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An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America

Kirkus Reviews
A whip-smart meditation on the power of ethnic myth, in this instance the one that supposes that to be an Italian American is by definition to walk among the dons and the goombahs.

De Stefano, George
AN OFFER WE CAN'T REFUSE: The Mafia in the Mind of America
Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus & Giroux (424 pp.) $23.00
Jan. 16, 2006
ISBN: 0.571-21157-7

The Mafia, some say, is fading away. But "if the mob indeed is dying, American popular culture tells a different story," writes cultural critic De Stefano. Thanks to The Sopranos, organized crime has been restored in the popular imagination to its proper role as heart and heart" of italianita. So culturally accurate is the show, De Stefano allows, that it may not be possible to correct that perception; even as the mobsters surrounding Tony Soprano take their cultural cues from earlier Mob classics-- particularly The Godfather, the touchstone of it all --there are few pop-culture pieces that do not echo The Sopranos, few that depict Italian Americans as being, well, just plain folks without conniving, murderous streaks to wrestle with.

De Stefano writes elegantly of self discoveries: As a bearded radical (a la Al Pacino's Serpico, one imagines) just beginning to be aware of being gay, he was still thrilled by Don Corleone, only to wonder later whether there weren't more to the story. He examines the rise of the mobster in popular culture, tracing its origin to the 1930 film The Doorway to Hell (and not,as many histories do, to the following year's Little Caesar),and follows its course through the thick stereotypes of the Untouchables era, to the pensive doings of Martin Scorsese's rebel gangsters and, finally, to David Chase's current depictions, which have anti-defamation groups at a constant boil. Should they be so bothered? De Stefano is sympathetic, but he wonders whether an unlinking from the mob and all its symbolism might not mean "the end of the Italian American as a protagonist in American popular culture."

What's worse, to be seen in a negative light--or to not be seen at all? A good question, and a very good source for those who like to scratch below the surface.

Exploring the myth of the Mafia's grip.
Cliches exist until they are challenged
By Carlin Romano
Philadelphia Inquirer Book Critic

An Offer We Can't Refuse
The Mafia in the Mind of America
By George De Stefano
Faber & Faber. 438 pp. $26
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 boor, the dumb but lovable stud" - are both badfellas and dumbfellas.


© 2006 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Analyzing pop culture's mob connections
By Renée Graham, Boston Globe Correspondent |

An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America
By George De Stefano
Faber and Faber, 438 pp., $26

Graced with fearless acting, intelligent scripts, and innovative directing, HBO's ''The Sopranos," which returns next month for its sixth season, is arguably the best drama in television history. Still, much of the show's critical and commercial acclaim is derived not just from its spot-on depiction of Tony and Carmela Soprano dealing with their floundering marriage and mercurial children, but from its equally sharp focus on Tony's other ''family," the New Jersey crime mob that he leads.

When it premiered in 1999, ''The Sopranos" was yet another fix for an insatiable culture that can't seem to get enough of goodfellas, gumads, and gabagol. Yet, because of these lusty portrayals of Italian-American mobsters, ''in the popular view, Italian culture equals Mafia culture," George De Stefano contends in his persuasive -- and cleverly titled -- book,''An Offer We Can't Refuse."

For years, Italian antidefamation groups have denounced ''The Sopranos," as well as such films as ''The Godfather" and 'GoodFellas," for reinforcing stereotypes that can demean an entire ethnic group. De Stefano elevates this argument beyond a routine diatribe into a thoughtful, thorough analysis tracing the evolution of these vexing pop-culture icons, why their ''dangerous allure" remains an enduring attraction, and how they impact perceptions about Italian-Americans.

De Stefano readily acknowledges that most ethnic and racial minorities have been victimized by pop-culture stereotypes. Yet, he contends, while portrayals of other groups ''have become more diverse and true to life," Italian-Americans ''continue to be defined mainly through the tiny minority of criminals known as gangsters, mobsters, Mafiosi, goodfellas, and wiseguys, and through the related stereotype of the crude, sexist, and violence-prone 'gavone.'"

Decades before 1930s films such as ''Little Caesar" and 'Scarface" introduced the moviegoing masses to ruthless men with hair-trigger tempers and names ending in vowels, southern Italian immigrants were demonized as dangerous and ignorant. Once Al Capone made a violent name for himself as leader of organized crime in Chicago during the Great Depression, gangsters became big-screen antiheroes. Still, De Stefano maintains that the portrayals varied. Irish-American gangsters, such as James Cagney in the 1931 classic ''The Public Enemy," were presented with a ''cocky, roguish charm" even though in the film he gave his girlfriend an unwanted facial with a grapefruit. On the other hand, their Italian-American counterparts were portrayed as ''sinister and utterly amoral."

De Stefano broadens his study in fascinating, unexpected ways. In the book's most provocative chapter, he tackles the prickly topics of race and racism as a ''recurring motif" in organized crime narratives. At times, he gets bogged down rehashing too many details from particular TV episodes or films, but his discussion is mostly lively and compelling. Here, he also considers hip-hop's embrace of Mafia clichés, and how, despite the overt racism of real and fictional Italian-American crime bosses, some rap artists' connect with the up-from-nothing, hardscrabble rise of these figures.

Throughout this book, De Stefano makes clear that ''The Sopranos" and The Godfather films (well, at least the first two) are works of art. He never calls for the abolition of mob-inspired shows and films, but instead pushes for more varied portrayals of Italian-Americans. ''Whether we Italian Americans continue to produce mobsters, fictional or actual, the Mafia myth cannot be the last word about our lives and culture," De Stefano concludes. ''Italian America still has many more stories to tell."

© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company