Sunday, October 25, 2015

Auditioning for Mafia Stuff

Sometimes I get called to audition for mafia-themed productions. While I am, as my agent says, squarely in the "ethnically ambiguous" niche, roles depicting Italian-Americans are a natural fit for obvious reasons and very often, still, a character designed to be Italian or Italamerican is situated in a drama or (worse) comedy about Italian-American organized crime.

I have no affection for our culture's fascination with Italian mobsters and their sons. It would be wonderful to audition for a drama about Sacco and Vanzetti, or Joe DiMaggio or the laborers on Trolley Road or the Bostoniani of the north end but noooooo, "the industry" keep producing shit about the mafia.

Let's be clear: I'm not at all interested in erasing history. Organized crime is very much part of the story of Italian immigration in America (even though we are talking about a few hundred people out of a population of millions), just as it is a driver of history in its major cities. I'm not categorically opposed to telling stories about these organizations. I think The Godfather is a wonderful movie: that's a story about a young man who wants to avoid the family business but gets sucked into it - and, tragically, is sucked in due to his positive attributes. The characters are Italian-Americans but it's a human story.

But I think we all can see that in entertainment media, Italian-Americans are represented as associated with organized crime more reliably than other ethnic classes. It's part of our "brand." In popular culture, we are associated with that far more closely than the alternatives mentioned above - and we could develop a much longer list. 

And our culture's fascination and love for it is strange to me. I don't understand what made John Gotti (and other Gambino officers) such beloved figures among various sub-cultures, from well to do caucasians to hip hop and around. This has been studied and there are papers and research I could read if I had more taste for the topic.

So anyway, I've got these sides for someone auditioning me to play Paul Ricca. Paul "the Waiter." He worked with Capone in Chicago and became boss himself. Coincidentally, he was a mentor to Sam Giancana, who was a character in my most recent play (Marilee and Baby Lamb, a new play written and directed by Mark Medoff which had its first run in downtown Las Cruces this month.)

I'm surprised Ricca hasn't been the star of a mafia film yet, because he fits the stereotype beautifully. Napolitano, heavy accent, violent, ruthless; killed people with his own hands and had a lot of guys killed on his behalf.

And I'm reading these sides and the lines are in fluent, complicated English, nothing like how Ricca would have spoken. (His accent was reportedly so thick, non-Italians had trouble understanding him.) Hard to judge from the sides but it looks like fake mafia-tainment. Write a stock character and stick an Italian name on him.

And I need money, so tempted as I was to just say the lines in Italian and send the video, fuhgeddaboutit - no, I played the lines (without an accent) and sent the tape.

An actor's life.


Socionaut said...

That is what separates entertainment from art. I believe there is a distinction, and in the case of film and theater that distinction is bad writing. To be shocked at the amount of italians playing mobsters neglects the amount of blacks playing streetwise thugs, whites playing arrogant businessmen and women playing helpless, lovelorn solipsists. As a German American who spent the first half of his life in Germany, surrounded by German culture, i could make the same argument about the lack of German characters in film who are not explicitly or implicitly making one handed salutes.
To complain about what is understood in mass culture is a futile enterprise, and to give a shit is equally Sisyphean. If you want something different create it, just don't expect the masses to throw Benjamins your way.

Kelly said...

I think the stereotypes are always out there. Hey, I'm a woman from Arkansas, so you know what images that conjures up.

Still...I've seen my share of organized crime flicks featuring Asians and Irishmen. And Eastern Europeans, for that matter.

Would you believe I can't recall ever watching The Godfather all the way through?

Unknown said...

While mafioso stories obviously dominate Italian American representations in American (Hollywood) culture, one elucidating comparison to make is the first Rocky film, which came out very close to The Godfather. Both are Italian American success stories of a different flavor, and at the very least Rocky was written and directed by (and starred) an actual Italian American. Love them or hate (or somewhere in-between), Rocky from the production standpoint speaks a lot more to the empowerment and agency of Italian Americans shaping their own image in the media than your average, run-of-the-mill mafia pic.