not that dissimilar to them always getting what
they want and acting out their greatest fantasies."
Those particular outlaw fantasies rise to the top of the showbiz
trend list about once a generation. The '30s movie gangsters of Robinson
and James Cagney were revived in the '50s TV hit "The Untouchables,"
where vintage wrong-doers like Al Capone and Frank Nitti romped for an
hour before "untouchable" G-man Robert Stack roped 'em in. These
mobsters were still low rent, nasty and brisk, the stuff of cheap action
Their next incarnation, however, would raise them to high art:
Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" won 1972's Best Picture
Academy Award as what Leonard Maltin calls "the 1970s' answer to `Gone
With the Wind', " an epic, elegiac study not of the mob's criminal
actions but instead its complex people and their "business" structure.
Marlon Brando brought the film prestige, and the film brought stardom to
Niro, playing the younger Don Corleone. "Godfather II" became the only
sequel to earn its own best picture Oscar, actually enlarging the story
to an even more sweeping view of the hows and whys of "family" life,
taking in the previous and the succeeding generations. This saga staked
out the contemporary gangster territory that would later be compellingly
explored by Coppola compatriots Martin Scorsese ("GoodFellas) and
Jonathan Demme ("Married to the Mob).
And now it's time once again for another new twist.
With its surprise-hit first season climaxing Sunday, April 4, at 9
p.m. HBO's "The Sopranos" cannily traces the travails of a fictional
suburban New Jersey boss who turns to psychotherapy and Prozac under the
pressure of a changing, uh, "industry," not to mention a parade of
relations seething with resentments, needs and complaints. ("Sometimes I
think if one `family' doesn't kill me, the other family will," goes the
HBO promo.) HBO has already ordered a second season, to air in 2000.
Coincidentally in movie theaters, reliable wiseguy De Niro plays a
comedy "Analyze This." Both efforts leaven their violence with
light-hearted looks at their lovable lugs, amusing us a la "Prizzi's
Honor," in 1985. (Just to show a trend usually has a more obscure
antecedent, there's the 1997 cable spoof "National Lampoon's `The Don's
his brain doc.)
What's behind the sudden surge of interest in mobsters' minds?
"Sopranos" creator Chase quotes John Boorman, director of last year's
Irish gang flick "The General": "He thinks it has something to do with
this society . . . where there's a huge government and everything is
fractured. Mob stories are tribal stories. They get back to the
elemental tribal clan thing, and that's the appeal. And I think that's
as good an answer as any."
Elemental is indeed the key word in the modern wave. "The mob is
not only an immigrant story, a story of class and a part of our recent
history, but it's a part of American mythology, with just a lot of great
stories in there." says HBO original programing president Chris
Albrecht, who bought "The Sopranos" after the commercial networks
passed. Those recognizable character types and tales are an immediate
lure to viewers, admits Albrecht, "but it really wasn't the mob part of
the show that appealed to us. I think the mob part is what makes you
watch the rest of the show" - which turns out to be about "people who
from an emotional point of view have completely relatable problems and
WHEN "waste management consultant" Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini)
isn't busy assaulting delinquent loan payers, chiseling unions or
whacking mob informants, he's setting up his failing mother in a
"retirement community," attending his kids' soccer games, or driving the
New Jersey Turnpike to his stylish upscale home in his trendy
So "The Sopranos" strikes a chord not just with mob mavens and action
fans but with a broader constituency than the usual gangster tale. It's
quickly become HBO's most-viewed series, reaching more than 10 million
viewers during its four weekly airings. The show's weekly Sunday
premiere achieves nearly an 8 rating, which even much-hyped cable
wrestling shows do not reach.
Tony Soprano has become, for many discriminating viewers, one of the
"He is a father, a husband, a son, a nephew, just like everyone
else," says J. Geoff Malta, a New Jerseyan who runs the Internet's
premier site on the three "Godfather" films (http://www.jgeoff
.com/godfather) and now includes info on "The Sopranos," which he loves.
"Before the show came out, I was a little concerned about yet another
`mob' title. But `The Sopranos' is much more than that - it's a
comedy, it's a drama, it's more like `alleged' real life."
