Tag Archives: Nucky Johnson

James Gandolfini

Not many actors get to portray a character so perfectly that they burn themselves into popular culture. James Gandolfini played the conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano so well that not only did he become forever linked to the character, he added the entire Mafia family to the stockpile of things in which New Jerseyans take ironic pride — hey, we got Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, lotsa Superfund sites and we got Tony Soprano! I felt it when my California in-laws, who had always considered New Jersey something of a practical joke on the rest of the country, suddenly took a keen interest in places like Kearny and the Caldwells.

Shortly after the BBC began airing the show, I was talking on the telephone to a British investment banker with a great toff accent, who idly asked what part of the U.S. I was calling from. When I said “Hoboken” he gasped. “That’s where the Sopranos live!”

“Well, not exactly,” I said. “You know that bridge he drives across in the opening credits . . . “

Another gasp, this one a little louder. “I know that bridge! That’s the New Jersey Turnpike!”

I’ll spare you the details of how I gave a lesson in North Jersey geography to a Tory in the City of London, but I will say that even when the series was at its wobbly, self-indulgent, let’s-see-how-we-can-justify-staying-on-the-HBO-sugar-tit-for-another-season worst, I felt a link to The Sopranos. Partly it was commercial: the appearance of the Pulaski Skyway in the opening credits was an easy hook to use whenever I did author appearances in connection with The Last Three Miles. But it was in large part due to Gandolfini’s artistry.

Like Viggo Mortensen, Gandolfini excelled at conveying the sense of deep currents of thought and emotion going on beneath an impassive exterior. Silvio, Paulie Walnuts and the rest of the mob cast became cartoon characters as the show staggered through its last three seasons, but Tony Soprano stayed real, thanks to Gandolfini’s immensely subtle talent.  During the show’s first season, Gandolfini’s switching between the paternal and the predatory made “College” the most perfectly realized episode in the only perfectly realized season. One of my favorite moments in The Sopranos comes when a dirty cop on the mobster’s payroll complains about how he’s perpetually broke. Tony tells him he should stop gambling because he loses so much. “Yeah, well I got two bills on Rutgers this weekend,” the cop says, and Tony replies, in a tone that shows he can barely keep from rolling his eyes, “That’ll solve all your problems.” Gandolfini may have done booster commercials for the Scarlet Knights, but whenever I hear about the latest ups and downs in my alma mater’s Big Time Football crusade, I think of him delivering that line.

Gandolfini did good and even great work after The Sopranos: as a played-out hit man in Killing Them Softly he gave a much-needed shot of oxygen to a film that really should have worked much better than it did. His performance as the father in Not Fade Away, directed by Sopranos mastermind David Chase, showed he still had talent and artistry to burn. There have been a lot of tributes to Gandolfini in the wake of his untimely death, but I particularly like this one from Glenn Kenny, who explains exactly what made him so great in Not Fade Away. As for Kenny’s closing line, all I can say is yes.

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The highway of the future is a thing of the past

It had to happen sooner or later. The Pulaski Skyway, subject of my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, will closed to eastbound drivers for two years of repair work. The state will close the span early in 2014, following Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife LAST3MILESStadium. Apparently two lanes of outward-bound traffic will remain open throughout the project, but anyone heading for New York City needs another plan.

If you want to prepare for the traffic delays, why not pick up a copy of The Last Three Miles and read about the design flaws and eleventh-hour political interference that made the Hudson County span the rollercoaster of terror it is today? Or marvel at the machinations of political boss Frank Hague, one of the biggest players in the Skyway saga, and the bloody labor war that broke out when one of Hague’s former allies, labor czar Teddy Brandle, clashed with the anti-union contractors building the causeway? It’s also available as an ebook and there’s an audio version capably read by the great Dion Graham, whose other audiobook performances put me in some damn flattering company. (He also played Rupert Bond in the later seasons of The Wire, which I never get tired of bragging about.) 

And while we’re on the subject of Hudson County and the Pulaski Skyway, this is as good a place as any to begin announcing that this coming fall will see the publication of American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine, due out from Rutgers University Press. I’ll have a website and Facebook page up for the book later in the year. It’s the cornerstone of what future generations will know as The Year of the Hat Trick, about which more anon.


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Casino Royale with cheese

So I just get finished going back over some research into Atlantic City during its golden Nucky Johnson era, and I overhear a conversation in which an old lady talks about getting hit with a mobility scooter while she was waiting on line at the new Revel casino.

Peaches and cream, baby.

I want to write a James Bond script in which 007 tries to play bacarat at an Atlantic City casino and gets run down by an old lady on a Medicare moped. After that parkour chase at the start of Casino Royale, they need to take their stunt work in a new direction. Rosa Klebb on a mobility scooter — that would just rock.

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Everything’s ducky with Nucky

If you’re in the area of Union Township next week, come by the Union Public Library to hear me hold forth on the career of Atlantic City political boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. I’ll probably also work in some stuff on Frank Hague, the man who just barely beats out Nucky for the title of America’s greatest political boss, and I’ll be selling copies of my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway.

The talk is set for Tuesday, March 1, at 7 p.m.

The library is at 1980 Morris Avenue in Union. For more info, you can call the reference desk at (908) 851-5450, ext. 5452.

