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As I looked around the room, I saw the faces of the immigrant experience. We were strangers, of course, but I could tell our ancestors were all originally from the same part of the world… those ancient lands linked by the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. We were all here because they had made the journey to build a better life and add to the complex tapestry that is America.
Then I remembered we were all there to audition to play mobsters in a cell-phone commercial.
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I was as surprised as anyone to learn about James Gandolfini’s untimely death at the age of 51. He was a fantastic actor and by all accounts a generous artist and great person who was nothing at all like the character of Tony Soprano.
When the story first broke, the news coverage focused on the shock of his passing. Friends and colleagues called into CNN and other networks to talk about how unexpected it was and to say wonderful things about him. It’s very sad and frustrating that people still die so young.
In order to keep the story alive for the 24-hour news cycle, the angle gradually shifted from the tragedy of James Gandolfini’s death to the impact of The Sopranos, and the character of Tony Soprano in particular, on the history of television.
As pundits ran and reran clips from the show and reveled in the narrative of the “anti-hero” and the groundbreaking nature of The Sopranos, I realized I was getting more and more angry. The truth is, the reason Tony Soprano became an icon because he was a violent mobster who was also a conflicted and complex character that hadn’t been seen before. In movies and television, nobody cares that much if an Italian character is a richly detailed tapestry of human emotion. But if he’s mobbed up, America is riveted. As the clips of Tony beating guys to a pulp played over and over, I tried to pinpoint what was eating me. I felt bad that James Gandolfini had passed away, and I although still think The Sopranos is denigrating to Italian-Americans, that wasn’t what was bothering me this time.
What made me angry, then sad, was the realization that Italian-Americans pretty much only get to see accurate representations of our culture via stories that focus on people to whom most of us have no connection: Mafiosi.
Italian-Americans are an interesting breed. Our connection to Italy and Italian culture varies based on when our ancestors came to America. My relatives came to New York City in the late 1800s, during the first wave of Italian immigration to the US. My family’s connection to Italy is entirely theoretical at this point; there are no distant cousins there that I know of. I don’t know the name of the village my great-great grandparents came from. I can’t go back and walk the streets they did. I only know they came here from Naples and Sicily to escape crushing poverty and like all immigrants, try to make life better for themselves and their children. I took Italian as a language in high school (thank you Xaverian) so I speak and read it (kind of) and I’ve been to Italy twice. I used to regret that my family was “cut off” from the Old Country, as if it made us somehow less authentic. Where I grew up, many of my friends’ parents were born in Italy so their link to it was a living thing, not based on ancient memories. But I came to realize that Italian-American culture is unique, built from older customs and American dreams. We have our own food, expressions and local traditions. For many of us, being “Italian” is an incredibly vital part of our identity… even if we can’t speak the language and have never been to Italy. The minutia of Italian-American life is something you almost never see accurately represented in the media — except in films or shows that are about the mob. (Reality shows don’t count.) I’ve watched the Sopranos and lit up when one of them would say a word my grandfather used to say or eat a dish my great-grandmother made. I’ve laughed out loud at obscure dialect slang that I didn’t think anyone from outside my neighborhood used. The show also captured the maudlin side of the Italian-American character, the wicked sense of humor and lots of other things I could identify with. But none of that would have ever made it to the screen if there weren’t also explosions of violence, bloodshed and people getting chopped up into little pieces. That part broke my heart because I knew that’s what people really want and expect from a story about Italian-Americans. The other stuff, the details, most people are ignorant of and could care less about.
Does that mean that for Italian-Americans to see things we love about our culture we have to accept that it will always be wrapped in things we hate? I think my tribe has become very good at trivializing the mob aspects of movies and TV shows because they know it’s the only way they’re going to see themselves represented in depth. We brush off the “gangster stuff” because we know it’s a very tiny part of actual Italian-American life. I also think some of us feel a sense of misplaced pride in Hollywood mobsters; but I’m not sure if it’s in the characters themselves or the ethnic world they represent. Maybe people just like seeing powerful figures who are like themselves in some way regardless of how they got that power. I’ve been told many times that I’m “too sensitive” and shouldn’t get upset about this stuff. Sorry to be a buzzkill.
I was not a fan of The Sopranos. I can look at it from a distance and appreciate the often brilliant acting, great writing and expert directing. But on a personal level I had huge problems with it. I know first hand what it feels like to be told by everyone from some jerk at a party to a casting director that you look like a mobster, or to hear endless jokes from strangers about how your family is probably in the Mafia. It’s a great way to keep people who are “obviously” Italian-American (i.e. darker ethnic looks, Italian surname, New York City accent/energy) in their place so they don’t get any ideas about being regular white people. The Sopranos just added some more credence to the theory that my DNA makes me prone to (organized) criminal activity.
I’ve often been asked if I’d ever play a mobster in a film or on TV. The answer is probably not. The rich, nuanced character of Tony Soprano represents about .0001% of all Mafia-guy roles, which means the rest are talking goomba scenery, especially for unknown actors like me. It’s one thing to star in a Scorsese film where people know you’re playing a part in a top-tier Hollywood epic. It’s another to be one of the endless parade of wannabe tough-guy actors who can’t wait to wear shiny suits and look menacing. I remember all the one-line auditions I went on where the description was for a “Tony Soprano” type, for everything from lip-balm commercials to truly shitty indie films. Those parts just depressed me so I stopped auditioning for them. I had already left one career that I hated, so why would I try to create an acting career I despised just as much?
James Gandolfini was an incredibly talented actor who died way too young. In a perfect world, he would have won international acclaim playing Anthony Soprano, CPA. And people would tell me I look like an accountant.
A short wrap-up of 2012 and a wish for 2013 from comedian Anthony DeVito.