Most Italians growing up in post war America grew up experiencing some prejudice. Public opinion was generally against Italians because their former country sided against the Americans in the Second World War. As a result, Italian Americans were often ridiculed, even though their parents and relatives had served in America's armed forces.
It was Hollywood that gave a new outlook to the Italian culture and their carefree lifestyle through popular films such as Fellini's La Strada and La Dolce Vita, De Santis' Bitter Rice and Divorce, Italian Style. It was the Italian film directors who stirred America's emotions. Overall, the Italian lifestyle appealed to the average moviegoer who began to copy that style.
During the fifties and sixties, Italy's style icons and trendsetters were largely responsible for America's fashion. These people included models, movie stalwarts, fashion designers, auto makers and formula one drivers. The trend was so strong that, if a fashion item was made in Italy, and if the fashion designer's logo or brand name ended with a vowel (i.e., i or an o), then it was certain that the average American would buy it.
It was in the early sixties, when Hollywood created a new image of Italy or a new brand that depicted the Italian man. This image was totally absorbed by the average American, who was keen to embrace that lifestyle. The new films that were released were different from the war tragedies or neo realism that depicted destruction, ruins and poverty. The public gladly absorbed actors like Marcello Mastroianni in romantic movies with color and they were happy to accept this new stereotype.
Again in the seventies the Italian American actors like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro became household names. Unfortunately, they would become popular for the criminal characters that they portrayed. Their films like Raging Bull, The Godfather, The Untouchables, Goodfellas and Casino constantly associated Italian Americans with violence and crime.
This has led to the situation now that with the exception of a few, today’s Italian American actors have become little more than an image of the mafia mobster. Italian American film characters have been limited to the roll of a mob boss or mafia hit men. With the current popularity of the tele-serial The Soprano's and the constant resurgence of Francis Ford Coppola's film, The Godfather, the Italian American image has been reduced to a total unflattering stereotype. For decades to come, Al Pacino's portrayal of Michael Corleone, in the wildly popular Godfather series, would lay the groundwork for the future depiction of Italian Americans on film.
Despite their troubles, mentioned below are a few great actors of Italian descent who, despite playing mob bosses have also done other good films:
Perhaps the future of the Italian actor lies in the hands of artistic genius Roberto Benigni, (La vita è bella / Life Is Beautiful) or the handsome face and acting skills of Leonardo DiCaprio, (The Titanic) or the inherited talents of screen writer/ director Edoardo Ponti (Between Strangers). Perhaps they can do what Scorsese and Coppola have failed to do. Hopefully, these new breed of actors and directors will bring to the screen a new reflection of the Italian with American descent and depict their ancestral heritage in a more positive manner.
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