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The American Dream Darkly

By Gary Foss | August 17, 2021

The American Dream Darkly

Gangster stories are often a dark take on the American dream—from rags to riches to riddled with bullets. A mobster may wear an impeccably tailored suit, but the audience knows that dapper ensemble always comes with a matching pair of cement shoes.

When The Sopranos premiered, the show creators recognized they were part of a continuity of the mafia genre. The cast was drawn from mobster movie veterans, and the characters did not just reference films, but quoted whole monologues. One of the ground-breaking aspects of the series that as the show progressed, it became a purveyor of the genre itself. Furthermore, the show arrived when cable companies and premium channels were transitioning into production. Over the course of six seasons, the characters became icons in their own right, and upstart HBO would be an established media empire. Great stories have well-developed backstories. Now the history of those characters is expanded in the prequel The Many Saints of Newark. The film takes place during the tumultuous period of Tony Soprano’s childhood, his younger incarnation portrayed by James Gandolfini’s son, Michael. The 1967 riots raged in the streets of Newark, and the shifting social dynamics permeated society, including the subculture of organized crime. Costume designer Amy Westcott walked into that underworld from the lofty heights of The OA and Entourage. To portray the lifestyles of the rich and infamous, she drew inspiration from real life. “There was so much research. Getting high school yearbooks to see what kids actually looked like was really important. One day I got a call from Alessandro Nivola, ‘Dickie’ Moltisanti who was in a church in Newark and the priest had given him a tour of the catacombs where there was all this history. He took pictures and texted them to me. That was amazing. But David Chase, writer/producer, was integral because he knows that area and knows what is going to fly in that time period. It was awesome to work with David because he changed television as we knew it. When he would weigh in, it was like E.F. Hutton talking. Everybody would be quiet and listen to what David had to say.” As a prequel, the film is a period piece. Two periods, really, as the story jumps from the ’60s to the ’70s. But the format gave Westcott a freedom she might not have had if the film were a sequel. “The film is its own entity,” she explains. “It wasn’t necessarily hooked to the show, so I approached it like a period film. The shift between 1967 and 1971 was pretty huge, fashion-wise. There was a lot happening in the world.” The flashy, stylish image of a mafioso is most embodied in Dickie Moltisanti whose charm and charisma are admired by young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini) and envied by others.

“It was all bespoke on Dickie’s character. I can’t even count how many fittings we had because it had to be perfect. I kept thinking of the Rat Pack and Frank Sinatra. I have to thank Anthony Gilberto who made a lot of our suits. He’s a genius. Jonathan Nichier was my head tailor and he is amazing. I can’t say enough about my tailor shop because Jonathan is responsible for all of the dresses that Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi) wore. He had them fitting her like a glove. It was amazing.”

Young Tony Soprano (played at 10 years old by William Ludwig) isn’t yet the jaded, sometimes troubled character fans of the television series know. Westcott had to address a mini-time jump to coincide with that of the film.

“We did reshoots a year later and that kid grew a lot. We went up in sizes, but we had to keep the same style about him. He was trying to feel out who he was really through his clothing changes, and trying to emulate his uncle. So we kept him in the same color family as his uncle he idolized.”

Given the time jump, Westcott made sure to maintain a color palette for each of the characters so they could be more easily tracked by the audience despite the shift in silhouette and fashion from the ’60s to the ’70s. “Livia and her icy blues and greens. She’s a cold character and a bit sad and disgruntled and her colors were trying to keep that side of her.” Conversely, she put warmer palette on Giuseppina. “She’s the heat and fire of the film, so I used a lot of orange and purple and reds and greens. Coming from Italy, she had a goddess quality. I used references like Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor. In the ’70s, she gets more American, so I turned her colors more toward the jewels and gave her some Jane Birkin type, shorter dresses.”

Teenage Tony Soprano sports a letterman’s jacket that reflects his innocence. “It was part of how he pictured his life differently.

He wanted to go to college, not follow the family. He wanted to be a kid in a lot of ways. That jacket was a representation of what could have been. Later, when we see Carmela wearing it, that’s his attachment to her.” Westcott also used a piece of television history to give the film continuity with the television show. “Michael wears a gold chain throughout the film that Jim Gandolfini wore in the show. At the very end of the show, he ripped it off his neck. It was broken, but we fixed it and he wore it throughout.”