Magna Mater is latin for "Great Mother", and is an apt title for a series of posts about actresses who have mastered, revitalized or reinvented the role of "Mother" on TV or in film. Women, particularly women of a certain age, are really up against it in Hollywood's youth obsessed culture. So, it is important to take the time and recognize the great actresses who have overcome the myriad of obstacles placed before women and succeeded despite the industry's sexism and ageism.
The headliner for the first Magna Mater post is Edie Falco and her portrayal of Carmela Soprano on HBO's "The Sopranos". Falco won three much deserved Emmy awards for her work as Carmela, wife of mobster Tony Soprano (played by the late James Gandolfini) and mother to Meadow and AJ Soprano, her teen daughter and son.
As good as James Gandolfini was as Tony, (see my tribute to the actor and praise for his work in my "Requiem for a Heavyweight" post below), Falco is the one who really had to do the more subtle and complex work. Unlike Tony, Carmela CHOSE this life whereas Tony was born into it. Tony was unconscious in most of his actions, a slave to his voracious sexual, violent and power hungry appetites. Carmela on the other hand, was conscious of the nefarious ways that afforded her luxurious lifestyle but she chose to ignore it in order to maintain her comfortable life.
Carmela may have appeared a tacky New Jersey housewife, with her gaudy outfits and house, but a battle raged deep within her every moment of the day. She was smarter, tougher and more genuine than the other mob wives but, unlike the other wives, she earnestly struggled spiritually with the choice of living the good life through 'bad' means.
Carmela also wanted to be the voice of all that was good and right as opposed to Tony who was so tainted with the darkness of his work that he could never even understand his moral compass as much as he struggled with it, never mind be one to other people. Carmela would chastise Tony, AJ and Meadow for their moral failings, all the while knowing she was a moral failure as well. She would fight with Tony about his sexual escapades with other women, but failed to hold herself accountable for her emotional affair with the family priest. She would be furious with Tony for withholding things from her, but she wouldn't tell him of her fling with AJ's high school principal. She would agonize over AJ's lazy, entitled attitude toward life, but failed to see the moral compromises she made with her life in order to enjoy the good life that AJ enjoyed so much.
The key to Falco's performance is that she was able to be this walking contradiction while being very likable. Fair or not, this is the key for women, they must be likable even when they are being a 'nagging' mother or a 'bitching' wife. It is a high wire act for any actress, that's for sure. Falco was able to do it by filling the spaces in conversations, or altercations with a vivid inner life. In every scene she is in, it is what she doesn't say that is much more interesting than what she does say. She would have been a superstar of the silent movie era because she is able to express an entire complicated story with just a look or a touch.
Carmela is a woman with a vivid inner life and a lot of secrets. She keeps secrets from everyone with whom she has a relationship. She doesn't say everything she's thinking to her friends, to her priest, to her lover, to her kids or to Tony. She always holds something back even when she's been invited to speak freely. She is too smart to let anyone know absolutely everything.
A great way for the actor to build a vivid inner life that creates a dramatic tension in the open spaces of a scene, is for the actor to actually write out the things the character would want to say if given the chance, or if they had the courage or if they could be consequence free. Fill yourself with the speech you want to give, the speech where you can say everything you've ever wanted to say, and be ready to say it at any moment. Don't just write it out and think the work is done, be ready to say it, but choose not to in the scene. This technique fills the actor with a sense of mystery and having a secret, and quietly empowers both the character and the actor in the scene.
Another way to fill a character and a scene is with psychological intentions. Falco is phenomenal at psychological intentions. Just watch her scenes with the family priest to see this skill in action. She yearns for the priest to make a move on her, to kiss her, but he never does. Falco's yearning can be a result of creating a film that you play in your mind, for instance of your scene partner reaching over and grabbing you by the hair and kissing you passionately. The more vivid and specific the movie in your head, the more powerful the intention and the effective the performance, and the movie in your head should include not just visual sensations but touch, smell and taste. The film should be a multi-sensation, specific event for which you desperately yearn. Psychological intentions are a great way to fill yourself, the character and the scene and yet still be in the present moment. Intentions can also be tweaked to create a power dynamic between characters, for example, doing a scene where you have an intention for your scene partner to grab you and kiss you is very different than a scene where you want to grab and kiss your partner, it is a subtle difference in theory but a powerful one in practice.
So, Edie Falco shows us how to create an inner life in order to bring life to every moment we are on screen. Watch her work as Carmela and you'll see her struggling constantly to keep her inner life to herself. When her secrets finally do come out, in the finale of season 4, her explosion with Tony may be the single greatest piece of acting ever seen on television. It is so visceral, gut wrenching and electric you feel as if you shouldn't even be watching such a personal, intimate moment between two people. If you do watch this scene, also take note of Falco's use of breath to tap into emotion and express the armageddon of her character's emotional world. The scene is four years in the making, and all the work Falco did for every scene of every episode leading up to it, pays off in this ultimate climax of explosive truth and emotion. It is an absolute tour de force of a performance and one we should watch in the context of her work over the entire run of the show in order to fully appreciate it's otherworldly brilliance.
For her work as Carmela Soprano, Edie Falco is most deserving of the title Magna Mater, and Magna Actrix (great actress).