Why James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano Is “the Greatest Acting Achievement Ever Committed to the Screen”: A Video Essay

The ongo­ing “gold­en age” of pres­tige tele­vi­sion dra­ma began more than twen­ty years ago, but how many shows have tru­ly sur­passed The Sopra­nos, the one that start­ed it all? How­ev­er many series come and go, rais­ing large and often obses­sive fan bases with their vary­ing mix­tures of crime, his­to­ry, pol­i­tics, sci­ence fic­tion, fan­ta­sy, and intrigue, none have shown the cul­tur­al stay­ing pow­er of this six-sea­son tale of a mob boss in turn-of-the-21st-cen­tu­ry New Jer­sey. That The Sopra­nos remains rel­e­vant owes in part to the vision of cre­ator David Chase as well as to the tour de force per­for­mance of star James Gan­dolfi­ni.

Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, has stronger words of appro­ba­tion: Gan­dolfini’s is “prob­a­bly the great­est act­ing achieve­ment ever com­mit­ted to the screen, small or big.” In the video essay “How James Gan­dolfi­ni Nav­i­gates Emo­tion” he mar­shals in sup­port of this claim just one scene, but a scene that fea­tures Gan­dolfi­ni at the height of his dra­mat­ic pow­ers.

Tak­en from the fifth-sea­son episode “Uniden­ti­fied Black Males,” orig­i­nal­ly aired in 2004 (and co-writ­ten by Matthew Wein­er, lat­er to cre­ate the pres­tige-TV fran­chise Mad Men), this selec­tion takes place in the office of Tony’s psy­chi­a­trist Dr. Jen­nifer Melfi, played by Lor­raine Brac­co. (When The Sopra­nos debuted, two months before the pre­miere of Harold Ramis’ Ana­lyze This, a mob­ster in ther­a­py was very much a nov­el idea.)

“Tony Sopra­no is going to have a pan­ic attack in this ther­a­py ses­sion,” says Puschak, and “the way James Gan­dolfi­ni builds to that attack” demon­strates “how he car­ries us with him through a com­plex sequence of emo­tions.” Here Gan­dolfi­ni ris­es to the for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge of lying con­vinc­ing­ly: not con­vinc­ing­ly in the sense that Dr. Melfi believes him, but con­vinc­ing­ly in the sense that we believe the grap­ple with con­flict­ing truths and untruths that char­ac­ter­izes Tony’s life. Tony must pin his recent spate of pan­ic attacks on some­thing oth­er than his cousin Tony B, who com­mit­ted a hit he should­n’t have. That Tony does­n’t quite believe his own words Gan­dolfi­ni trans­mits with “his tone, his eyes, and the tilt of his head.” He uses the musi­cal­i­ty of Tony’s speech, “some com­bi­na­tion of left­over Ital­ian rhythms and a New York-inflect­ed North Jer­sey accent,” to build to “larg­er and larg­er crescen­does.”

As it fore­shad­ows the approach­ing emo­tion­al tur­moil, his “rhyth­mic anger, like waves crash­ing on the shore, is hyp­not­ic, draw­ing you deep­er into his men­tal and emo­tion­al space with each new cycle.” Tony then dou­bles down on his lie, try­ing to cov­er for his cousin by invent­ing on the spot a sto­ry about hav­ing been beat­en up by a gang of shoe thieves in 1986. Only lat­er in the scene does the truth come out, or at least par­tial­ly leak out, even as Gan­dolfi­ni por­trays Tony strug­gling to fight back the pan­ic attack that has emerged as a result of telling these sto­ries. For all the tech­nique it show­cas­es, the scene ends in a clas­si­cal­ly dra­mat­ic fash­ion, with a kind of cathar­sis — which, if you know The Sopra­nos, you know is hard­ly the word Tony has for it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How David Chase Breathed Life into the The Sopra­nos

David Chase Reveals the Philo­soph­i­cal Mean­ing of The Sopra­no’s Final Scene

James Gan­dolfi­ni Reads from Mau­rice Sendak’s Children’s Sto­ry In The Night Kitchen

Rewatch Every Episode of The Sopra­nos with the Talk­ing Sopra­nos Pod­cast, Host­ed by Michael Impe­ri­oli & Steve Schirri­pa

How Humphrey Bog­a­rt Became an Icon: A Video Essay

How David Lynch Manip­u­lates You: A Close Read­ing of Mul­hol­land Dri­ve

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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