People who are beautiful like we are
In film, faces and bodies are part of a visual language which communicates the nature of a fictional world. Take the smooth, generically beautiful faces of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which notably includes seven movies headlined by tall, muscular white men named “Chris.” Outside the realm of mainstream blockbusters, though, art speaks in a dialect both more familiar and less readily digestible. Faces and bodies outside the main—though among actors men are afforded a much wider range of physical variation than women—can find a place in profound fiction. What’s more, their bodies can help to push that fiction outside of cultural comfort zones and into much deeper and more interesting territory.
Scrutinizing other people’s appearances brings analysis into a space both deeply sensitive and extremely personal, a space the thoughtful inclusion of distinctive bodies invites us to explore. David Chase’s acclaimed mafia series The Sopranos, the first of the great “prestige” dramas, is an extended study in unique faces and bodies. From series star James Gandolfini’s bulbous nose, splayed teeth, and sloping shoulders to Denise Borino-Quinn’s expansive figure and towering hairdo as Ginny Sacrimoni, the show’s meticulous casting produced a slate of characters as visually distinct as the cast of Looney Tunes.
Close to Home
The foundational strength of The Sopranos’ visually diverse cast is the sense of immersion it creates. These people’s lives make sense in the context of their appearances. Their personalities—Janice Soprano’s (Aida Turturro) insecurity, Uncle Junior’s (Dominic Chianese) embittered also-ran spitefulness, Adriana La Cerva’s (Drea de Matteo) meticulous, almost survivalist upkeep of her beauty—speak volumes about the experience of living in their bodies. Shows with casts of conventionally attractive actors can’t explore material about appearance with the same depth or veracity.
Consider Paulie Gualtieri (Tony Sirico), an aging captain in Tony’s crime family. His perpetual scowl, over-tanned and leathery skin, and the bizarre silver streaks in his hair express his fear of death and old age as clearly as his actions and dialogue. He looks physically deflated, his undiminished capacity for violence draped in baggy skin which draws taut only during fits of rage or frustration, his loose mouth pulling tight over his teeth, his eyes bulging in cartoonish fury. Sirico’s skill as an actor aside, the character has a depth of lived-in viciousness and bluster which simply wouldn’t be possible without his particular physique, just as Tony’s hulking frame makes his authority and the fear and deference others show him more believable.
This sense of immersion also serves to deepen emotional investment in the show’s characters. How attached can you really get to someone whose screen-perfect body is wholly alien to your life? The professionally beautiful carry a sense of unreality with them wherever they go. The Sopranos invites a deeper sense of intimacy, its cast made up of people most of whom wouldn’t look out of place at any given family reunion or suburban barbecue. This is not to say the cast of The Sopranos is unattractive—a patently ridiculous thing to claim once you’ve seen James Gandolfini as Tony throw his mistress over one shoulder—but that their bodies lie outside the visual easy listening of mainstream stardom, that they’re attractive in subversive and culturally complicated ways. They’re people who are beautiful like we are.
Beauty and Ugliness
Our cultural struggle with body image and insecurity touches all of us in different ways. The Sopranos looks at that struggle with insight, empathy, and an unparalleled understanding of the callous cruelty with which we judge and ridicule other bodies to release the pressure of despising our own. When Tony and his cousin Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi) crack jokes about Christopher’s (Michael Imperioli) prominent nose over dinner, the impression is of two men deeply insecure in their own appearances but able to conceal that insecurity and who recognize in the younger, more emotionally volatile Christopher an inability to do so. By driving him to tears they can’t bring themselves to shed, they process their own emotions in the only way they know how.
Insults about appearances drive many of the show’s conflicts both large and small. “You know that fat cocksucker says I look like the Shah of Iran?” New York mob boss Phil Leotardo complains to his underlings. Their transparently false assurances that they don’t see the resemblance, while hilarious, reveal that the show’s crime families serve as much as maintenance systems for the self-image of their bosses as they do muscle. Think of the uneasy silence with which an increasingly overweight Tony’s claims that he needs to get back to the gym are met by his capos. The brutality of the show’s most hardened characters inevitably reveals not strength, but vulnerability.
The Sopranos deals with issues of beauty mostly through avoidance, cruelty, and sexually aggressive come-ons. Its men are largely shielded from evaluation based on looks, its women ruthlessly picked apart by both the men around them and each other. When Adriana privately derides Carmela’s body for its stretch marks and age, she’s revealing not her own disgust but her fear of being labeled disgusting, less than perfectly desirable. The abuse she goes through at her fiance Christopher’s hands makes it clear her fears are well-founded, that her appeal to him is crucial to her very survival. Everyone from Christopher to the FBI agents who surveil her tennis matches displays a towering entitlement to her body, ignoring her personality and the danger in which she lives in favor of ogling and coveting her. They’re interested in her beauty only so far as it can get them off, or enhance their image through association.
In one story arc, an off-color fat joke told by Soprano captain Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) about Ginny Sacrimoni nearly triggers all-out war between the Sopranos and the Lupertazzi crime syndicate. Ginny’s husband John, denied satisfaction and unable to accept this latest in an endless series of insults to his wife, orders an unsanctioned hit on Ralph. In trying to make others understand his outrage, he says to Tony and his capos of his wife “to me she’s always been beautiful. Rubenesque.” Their incredulity is as ugly as his unaffected love for his wife is both touching and, ultimately, destructive to his credibility as a mob underboss.
John calls off the hit after he finds Ginny binge-eating in the laundry room of their home, recognizing not that Ralph is innocent, but that he can’t protect his wife from the world’s cruelty without destroying their lives. “I see the way men look at the other wives,” Ginny tells him, despairing. “Don’t I look at you that way?” he asks her. It’s one of many scenes in which privately, quietly, the show’s characters are forced to reckon with the prisons of their own appearances. To see both the misery and adoration present in that suffering can be transformative, a way for viewers to expand their own capacity for empathy, to extend to more bodies, more outsiders, the same tenderness usually reserved for the conventionally desirable. Our very frame of reference for beauty itself can, given an open heart and enough exposure, transform from a tool of selection and judgment to one of loving acceptance.