From Scarface to the Sopranos — and others

scarface(Canscene) — Here’s Paul Muni as Tony Carmonte shouting defiance at the cops as he makes his last stand firing his tommy gun out the window. And Eddie Robinson’s hood ending his days with “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico? And here’s James Gandolfini driving home to New Jersey as the opening titles of The Sopranos roll.

They bookend the documentary Beyond Wiseguys — Italian Americans and the Movies, a film which records how frequently actors of Italian background have been cast as mobsters often with deleterious effects on their off screen lives.

As in the case of Chaz Palminteri who tells us that when a potential landlord discovers his Italian background he’s told “no vacancy.” It’s an experience I personally have undergone and I found Palminteri’s impersonation of the landlord right on key.

Beyond Wiseguys is directed by Steven Fischler and edited with great effect using clips from such movies as The Godfather, Little Caesar and early Rudolf Valentino silents. John Turturro co-executive producer is seen on screen frequently; his presence reminds us of the films this young man of undeniable Italian appearance has made in which he doesn’t appear as a mobster. The Italian presence in Hollhywood has also extended beyond what’s on screen to grips to makeup artists to directors and producers.

stanley-tucciActors Ben Gazzara, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Paul Sorvino, Marisa Tomei and former MPAA czar the late Jack Valenti all disclose what being Italian American means to them. And, of course, we see Rat Packers Sinatra and Martin.

And there’s Frank Capra junior with a substantial section on his father’s achievements from journeyman director to Oscar-winner and helmer of the perennial Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life. In between is Capras’s commendable World II record of propaganda films to stimulate America’s war effort. .

There’s food for thought for every film lover here and contrasting The Godfather trilogy with The Sopranos TV series shows that both have enjoyed commendation and vilification from people of Italian heritage. I for one heartily disliked the Sopranos series for its placement of a dysfunctional mob family in suburban setting. I found the much stronger meat of the Godfather showed how the Italian sense of family extendsto all levels of society. Parts 1 and 2 fulfill all the criteria of good cinema.

The inclusion of a clip from Big Night, one of my all-time favourite movies should be enough to remind us storytelling opportunities about persons of Italian heritage exist without mob assistance. Stanley Tucci, another Hollwood actor whose credits include non-mafiosi roles, starred in this lovable comedy.

Beyond Wiseguys has been shown at a number of film festivals and is available to university faculties. In 50 minutes the creators have have assembled a remarkable documentation which is at once an important addition to film history and a social studies document. It is tailor-made for the commercial-free Turner Classic Movies channel which in recent times has included some excellent background material on actors, directors and genres.

Further information about Beyond Wiseguys is available at Seventh Art Releasing,( James Rowan educational outreach) Telephone (323) 845-1455

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