No kidding. Tony Soprano confessed in January as he met his shrink,
Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco of "GoodFellas"), that he felt he'd arrived
too late to be in on "the ground floor" of the mob game. "I came in at
the end. The best is over," he moaned. Where previous generations "had
standards, they had pride," now "it's all changing," Tony gripes.
"Mobsters are selling screenplays and screwing everything up!" As his
screw-up nephew and resentful made-man wannabe Christopher (Michael
Imperioli) complains, "Guys are runnin' off, not listening to middle
management." And Tony's having anxiety attacks.
Why? Societal change. These kids today. No respect for authority.
Everybody out for himself. Chaos. There's a sense of pilfered
entitlement: As one mob functionary complains at a Starbucks-style
coffee emporium, "How did we miss out on this? We [Italians] invented
AND TONY'S GOT a current awareness of his "general stress level."
His wife (Edie Falco) is socially ambitious and way too friendly with
her parish priest. His sweet sledgehammer of a mother (Nancy Marchand of
"Lou Grant") is playing passive-aggressive games with his brain and,
worse, his jealous elderly uncle (Dominic Chianese), thinks he should be
running things. And Tony's kids are growing up too fast, surfing the Web
for mob sites showing what dad does for a living. Free-floating rage and
frustration waft through his circle of wiseguy pals.
Who doesn't identify?
"The joke for me," series creator Chase (whose previous productions
include "I'll Fly Away" and "Northern Exposure") says by phone from his
Santa Monica office last week "is that we live in this very
materialistic, narcissistic, selfish, `get out of my - - - way' era.
And Tony Soprano, a member of the mob, who invented me-first, is sick to
death of it. What he sees around him in society is too much for him,
That's why America has responded so strongly to "The Sopranos."
Chase's mobsters aren't outsiders. They're consummate in-siders, virtual
all-Americans. Their creator's delving eye assumes the normalcy of his
characters' environment. He doesn't excuse their actions - the fifth
of this season's 13 episodes opened our eyes when Tony mixed his
daughter's prosaic New England college tour with a nasty old-fashioned
informant rub-out, unsettling our souls with the notion of just how
close to this "family" man / killer we'd become - but Chase sets these
events in an altogether ordinary context.
Maybe it's because Chase, a north Jersey native whose family's name
was originally De Cesare, created the series from the deepest, most
personal parts of himself. When the idea started forming, "I was in a
period of conflict with my mother at the time, and I was also in
therapy. He'd additionally been a fan of real-life mob tales and
Hollywood gangster flicks since childhood, when he caught Cagney's
"Public Enemy" on TV and "found it very, very scary - when they bring
him to his mother's door all wrapped up in bandages and `I'm Forever
Blowing Bubbles' is playing on the stereo. I had trouble sleeping for a
couple of nights.
"They say the way you master what you're afraid of is to embrace
it," he muses. Somehow, "I just began to think about the mob, and I
began to think about who were the mothers of these mobsters, because you
never see them portrayed except in the background." Finally, "The
Sopranos" began to jell: "The idea was a guy would be fighting for
survival in the mob, and his mother would take sides, and his therapy
problems would be sort of worked out on the street."
Tony Soprano is that guy, sitting down and actually thinking, for
the first time, about just what he does for a living, and how his life
took shape this way. Series star Gandolfini calls his character "pretty
tragic." He sees him as "a guy that's just trying to do the right thing
a lot of the time. Just because he happens to be in the mob doesn't mean
that you can't try to do the right thing. It's just that the way his
head is screwed on, the right thing to him is a little different from
the right thing to everybody else."
IN OTHER words, he's just a guy in his world, not a bad guy. This
show, and many of the other current portrayals, don't work from
traditional definitions of good and evil. We don't find ourselves
pulling for guys we know are bad because of their force of personality
(Cagney, Robinson) or because we've been welcomed into their world ("The
Godfather"). We're with the new breed (often with mixed emotions)
because they're individuals we come to understand from the inside out.
And they're folks we can relate to on a personal level. In the eyes of
guys like Tony Soprano - and maybe ours, too - society is going to
hell in a handbasket, and they're looking to solidify their own little
piece of purgatorial sanctuary.
