The hits keep coming! America has found our soft spot in cinema: the lovable grease ball.
Last night I saw the movie Green Book, an excellent film based on an actual 1962 road trip through the Jim Crow South by an African American classical pianist and his Italian American chauffeur/bodyguard.
I’ll describe it as My Cousin Vinny meets In the Heat of the Night. This movie hits all the emotional buttons, alternately making you ashamed to be Italian, then by the next scene making you proud. This on/off emotional switching occurs throughout the film. Our gangster culture is well represented, as is the sacred Seven Fishes dinner and the lively family banter. Our hero, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga – played by Viggo Mortensen, a Danish/English-American – is a tender brute with at best a 6th grade education.
The script is top notch, Oscar material. It was co-written by the real Lip’s son Nicholas, who came to the Hollywood scene as a twelve year old extra in The Godfather. He learned how to market goombah culture from Master Coppola. But you have to wonder why he made his cinema dad not only an ignoramus but a certifiable slob.
It is impossible to condemn feel-good movies like Green Book or My Cousin Vinny. It is just as impossible to pan characters like Vinnie Barbarino (Welcome Back, Kotter), Tony Manero (Saturday Night Fever), Louie DiPalma (Taxi), Joey Trebbiani (Friends), Carla Tortelli (Cheers) and scores of other Hollywood inventions because they are all lovable and make America laugh.
In Green Book, everyone lectures Tony Lip – from the super sophisticated Black pianist to the Mafia dons and the Russian cello player – Tony litters highways, throws punches, eats like a grizzy bear, and writes like a 10-year old. The only people that make Tony look good are the myriad Southern bigots that torment his Black employer. One such police officer touched a nerve by calling Italians “part nigger.” DNA aside, our depictions in film rarely rise above that of African Americans, so…
Redemption is another cuddly theme in the movie. Tony Lip and all the Italian American males skeeve Blacks and use the slang term moolinyan. However, by the end of the road trip Tony sees the light. Italians can change!
Unlike the gut-punch of Mafia movies, these comedies starring hapless guidos and stock goombahs are killing us softly. What remains of everyday Italian American pride is confined to food and self-indicting cinema. I personally believe that these movies serve as role-models for many young people in our community – what other images do they see on the screen? There’s a reason we still produce real guidos and goombahs in our culture – you can find them on social media any time you want. What other ethnic group projects an ass-backward image to America? It seems, we are the only people anxious to attract ridicule.
And, these images are not broadcast in a vacuum. The children and grandchildren of legal and illegal Third World immigrants are being newly exposed to this version of Italian American culture. Saturday Night Live did a skit last week called “Good Morning Goomahs,” with English actress Claire Foy playing a mobster’s kept woman with the standard Italic mannerisms. Anybody, it seems can be a certified Italian American jackass.
Critics who review Green Book all admit it is one big Italian American stereotype but have no problem with that. Why bother to even mention it these days. There is no red zone on the Italian American defamation scale, so long as it’s humorous. I learned that principle when I wrote to two prominent Italian American board members of CBS-TV about a character being called a wop in the comedy series Mike & Molly. I was told by their attorney to buzz off.
I don’t doubt that President Trump’s former Director of Communications Anthony Scaramucci now understands how his nickname “the Mooch” and his flashy appearance set him up for media ridicule, despite his Harvard education, good diction, and wealth.
That’s the price of being a stock character. –JLM