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No longer hiding

Times Staff Writer

The expression “gay mafia” first went mainstream in 2002, when fallen super-agent Michael Ovitz gave an interview to Vanity Fair in which he claimed a cabal of the gay and vengeful were largely responsible for the demise of his management business.

His subsequent apology notwithstanding, most everyone around town saw it as some manifestation of Ovitz’s unraveling egomania (after all, his list of names included known heterosexuals), though the phrase “gay mafia” had been kicking around Hollywood for years.

Not quite as long, of course, as gay men had been rising to power as agents, actors, producers and top executives while leaving it off their business cards. And rising as mob men, as “The Sopranos” conjures it, taking “gay mafia” literally and to its most logical extreme. Several episodes ago, in one called “Live Free or Die,” mob captain/ancillary character Vito Spatafore (Joe Gannascoli) went into hiding after being spotted dancing in leather chaps at a gay bar in Manhattan.

At that point you thought he had about half an episode to live. Instead, his “outing” has turned into an outing -- Vito fleeing through the night to his cousin’s place in New Hampshire only to stumble upon a yuppie Pleasantville for gay men, a leafy, idyllic hamlet called Dartford, where even the volunteer fire department looks like a kind of a gay men’s chorus.

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Sunday promises some form of resolution, Vito having returned from his hide-out, inexorably drawn back to the literal family he abandoned and the figurative one itching to exact retribution.

In mob culture, men kiss each other on the cheek in greeting, but homosexuality is a sin punishable by death, although you get a pass in prison, Tony tells his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi. In the culture too, we still have our old-school rules: Audiences get a pass when gays are presented as burlesque (see “Will & Grace,” which ended its long run on NBC on Thursday night) or as victims of disease and/or harassment.

But “The Sopranos,” through Vito, means to get at the culture war over gay marriage that won’t go away any time soon.

Although Tony’s crew is eager for him to order Vito clipped, Tony is inclined to give him a pass: The guy’s a solid earner, and Tony’s pretty sure he’s not the kind of homosexual who would annoy him, bringing kitchen curtain samples by the Bada Bing.

“I find it disgusting,” Tony tells Melfi of his attitude on homosexuality. “Men kissing men, holding hands in the street. Every

That “The Sopranos” would reference the low-rated “L Word” on rival pay network Showtime is an inside joke but also an outside one -- an expression of the double standard that exists in the culture, where chick-on-chick love is hot, but guy-on-guy relationships are still somewhat verboten.

It was into this maelstrom that “Brokeback Mountain” launched a thousand reactive parodies while also conspicuously not winning the Academy Award for best picture.

In Dartford, Vito falls into a relationship with Jim, a rugged-but-soft firefighter who owns the local diner; they have to brawl before Vito can start calling him Johnny Cakes, and before Vito can say: “Sometimes you tell lies so long, you don’t know when to stop.”

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Gay mobster in hiding at a bed-and-breakfast in leaf-peeping country sounds about as rich with comedic potential as mobster in therapy and on Prozac. But “The Sopranos” has mostly played it as poignant and tragic -- it’s of a piece with “Brokeback,” even though Gannascoli has said he brought the idea to the show’s writers several years ago, after reading a book about a gay mobster.

With his bum hip, Vito’s signature duck walk adds a Chaplin-esque isolation and sadness to the character. But being gay does not make him significant; it only highlights his essential disconnect with the crew: He kills other men, but he also cuddles with them.


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