Carving out a place in a hostile world is the ultimate motivation
behind today's gangster portraits. While that's always been in their
makeup to some extent, it's perceived in "The Sopranos" and other new
portrayals as not just a plot device but a deep-rooted psychological
source of their behavior. Cagney gloried in living outside the law.
These guys don't.
They're actually "businessmen," it was argued at several
mob-related sessions during TV critics' midseason press tour by the
actors who portray them. "I have a sneaking suspicion that Meyer Lansky
didn't think of himself as a gangster," said Richard Dreyfuss, star of
last month's HBO "Lansky" film. "I think that he thought of himself as
a gambler, which was a business - a slightly shady business but a
Agreeing was Martin Landau, who plays Joe Bonanno in Showtime's
six-hour summer production "Bonanno: A Godfather's Story," for which
Bonanno's son Bill acts as executive producer. Landau maintains, "Joe
Bonanno left Sicily because he didn't want to join up with the Fascists.
He didn't like the Black Shirts. He was a very strong-willed man, and he
came here to become a businessman, and he did."
In a sense, the sort of wiseguys we see in "The Sopranos" have
become a kind of crime establishment - if not approved by American
society, then at least ingrained. That's why Showtime is devoting six
hours to the Bonanno chronicle, which covers 100 years. Bonanno's son
Bill notes his father "was involved with presidents, was involved with
president-makers, was involved with almost every conceivable integral
part of American history during the 20th Century . . . We're hearing the
story of a group of people who came over here from a small island in the
Mediterranean and, against overwhelming odds, had an impact on American
But how did they have that impact? That's what troubles many who see
gangster portrayals through the decades as glorifying a criminal
lifestyle. While "The Sopranos," say, certainly eschews the old studio
backlots and the lush romanticism of "The Godfather" for a grittier feel
- Chase argues "it's one of the only mob shows I know of note that's
contemporary" or doesn't seem to take place "in a sort of timeless era"
- it still asks us to empathize weekly with willing, often ruthless
lawbreakers, for whom we end up rooting in sometimes discomfiting ways.
Again, shades of gray. Just ask Bill Bonanno when he went legit. One
critic at the Showtime press conference does, and Bonanno replies
squarely, "As far as I'm concerned, I've always been legit" - even
though Showtime's film shows him running his father's operation, and he
admits that if asked about murder or dirty money, "I'd have to take the
"You see, this is part of what this movie is about," Bonanno
contends. "What we're trying to do with this movie is to remove some of
these misconceptions that you have."
That's what the new-wave gangsters do: Lend a fresh face to people
and activities that had become cliches of a genre grown stale. Then
these shows delve beneath that surface, into their protagonists' minds,
guts and souls. "The Sopranos" and other current films zoom in for a
psychological close-up. Then, they zoom out to place those motivations
in a wider cultural context. While today's mobsters sometimes celebrate
well-worn gangster images - the "Sopranos" guys love parroting lines
from the "Godfather" flicks - their films employ these cliches as a
basis from which to examine not just the guys who've gone wrong but the
society in which they undertake their misdeeds.
That's a society of which we are all a part. Emotionally at least,
the new wave makes us an offer so personal, we can't refuse.
The Long Island Connection
NEW JERSEY accents, Long Island accents - does the rest of the
country know the difference? Probably not. Anything vaguely New York-y
sounds right, so three Long Island women fill key roles in "The
Lorraine Bracco ("GoodFellas") actually subdues her trademark
streetwise city sound to play "Sopranos" psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi. A
native of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where she picked up that rough-and-tumble
attitude, Bracco moved with her family to Westbury when she was in the
fourth grade. Suddenly the in-charge tomboy was a minority in a Jewish
neighborhood. "Well, it was enlightening," she'd recall years later.
"Suddenly my whole world was in reverse." Not bad training for playing
the "Sopranos" shrink thrust against her will into the midst of the mob
Edie Falco (HBO's "Oz," Broadway's "Sideman") had no problem talking
like Carmela Soprano, mobster Tony's upwardly mobile, shopaholic wife.
