In This Article Italian-Americans in Cinema and Media

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Audiences

Cinema and Media Studies Italian-Americans in Cinema and Media
by
Jonathan J. Cavallero
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0228

Introduction

From early crime films about the “black hand” to more recent films and television shows like Don Jon and Jersey Shore, representations of Italian-Americans have captivated audiences. As a white ethnic immigrant group in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Italian Americans endured discrimination and social prejudice. Newspapers, politicians, and contemporary media warned that Italians would dilute the racial and cultural purity of “white” Americans, that they were a dangerous, criminal threat prone to violent outbursts and uncontrollable emotions, and that they were a cheap labor source that jeopardized the economic security of middle- and working-class American citizens. Following their mass participation in World War II and their access to the postwar GI Bill and government housing loans, the socioeconomic standing of Italian-Americans began to change and so too did media representations of them. In the 1950s and 1960s, the gangster was still a consistent presence in American media, but non-gangster Italian-Americans appeared in contemporary films and TV programs such as “Marty,” Full of Life, and The Rose Tattoo. With the White Ethnic Revival in the 1970s, Italian-American–driven narratives like The Godfather, Serpico, and Saturday Night Fever and Italian-American characters on programs like Happy Days garnered critical and commercial success (though not always at the same time). Throughout the last few decades, Italian-American representations have continued to become more diverse even as old stereotypes have been recycled. Interestingly, Italian-Americans themselves have created many of the representations of Italian-Americans, including some of the most well known. Filmmakers such as Frank Capra, Francis Ford Coppola (Including The Godfather), Martin Scorsese, and Nancy Savoca; actors such as Rudolph Valentino, Al Pacino, and Marisa Tomei; and showrunners such as Tom Fontana and David Chase have worked to craft the public image of Italian-Americans and define the group’s identity for ethnic insiders and outsiders alike. At the same time, Italian-American audiences have brought a unique set of cultural experiences to their reception of Italian/American media and those experiences have often led to culturally inflected interpretations and meanings. Through the study of media representations, authorship, and reception, an interdisciplinary group of scholars has illuminated the diversity that exists within Italian-America; the ways in which Italian American ethnicity intersects with other identity categories such as gender, sexuality, and generational standing; and the transnational interaction between Italian-Americans and the Italian diaspora. Their insights have the potential to inform our collective understanding of Italian-Americans and, more generally, the meaning of race, ethnicity, class, and gender in American culture.

General Overviews

Rather than being defined by a consistent set of approaches, Italian-American media studies has welcomed scholars from a diverse set of disciplinary backgrounds and theoretical perspectives. At its core, this field of study is interested in the intersection of Italian-American ethnicity and media, but consideration of how that intersection is understood and what forms of media should be included varies wildly. While scholarly studies from the late 1970s and 1980s tended to investigate cinematic and televisual representations of Italian-American characters, more recently, some analyses have targeted issues of Italian-American authorship and/or audiences. Casillo 2000 suggests that for a film to be labeled “Italian-American cinema” it needs to (a) be directed by a filmmaker of Italian-American descent and (b) treat subjects of importance to the ethnic group. Under Casillo’s definition, the films of directors such as Ida Lupino and Frank Capra do not qualify as “Italian-American cinema” since they seem to lack an interest in Italian-Americans. An extended analysis of the work of Italian American directors throughout the 20th century, D’Acierno 1999 advocates for their inclusion by suggesting that filmmakers who worked during eras of widespread prejudice against Italian Americans might have avoided ethnic subjects out of necessity. Tomasulo 1996 posits that avoiding representations might have been preferable to perpetuating stereotypes. The author argues that ethnic authors who use stereotypes (however artistically) might work to cement and confirm the suspicions of outsiders. Other works, such as Di Biagi 2010, Tamburri 2002, and Tamburri 2011, aim to expand the scope of earlier understandings of Italian-American media. Meanwhile, Ferraro 2005 offers an analysis that transcends any one medium and develops an interest in audiences by suggesting that even non-Italian-Americans can claim to “feel” like Italian-Americans in the postmodern era. With the exception of Lawton 1995, all agree on the value of studying “Italian American media.” Most recognize that representations, authorship, and audiences tend to overlap. And increasingly, scholars acknowledge the need to situate ethnic authorship and ethnic representations historically.

