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Soprano's High Note

By Belinda Acosta

JULY 3, 2000:  When basketball great Michael Jordan retired, I made a vow. That vow was to take every opportunity to see a legend perform live. My reasoning was that you never know when a talent like Jordan was going to up and retire before you took the chance to see him in person, or in the case of some older, living legends, when they were going to check out. So far, I've seen Mercedes Sosa, B.B. King, Tito Puente (who passed away earlier this month), and Luciano Pavarotti here in Austin. There are other performers and sports figures I pine to see in person.

Regrettably, the chance to see one wonderful actress on my list has passed. Nancy Marchand died June 18 after a long battle with lung cancer.Though many TV fans are familiar with Marchand as the strong-willed Margaret Pynchon in Lou Grant (CBS, 1978-82), and later as the malicious Livia Soprano in HBO's The Sopranos, her early career is steeped in theatre. She performed on and off Broadway in regional theatre and in repertory theatre, moving with ease from William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, and Anton Chekhov to the contemporary works of A.R. Gurney, Clifford Odets, Peter Shaffer, and Christopher Durang. She won Obies (awards for Off-Broadway) for performances in Gurney's The Cocktail Hour and Jean Genet's The Balcony and Tony nominations for her work in Shaffer's Black Comedy and White Liars.

Her film work includes the remake of Sabrina, playing Harrison Ford's mother, and roles in The Bostonians, Jefferson in Paris, and The Hospital. But it is her work on television that has brought her the most widespread recognition. She won four Emmy awards for Outstanding Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Drama Series during the run of Lou Grant and received a Golden Globe for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for The Sopranos (2000). She shared an Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series and was nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series by the Screen Actors Guild, both for The Sopranos (2000).

Accolades aside, it was her work as Livia Soprano that made me admire her with an equal measure of awe and giddiness. She was my favorite actress on the show (followed by Edie Falco, who plays Tony's wife Carmela). When full-page ads, along with pullout, postcard-size inserts featuring key characters from the show were run in Entertainment Weekly prior to the show's second season, I collected them like baseball cards and continue to be miffed that no card of Livia was provided. There were cards with Tony (James Gandolfini), Carmela, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), and Silvio (Steve Van Zandt), but no Livia. I even went so far as to see if the newsstand edition of the magazine carried different versions of the card. My cursory investigation was negative, but if there's a Livia card out there, I'll gladly trade it for my Dr. Melfi.

Why Livia Soprano was my favorite character is hard to explain. The first thing that impressed me was that she was so different from the well-coifed Mrs. Pynchon that Marchand played in Lou Grant. As Livia, she was as frumpy as a garage sale couch. But as far as Mob mamas goes, she was no stoic, lace-shouldered granny relegated to stirring spaghetti sauce, anxiously crossing herself while consciously oblivious to the shady doings of her Mob son. Instead, Livia was sharp-witted, whiny, bitterly funny (usually at someone else's expense), mean, and blood-curdlingly manipulative. I loved her. But what I really loved was watching Marchand perform Livia so elegantly. In the hands of a lesser actress, Livia could have easily become a caricature. In fact, David Chase, the show's creator and executive producer, said it took some time before they found the Livia they were looking for.

"We were at the end of the casting process, almost all of the other roles were cast. There were some difficult roles to cast for this series, but the role of Livia was the worst," Chase said in an June 22 interview with Terry Gross on National Public Radio's Fresh Air. "Actresses, very gifted actresses came in, hundreds of them, and by and large, they would overplay it. They became very big, they played a totally psychotic version, or, it just wasn't good. It just wasn't there. We were despairing. Why is it that no one seems to get this? Then the name Nancy Marchand came up ... she came in, she read the scene, [and] she was Livia. She understood it completely."

In the beginning, Livia was to have died at the end of the first season, but was brought back for the second, a risky move given that she conspired to have her son Tony killed. Critics wondered: How to top that? Livia is already written into the third season, currently in development. Needless to say, those episodes will be re-written.

Though I never saw Marchand perform onstage, I will always savor her work in The Sopranos' important premiere season. In observing Marchand's finely hewn performance as Livia, I know I watched a legend at the top of her game. Because The Sopranos is an ensemble show, and because of the quality of its writing and production values, the show should survive the loss of Marchand. Still, The Sopranos without Livia? It's almost too much to imagine.

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