Italian-Americans, as I've written about in a previous post, suffer from generally negative representations in American popular culture and especially in American cinema. In fact, a study conducted by the Italic Studies Institute in 2001 found that of the 1,220 American films produced since 1928 with Italian-American themes, no less than 40% depicted Italian-Americans as mobsters. While films like The Godfather, Good Fellas, and Mean Streets are well-known, critically acclaimed, and have saturated popular culture with images of Italian-American mafiosi, there are films out there with Italian-American protagonists that are neither mobsters, nor Guidos (a stereotype that has become all the more nasty and pervasive since Jersey Shore). You just have to look more closely to find them.
First of all, there's Marty - a charming drama starring Ernest Borgnine about an Italian-American butcher living with his mother in the Bronx who meets and falls in love with a young schoolteacher at a dance. The film won the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Writing awards at the Oscars that year, beating out The Rose Tattoo, another film about Italian-Americans, starring Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster (whose Italian accent is, shall we say, notta so putty). Anna Magnani brings her usual vibrancy and depth to her performance in this adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play, but the film suffers from the severe miscasting of Lancaster, usually so good, who is simply out of his depth. 1955 could have been a landmark year for Italian-Americans in film, but neither of these films, depicting Italian-Americans as sympathetic protagonists, neither criminals nor spaghetti-slinging restaurant managers, made a deep impression on the way audiences thought, and think, of Italian-Americans.
In the 70s, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Martin Scorsese were making it big as major players in the film industry, their careers spurred forward by mafia-themed movies. However, in Serpico, Al Pacino, in his first film after The Godfather, plays an Italian-American, who speaks dialect with his mother, based on Frank Serpico, the real-life policeman whose refusal to cooperate with corruption in the police department created a major inquiry and a crackdown on corrupt cops. Pacino doesn't play Serpico as a put-upon hero, though his actions are heroic and his courage quite remarkable, but rather as a deeply complex and not necessarily likable man who refuses to give up on his youthful idealization of the police. For Italian-Americans, the portrayal of one of our own as a law-abiding, courageous cop is a welcome breath of fresh air.
The most successful films about Italian-Americans, besides mob movies, are undoubtedly comedies. The two most prominent, Moonstruck and My Cousin Vinny, were both big hits and are genuinely warm, funny films that do reflect a lot of the great things about Italian-American culture that make us proud to be who we are. But best of all is Martin Scorsese's brilliant, wonderful, delightful Italianamerican, a documentary starring his parents, a film that says more about Italian-American culture in 49 minutes than all the mob movies stuck together. The problem remains however that Italian-Americans can't catch a break, on either the silver or small screen. For every Marty, there are dozens of The Godfather; for every Frank Serpico, there are dozens of Pauly D. There's a reason why 74% of Americans assume that all Italian-Americans have mob connections, even though less than 1% of us do. Until we start seeing more dynamic, diverse, and honest representations of the Italian-American people, these stereotypes will continue to define us in the eyes of others.