The Emotional Tour-De-Force of James Gandolfini

Here's why James Gandolfini's performance as Tony Soprano is one of the greatest ever committed to the small screen.

James Gandolfini
HBO

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Have you seen any or all of The Sopranos? Well, then, my friend, congrats — you’ve seen the best performance you’re ever gonna see on television. Before there was Jon Hamm’s Don Draper or Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, there was one king of the small screen who paved the way for all of your antihero faves: James Gandolfini.

The actor’s award-winning, six-season-long turn as Tony Soprano is a staple of noughties pop-culture and a wonder to behold to this day. Gandolfini embodied the New Jersey mob boss with every resource in an actor’s toolkit. He could turn on a dime — flipping from jovial to terrifying in a second, instilling fear in those around him as well as those of us watching at home.

Gandolfini was also a master of building a performance, layering subtle gestures and minute details, steadily growing more and more agitated, and then snapping. He could trace Tony’s conscious thought process and unconscious impulses with a tilt of his head and a wave of his hand. And, of course, he made it look effortless.

Although it’s been seven years since Gandolfini’s untimely passing, and it still feels impossible to fully accept his absence, he holds a place in the hearts of Sopranos fans, and his ongoing influence on TV is immeasurable. While it’s heartbreaking to think none of us will ever see a new Gandolfini performance for the first time, his portrayal of Tony Soprano is one worth returning to.

For a deeper dive into what made Gandolfini’s performance the gold standard, check out the video essay below. It singles out one scene in particular and details what exactly Gandolfini does as an actor that makes his performance so impactful and unforgettable.

Watch “How James Gandolfini Navigates Emotion“:

Who made this?

This video essay was created by The Nerdwriter, a.k.a. Evan Puschak. The Nerdwriter covers everything in the realm of art, culture, philosophy, science, and politics. Which is to say, uh, just about anything. You can check out The Nerdwriter’s eclectic back catalog and subscribe to their YouTube channel here. And you can follow Puschak on Twitter here.

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