Los Angeles Times
Bill Dal Cerro
Monday, July 15, 2002
A spate of gangster profiles and films firmly puts the Irish in an uncomfortable place the Italians know all too well.
Last year, "60 Minutes" ran a lengthy news piece on "Whitey" Bulger, the vicious head of an Irish criminal gang in Boston. Last week, we saw the premiere of "The Road to Perdition," a 1930s Irish gangster epic starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. Later this year, another big-budget epic, "The Gangs of New York," starring Leonardo Di Caprio, focuses on the Irish "Five Points Gangs," which terrorized the Big Apple during the 1850s. To paraphrase Edward G. Robinson's Rico at the end of "Little Caesar": "Faith and begorrah! Is this the beginning of a cycle of 'Tough Terry' films?"
Americans of Italian descent certainly hope not. In an era when merely being a Muslim labels you a terrorist, it certainly doesn't improve the multicultural atmosphere when Hollywood targets a new ethnic group to tarnish. Although the movers-and-shakers will predictably hide behind the curtain of "art," as producer Robert Evans did with "The Godfather," the fact is that once Hollywood enshrines a mythology, it is very hard to dislodge it. (Interestingly, the late author Mario Puzo, chief architect of the Italians-as-gangsters albatross, was at least honest about it: "The term 'godfather' was never used by Italian criminals," he said. "It's a term that I made up, I wanted to create a romantic myth, like the cowboy.")
One need look no further than the Italian American community to see the effects of being "blessed" by Hollywood. According to a 2001 research study conducted by our Institute, there have been more than 1,000 films since 1928 that feature Italian or Italian American characters. Of those films, roughly 40% of them portray our community as criminals, with another 29% painting us as boors, buffoons, bigots and bimbos.
What is most disturbing, however, is the total disconnect between fantasy and reality. According to F.B.I. statistics, as cited in a 1999 USA Today article, Italian criminals constitute less than .0078% of the Italian American population of 15 million (1,500 of them, down from the 5,000 or so of 50 years ago, which is still a pittance). In movies, of course the resident bad guy always has a vowel at the end of his name, along with the iconographic accouterment: gold chain, slick hair and crooked mouth.
But here's the "killer" (pardon the pun): Out of approximately 500 movies featuring Italians as gangsters, only 12% of those films are based on real people. The remaining 88% feature fictional Italian stereotypes. It's enough to make Luigi Pirandello's head swim.
"Has any group in this country, from the very beginning, had a worse press than the Italians?" asked famed journalist Harry Golden. "Their gangsters and bootleggers (no more and less than other groups) have been splattered across the front pages of newspapers for decades. The Italian American has become a stereotype of the gangster. This is not only unfair, but untrue."
Golden asked that question back in 1958, way before the stereotype mushroomed in film ("The Godfather") and television ("The Sopranos").
And he would have been appalled at how his own profession--journalism--continues to aid and abet Hollywood stereotyping: i.e., the recent VIP treatment given to the late, not-so-great John Gotti, a local thug whose obituary made the front pages of every major national newspaper in America. (In public relations circles, this is called "good bounce.")
If I were Irish, I'd feel some trepidation about Hollywood's sudden interest in my "culture." Far from giving Irish Americans a sense of pride, these gangster films (if they become self-perpetuating) will severely limit the community's palette.
Case in point from "The Road to Perdition": Stanley Tucci, a gifted actor, is reduced to playing a typical Italian thug (Frank Nitti). In a truly tolerant Hollywood, Tucci would have a starring role in a 1930s melodrama called, "Pecora for the People," based on the life of Ferdinand Pecora, the tenacious Sicilian American attorney who prosecuted the robber barons and con men of Wall Street. Given the current Enron and WorldCom scandals, what subject could be more apropos?
Sorry. Not right now. Hollywood is still digesting its pasta--only now it comes with a side dish of corned beef and cabbage
Bill Dal Cerro is Midwest director of the Italic Institute of America, a national organization of Italian American educators.
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