No one in his or her right mind would praise the Coronavirus for anything positive, given its total disruption of life on Planet Earth. But, at the risk of sounding dense or giving offense, I do see a perverse good side to it, albeit in a selfish, abstract way: It has stuck a cork in Hollywood’s champagne blast of unending Italian “mob” movies. Corona V. vs. Tony Soprano? The contender from Wuhan wins!
I am referring to The Many Saints of Newark, a “prequel” to HBO’s odious TV series, The Sopranos. The purveyor of that putrid pablum, David Chase (real name: De Cesare, though he’s no Caesar), had wanted to film a Sopranos movie for years, but the death of its star, James Gandolfini, in 2013 prevented it. But, not to worry: You can’t keep a good bad idea down. Instead, Chase simply merged another project he had wanted to do for years – a look at the infamous Newark, New Jersey race riots of 1967 – and stuck many of his fictional Sopranos characters in the plot, seen in their “younger” days.
When the great Sicilian playwright Luigi Pirandello played with such concepts of illusion vs. reality, he did so as a means of art. He teased the audiences’ imaginations. In David Chase’s case, it’s the art of bait-and-switch. He is opening up audiences’ pocketbooks – and stunting their minds.
Due to the Coronavirus, Chase’s debasement of American history, scheduled for the VIP treatment this Fall, has been put “on-hold” until 2021. So, as long as the virus reigns supreme, at least Italian Americans with genuine pride in their heritage can cheer the prolongation of yet another cinematic smear.
It wasn’t just The Many Saints of Newark that was scheduled for release this Fall. Another film about Al Capone, called Capone (brilliant title, that), offers the English actor Tom Hardy a crack at bringing Capone alive for a new generation. If you want an example of Hollywood’s anti-Italian bias made visual, Google a picture of Hardy on-line in his Capone make-up. Clearly, the technicians went out of their way to make the already thuggish-looking thug look even creepier. In the 1940s, Hollywood frequently cast Rondo Hatton, who suffered from a condition called acromegaly (which caused a protrusion of his facial features), in horror-film roles. If Hollywood did so today, they’d rightly be accused of exploiting the handicapped.
Yet, no one in the media makes a peep when casting directors in 2020 deliberately choose plug-ugly individuals to look like “evil Italians.”
The cable TV show Fargo was also set to start its new season. Bizarrely, this show, based on the 1996 Coen Brothers film known for its focus on Nordic Americans in the Midwest, moved to Kansas City. Why? To showcase a 1950s “show-down” between African American and Italian American gangsters. The trailer, which can be viewed on YouTube, gives the show away: The black gangsters, headed by Chris Rock, exude dignity while the head of the Italian faction is shown to be a crude, comical clown. It’s a “two-fer” stereotype, as they say: a gangster-buffoon. Tony Soprano and his gang set the mold.
In a world where people are genuinely dying because of a deadly virus, it seems insensitive to complain about movie and TV stereotypes. But, culturally speaking, hasn’t it been insensitive of Hollywood over the past 100 years (yes: since the 1920s) to similarly infect American pop culture with Italian stereotypes? In addition to making such prejudice palatable to our fellow Americans, look at what it has done to the very self-image of Italian Americans themselves in the film industry, ready to denigrate their own culture at the drop of a hat.
Michael Gandolfini, the real-life son of James, will play his father’s character as a young man. He considers it an “honor.” Is it really honorable to play such a dishonorable character? Alessandro Nivola plays Dickie Molasanti, father of Chris (the character played by Michael Imperioli). Nivola is a distinguished stage actor who said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper that his “last name” has “been an obstacle in getting roles.” In other words, he acknowledges the anti-Italian bias in Hollywood. And yet, he plays a character who is the complete opposite of his own late father Pietro, a professor of political science at the Brookings Institute whom he adored. Nivola’s grandfather was an acclaimed sculptor. How does this role “honor” either of them?
And the buffoonish gangster in Fargo is played by Jason Schwartzman. Don’t let the last name fool you: his mother is Talia Shire, who played Connie in The Godfather movies. Ms. Shire is director Francis Ford Coppola’s sister. No doubt Jason is “honoring” both his mother and uncle by playing this role.
There are physical viruses (Corona) as well as cultural ones (endless mob movies). The only vaccine for the cultural ones is a sense of dignity. Clearly, Italian Americans in the arts – and their millions of equally clueless fans – have yet to be inoculated. -BDC