She just used "the accent I grew up hearing on Long Island . . . the one
that I went to four years of acting school to get rid of." Falco spent
her early years in West Islip, then moved to Northport during high
school. She doesn't have kids of her own, "so I had no idea what that
was gonna feel like [playing the mother of two] . . . but they
[Soprano's kids] are two of the greatest . . . It came to me quicker
than I thought it would - just a sort of maternal thing."
One of those kids, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, still lives in Jericho. She's
finishing high school at Jericho High School and, like her character of
eldest Soprano child Meadow, is applying to colleges. Accepted early to
New York University, she plans to major in psychology. (Maybe she'll
finally understand TV dad Tony.) She's been performing since the age of
3, and counts her big break as starring in "Annie" at Hofstra, a tape of
which impressed an agent who's been finding her professional work since
seventh grade. She'd like to keep acting, but looks forward to being a
theater therapist working with disabled children.
And what about "Sopranos" star James Gandolfini ("A Civil Action,"
"8mm")? He's a 37-year-old native of the New Jersey suburbs, where his
star-making series takes place and also films. "Just being on location
helps a great deal," he says. "To shoot something like this in L.A.
would be bizarre."
Coming Soon: More Mob Tales
`THE SOPRANOS' keeps getting hotter in viewer word-of-mouth this spring
partly because it's a series that has a chance to build over a span of
13 weeks. But TV has also hit paydirt over the past several seasons
with mob portrayals in movies and mini-series ("The Last Don," "Bella
Mafia") - and more are
on the way.
CBS is looking at the pilot for "Falcone," a fall series contender
starring Jason Gedrick, veteran of both "Don" and "EZ Streets" (a failed
1996 CBS series about Irish wiseguys). It's spun off the fact-based 1997
movie "Donnie Brasco," in which Johnny Depp was an undercover agent
getting increasingly sucked in by his criminal quarry, Al Pacino.
Real life is more and more where TV seems to be heading in portraying
the mob lifestyle: NBC's "Witness to the Mob" (1998), about Sammy
Gravano and John Gotti; HBO's "Sugartime" (1995) about Sam Giancana,
`Gotti" (1997) with Armand Assante, and last month's "Lansky," with
Among upcoming productions, HBO has scheduled the June movie
"Excellent Cadavers," about prosecutors bringing the Italian Mafia to
justice, filmed in Rome and Palermo with Chazz Palminteri and F. Murray
Also this summer, Showtime lets 94-year-old Five Families don Joseph
Bonanno recount his own life in the six-hour epic "Bonanno: A
Godfather's Story." It's produced by his 66-year-old son, Bill, (who's
also a key character in the tale), and it stars Bruce Ramsay and Martin
Landau as the don at different stages of his life, with support from
Edward James Olmos, Costas Mandylor and Patti LuPone.
The Mob on TV
The Sopranos: Final episode of the first season premieres Sunday, April
4 at 9 p.m. on HBO. Additional airings: Tuesday at 11 p.m., Thursday
night at midnight, early Sunday at 12:45 a.m. Repeats of the entire
season begin June 9.
Films this month include:
Gotti (1996) with Armand Assante and Anthony Quinn, HBO Plus, Sunday,
April 4 at 11 a.m.
National Lampoon's The Don's Analyst (1997) with Robert Loggia, Movie
Channel, Sunday, April 4 at 7:15 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.
Al Capone (1959) with Rod Steiger, AMC, April 5 at noon.
The Untouchables (1987) with Kevin Costner and Robert De Niro, Cinemax,
Friday night at 2 a.m.; also on The Movie Channel, Thursday at 7 p.m.
Mafia! (1998) spoof with Lloyd Bridges' last role, PPV, currently
Prizzi's Honor (1985) black comedy with Jack Nicholson and Anjelica
Huston, HBO, April 12.
Hoodlum (1997) with Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth and Andy Garcia, The
Movie Channel, April 14.
The Valachi Papers (1972) with Charles Bronson, Encore, April 15.
The Godfather Part III (1990) with Al Pacino, USA, April 20-21, (two