Thursday, March 31, 2016

Exploring the Myth of the Mafia's Grip

Book Review of An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America, by George De Stefano

Cliches exist until they are challenged.

Analyze this: a thumbnail history of Italian Americans.

A Southern European immigrant group, disembarking in America in huge numbers from the late 19th century to the early 20th, comes to be associated with what an 1876 New York Times editorial calls "A Natural Inclination Toward Criminality." No matter that crime remained the ultimate multiethnic, equal-opportunity business. As the perception grows, so-called native-born Americans also aren't sure the new immigrants are white.

A black man, convicted in 1922 of miscegenation in Alabama, gets off when an appeals court rules the prosecution failed to prove his Sicilian wife was Caucasian. In 1930s Hollywood, directors choose non-Italians - Romanian Jew Edward G. Robinson and Yiddish stage actor Paul Muni - to play fictional crime bosses such as Rico "Little Caesar" Bandello and Tony "Scarface" Camonte.

Forty years later, two classic '70s films - The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II - raise the link between Italians and crime, denounced by antidefamation protesters, to the level of American myth. Or so say many film and cultural critics.

In 1999, The Sopranos - the much-honored cable series that happens to return tonight - takes the same association for its theme, making high TV art of the traumas suffered by members of the immigrant group in adjusting to modern suburban life.

In the more than 100 years since Italians began arriving here in numbers: Two Supreme Court justices. One president of Harvard (Neil Rudenstine). One of Yale (A. Bartlett Giamatti). Painter Frank Stella. Architect Robert Venturi. Novelist Don DeLillo. Lots of big-time doctors, lawyers and other professionals. Pretty much no movies or TV series about them. Conclusion? Irrational stereotyping? Vicious bias? Reverent mythmaking? Selective realism? Collective insanity?

"The conventions and cliches of the Mafia myth," writes New York culture critic George De Stefano, "not only define a genre; they have to a large degree defined Italian Americans... . 'The Mafia' is now the paradigmatic pop-culture expression of Italian American ethnicity, despite the fact that gangsters never constituted more than a tiny percentage of the massive southern Italian immigration to America."

No argument, so let's shift to pop-cult mode: Leave the potboiler junk, take the De Stefano - a detailed, textured meditation on what it all means. De Stefano isn't an ethnocentric screamer about stereotyping of Italian Americans. Third generation, leftist and gay, the New York-based journalist grew up in working-class Bridgeport, Conn. He supports multiculturalism, and doesn't think Italians invented every implement of civilization from forks to statues. He's less badda-bing than yadda-ying in his cultural bent. That means his yeoman's precis of growing Italian American scholarship by writers such as Robert Orsi, Fred Gardaphe, and Richard Gambino profits from a clear framework.

Whether De Stefano is summarizing causes of 19th-century Italian immigration, sketching the Mafia's origin in Sicily, or dissecting the appeal of Hollywood mobster characters, he catches links to evolving capitalism, discomfort with modern society, psychological urges for strong father figures, and other complex topics not usually addressed by opponents of Mafia pop culture.

Like many writers on the subject, he eventually finds himself overwhelmed by movie and TV depictions of the Mafia. At times, De Stefano, falling into a familiar trap, sounds desperate to include any example Google or Nexis turned up. Nonetheless, he correctly appreciates that for most Americans, "It's not an exaggeration to say that The Godfather is the Torah, and everything else is commentary."

Remember Joe Fox, played by Tom Hanks in You've Got Mail? Fox declares: "The Godfather is the I Ching. The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom. The Godfather is the answer to any question." David Chase, creator of the characters in The Sopranos, who themselves constantly allude to Mafia films, similarly says that "for a lot of wiseguys, The Godfather is like the Koran."

It's at this point that De Stefano argues for a radical difference between Italian Americans and other ethnic groups in regard to stereotypes. Often, he notes, "it is Italian Americans themselves who write, direct and act in these films and TV shows." The distinction hardly persuades: As the already controversial "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" routine at the Oscars reminded us last week, Italian Americans have company in pandering to showbiz stereotypes to get ahead.

Yet here, as elsewhere in his "on the waterfont, therefore cover the waterfront" book, De Stefano provokes hard thought about why the Mafia, to the exclusion of almost every other dimension of Italian American life, stays lodged "in the Mind of America."

A short answer De Stefano implies, but does not flesh out: The problem is not what Italian American artists and stars give us, but what they don't. Think of those with enormous clout in the movie business: Pacino. De Niro. Scorsese. Coppola. They've rarely used that clout to spotlight less cliched sides of Italian American life. Where is the Italian American Oprah, promoting quality art on the order of Beloved, or the Broadway version of The Color Purple?

Couldn't Scorsese and De Niro have made a film about Sacco and Vanzetti instead of dubbing voices for Shark Tale? Might Pacino play Pietro Di Donato instead of the overexposed Shylock? Dream on. Rare are Hollywood exceptions like idealistic actor John Turturro, with his brave 1992 film, Mac, about working-class Italian Americans, and Stanley Tucci, director of Big Night (1996), about two brothers trying to launch an authentic Italian restaurant.

De Stefano rightly observes that "some Italian Americans are ready and willing to perpetuate unflattering and even belittling images of themselves. If the Mafia image is a kind of minstrelsy, as anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo claims... Italian Americans have done their part to keep the minstrel show running." The self-stereotyping doesn't end with the mob - De Stefano reminds us of the Fonz, Rocky Balboa, Tony Manero, and more.

In his overly optimistic conclusion, De Stefano cites all sorts of recent cultural bubbling: the establishment by New York's Guild of Italian American Actors of a repertory theater in 2004; the development of the John Calandra Italian American Institute at City University of New York; the rise of prominent writers such as poet Dana Gioia (now Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts) - as a counterweight to the entertainment industry's same old habits.

One wonders, though, whether much will change until celebrated Italian American movie stars and directors concede, before an industry determined to drown them in stereotypes, what Michael Corleone admits to Sen. Pat Geary in The Godfather: "We're part of the same corruption."

De Stefano and his publisher could do worse than tweak the title on the paperback edition to An Offer We Can Refuse. Italian American stars who can't get unstereotypical projects greenlighted - for lack of the Mafia hood, or "the blue-collar bore, the dumb but lovable stud" - are both badfellas and dumbfellas.

Rememberaboutit!

Thanks to Carlin Romano

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