  • Casillo, Robert. “Moments in Italian-American Cinema: From Little Caesar to Coppola and Scorsese.” In From the Margin: Writings in Italian Americana. Rev. ed. Edited by Anthony Julian Tamburri, Paolo A. Giordano, and Fred L. Gardaphé, 394–416. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2000.

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    Offers a historically grounded analysis of Italian-American representations from the 1920s to the 1960s and a discussion of Italian-American filmmakers such as Scorsese and Coppola. Defines “Italian-American cinema” as films by Italian-American directors that investigate “Italian-American subjects.”

  • D’Acierno, Pellegrino. “Cinema Paradiso: The Italian American Presence in American Cinema.” In The Italian American Heritage: A Companion to Literature and Arts. Edited by Pellegrino D’Acierno, 563–690. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 1473. New York: Garland, 1999.

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    This lengthy essay on Italian-American directors stresses their generational and historical differences, arguing that the “Cinema of the Fathers” (filmmakers like Capra and Vincente Minnelli) avoids directly addressing “Italianness” while the “Cinema of the Sons and Daughters” (filmmakers like Coppola and Scorsese) engages and disrupts Hollywood’s Italian stereotypes.

  • Di Biagi, Flaminio. Italoamericani tra Hollywood e Cinecittà. Genoa, Italy: Le Mani, 2010.

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    This Italian-language book is divided into two parts. The first investigates Hollywood’s engagement with Italian ethnicity (including Italian-American filmmakers, Hollywood-distributed Italian films, and Italian actors in Hollywood movies). The second expands existing work by considering Italian-American representations in Italian films and argues that often Italian-American characters are wealthy but shameful.

  • Ferraro, Thomas J. Feeling Italian: The Art of Ethnicity in America. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

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    Suggests that since Italian immigration peaked almost a century ago, modern-day Italian-Americans are disconnected from their ethnic immigrant origins. As a result, in-group and out-group members have moved closer together, and cultural productions (including film), whether realistic, fantastical, or a mixture of both, define and allow access to Italianness.

  • Lawton, Ben. “What Is ItalianAmerican Cinema?” Voices in Italian Americana 6.1 (1995): 27–51.

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    Argues that studying a work simply because it falls within a given ethnic definition minimizes the work’s value and/or the value of criticism. Admits to being baffled by the idea of “ItalianAmerican Cinema.”

  • Tamburri, Anthony Julian. Italian/American Short Films and Music Videos. West Lafayette, IN: Digital-I, 2002.

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    Considers Italian-American short films, including fictional narratives, music videos, and documentaries such as Lena’s Spaghetti, Nunzio’s Second Cousin, and Madonna’s music videos.

  • Tamburri, Anthony Julian. Re-viewing Italian Americana: Generalities and Specificities on Cinema. New York: Bordighera, 2011.

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    Wide-ranging book that looks beyond Hollywood films and argues for a more inclusive notion of Italian-American media. A chapter on The Godfather complements discussions of rarely seen short films and an Italian film about US immigration (Nuovomondo).

  • Tomasulo, Frank P. “Italian-Americans in the Hollywood Cinema: Filmmakers, Characters, Audiences.” VIA: Voices in Italian Americana 7.1 (1996): 65–72.

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    Argues that Hollywood’s depiction of Italian characters reflects the dominant culture’s fears of ethnic immigrants rather than being representative of immigrant experiences themselves. Posits that Capra, Coppola, and Scorsese’s work may attempt to counter such representations, but that as cultural insiders, they ultimately have the potential to validate dominant stereotypes.

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