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Nucky and me

Apropos my remarks on Boardwalk Empire, somebody sent me a link to a piece that’s a couple of months old, but still speaks for a lot of naysayers:

As long as nobody’s talking, there is a restless, melancholic beauty that can make you feel like you’re watching something of substance.

But therein lies the rub: the writing so far is kind of crap, and casting Steve Buscemi as the main character Nucky Johnson will either go down as one of the most interesting risks in television history or one of the most bizarre decisions since Charleton Heston played that Mexican guy in Touch of Evil. To the first point, I love movies that minimize cussing in period pieces and take advantage of all the weird things people said at any given time. I’m sure people dropped f-bombs in the 20s, but I also bet they didn’t drop as many; why would you when you could say, “I caught that hotsy-totsy dumb dora utterly splifficated in her flivver after they gimme the bum’s rush for breakin’ out the giggle water in the juke joint. Dollars to doughnuts, she ain’t no Mrs. Grundy!” Writers need to research their periods as meticulously as any of the other artists on the set, and the amount of profanity in BE is just plain lazy, particularly given the richness of the period lexicon. It would all be more forgivable if there were some fresheness to the story, but, man, this shit looks familiar. (Couldn’t they have at least tried to make the nighttime chase in the woods a little different from the better one in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies? It’s only been a year!) It’s hard to give a rat’s ass about anything that takes place onscreen, except when MacDonald and Graham show up, which is when you wish extra hard that they had better material.

Better material? Better material? Atlantic City was the southern pole of the New York area rum line, with schooners and freighters anchored just outside U.S. territorial waters selling crates of booze as fast as the contact boats could load them. Nucky was half gangster, half booster, strutting along the Boardwalk with a fresh-cut carnation in his lapel, dispensing favors and cash, cutting deals with Warren Harding one day and negotiating gangster disputes the next. Guy hosted a mobster convention in 1929 that drew Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Thompson-toting thugs from as far off as Detroit and New Orleans. If you can’t make a great film out of material like that, you need to find another line of work.

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Frankly (Haguely) speaking

The single worst line of dialogue in all of movies can be found in the 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when a newspaper editor says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I hate the line for its smugly cynical attitude, its pseudo cleverness, and its hollow knowingness, but above all I hate it because it’s wrong. The facts are always more interesting than the legend. Always.

That’s why the more I learn about the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, the less interested I am in actually watching it. That’s despite — or because of — the fact that I’m fascinated by the role played by New Jersey and Atlantic City during Prohibition, the phenomenon of the urban political boss, and the career of Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, who reigned over Atlantic City during its hooch-soaked heyday. I’ve also written a book, The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, in which one of the key players is Frank Hague, Nucky’s contemporary and the only man qualified to best him for the title of Greatest Political Boss. All of which is to say I know enough about the subject to be interested in seeing Boardwalk Empire, and interested enough in the subject to know I’m going to be disappointed by what I see.

First of all, casting Steve Buscemi as the strapping Nucky Johnson (renamed “Nucky Thompson” in the show) is miscasting on the scale of . . . jeez, I can hardly think of a comparison. How about casting Pee-wee Herman as Jake LaMotta? How about hiring a weasel to play a bear? Buscemi’s a fine actor, but Nucky is not his role. As for Nucky himself, he wasn’t the type to have competitors machine-gunned or sent out for a swim with Chicago galoshes. If Nucky took a dislike to somebody, he would make life so difficult for that person that the offending party would haul stakes and roll out of town.

Second, the recent episode in which Hague drops in on Nucky makes it pretty clear the show is really only interested in reshuffling stereotypes about political bosses, rather than diving into the messy, contradictory, fascinating reality. The episode shows Hague (at left) smoking a stogie and knocking back bootleg hooch while a tootsie serenades him on the ukelele, preliminary to a round of tomcatting under Nucky’s genial sponsorship. This is ridiculous: Hague was a teetotaler, a lifelong hypochondriac who never smoked and frowned upon sexual vice. (Operatives in his Hudson County machine were expected to be stable family men.) He opposed Prohibition and was happy to let bootleggers pay to operate within his jurisdiction, but in his personal life Hague was a good Catholic boy.

Turning Frank Hague into a stereotypical boss is not only lazy, it makes for lax drama. How much more interesting to show this abstemious dictator willing to deal with vice-sodden gangsters, but all the while quietly judging them and making sure they paid dearly for their operations. Hague and Nucky, both pragmatists from opposing political parties, worked together on a few occasions, notably to screw over one of  Hague’s longtime political foes in a gubernatorial race. I’m not saying Boardwalk Empire should traffick in the minutiae of New Jersey politics, but when I hear one of the lines its gives to Hague —  “I’m a simple man. All I need is a bed, the love of a good woman, and an envelope about so thick” — it’s pretty clear the show is interested in Hollywood notions of political bosses rather than the real thing.

It’s an old story: Filmmakers are drawn to a historical subject because it seems tailor-made for a film treatment, but getting the film made involves so much fictionalization that the end result bears little relation to its inspiration. I’ve long thought that the purest fiction in movies is always accompanied by the words “Based on a true story,” and it looks like Boardwalk Empire follows that tradition to the letter.

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