Death of the Alpha Male

“Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong silent type?”

James Gandolfini, 1961-2013
Benjamin Harris-Quinney
On 21 June 2013 08:01

The lead character in the Sopranos, played by James Gandolfini, would often ask, “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong silent type?” It was a reference to that character’s struggle with modernity, and the slow death of the alpha male that the 20th Century delivered.

In so many ways the Sopranos was about that; can the “old-school” alpha male, with all its fundamental failings, survive into the 21st century, and at what cost?

In his magnum opus, “The Sopranos”, and in almost everything else he contributed in his acting, James Gandolfini kept masculinity alive into the 21st Century. I owe a debt I can never repay for that example; all men do. Not only is following the instincts of masculinity acceptable in the 21st century, it is worthy of celebration, and Gandolfini’s work is now a touchstone for that celebration.

For a great, but lesser actor, Gandolfini would have simply been an artist operating out of his time, a throwback to an era when leading men were men, and Hollywood was a monument to the masculine ideal. What he has left in his canon of work is not a starving outpost of a bygone world, but a foundation that an incalculable number will build upon, in all walks of life.

It is in no way trite or emotional to talk about his contribution in these terms; there is a degree to which I know his work has influenced me personally. But far beyond that, the Sopranos was described by the Times literary critic as the greatest human achievement in the arts since Shakespeare; it transcends mere art into the fabric of civilisation. The series Sex and the City is often similarly referenced as a watershed moment in the public mind where women took the role of men. But the Sopranos was the shattering answer to that view, and unashamedly superior in every way.

It is perhaps representative of a wider transition, whereby cultural debate, and even kulturkampf, is no longer carried out in society in the corridors of power, but beamed directly into our homes. In that sense Gandolfini was as much a leader as he was an artist, and the beauty of the form is that his contribution will forever remain, at least as powerful as it was during his lifetime.  

Lord Heseltine once told me that “all the lessons of politics, and of the life of those concerned with power, are contained within the works of Shakespeare”. The same is now true of Gandolfini’s work, with equal consideration to his co-contributors. As George Fabricus said: “Death comes to us all. But great achievements build a monument which shall endure until the sun grows cold”.

Tony’s favourite scene from the Godfather is explained in the Sopranos as “when they go back to the old country, with the crickets”.  It is somewhat poetic that Gandolfini passed in Italy, a New Jersey citizen through and through, but one that made his life on the eternal conflict of the new country and the old. 

Ben Harris-Quinney is Chairman of the Bow Group and Director of Conservative Grassroots

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