Around 20 years ago, The Sopranosushered in a new era of television. One that was no longer going to play second fiddle to movies. One that brought storytelling to the forefront. One that contained some of the finest actors working who devoted themselves to doing something cinematic on the small screen.
It was a show that forced TV to grow-up, not just in identity but in the way people looked at the kinds of narratives they could program and the ways they were allowed to challenge the people watching.
The Sopranos was able to do all of this thanks in part to the performance of James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. He was a vision of depth. A mafioso having panic attacks between murders and taking his daughter to visit colleges.
But was it the greatest performance of all time?
I was skeptical until I watched this video essay by Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter...now I am not so sure. Now I think it might be.
Is James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano the Greatest Acting Achievement of All Time?
Before I dive in, I just want to thank Puschak for putting out videos that are so inspiring and interesting. I think his channel is one of the best on filmmaking and creativity online. Anyway, let's get to Tony.
David Chase created The Sopranos and the show was a hit from the start. If you want to learn more about the show's writing, we have an article on that.
Taken from the 5th season episode "Unidentified Black Males," which originally aired in 2004 (and was co-written by Matthew Weiner!, this scene takes place in the office of Tony's psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco.
Fans know this relationship builds the core of the story.
And the lie he tells Melfi in this episode is about how he was jumped and thus unable to help out his cousin in the past. We know this jumping is a lie, instead, he had a panic attack and that's why he was MIA on the night his cousin was pinched.
"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."
This series of emotions triggers him having to wrestle and fight with his own body. He's having a panic attack in the office while finally confessing the truth about missing the job. As Puschak puts it, "rhythmic anger, like waves crashing on the shore, is hypnotic, drawing you deeper into his mental and emotional space with each new cycle."
Watching a character go through a panic attack that feels so real...but is completely fake...is the product of incredible acting ability. His ability to show the tender source of destructive tendencies is incredible. It's what gets at the heart of Tony Soprano as a person and makes him feel whole and real.
Gandolfini meets the nuance of the words with the nuance of the performance. Sure, this is maybe the best writing and writer's room ever on television, but it might also be the greatest cast. Gandolfini grounds the entire show and sets the bar so high that it was hard to see him as another person out of the series.
And he does this in every one of the 86 episodes of the show.
From the musicality in his voice to the crescendos with anger and emotion, I think we can truly call this the greatest performance. I mean, he did it for 86 hours. Man, I wish he was still alive to do it again with a different character. He gave us all he had and it's hard looking back and realizing we maybe didn't appreciate it enough at the time.
If you have time during the pandemic, rewatch The Sopranos.
All things considered, do you agree, as Puschak says, that Gandolfini's portrayal of Tony Soprano is "probably the greatest acting achievement ever committed to the screen, small or big," or do you have another performance in mind?
Let us know in the comments.
What's next? Learn from the Writing of The Sopranos!
The WGA reunited The Sopranos creator David Chase with fellow Sopranos writers Terence Winter and Matthew Weiner for a conversation about creating impactful characters, as well as how writing on The Sopranos influenced their careers. They even touch on plotlines that never hit the air.