Beyond Wiseguys: Italian Americans & the Movies (2008) Poster

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Better Than It Might Have Been.
rmax3048239 December 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Rather an interesting documentary on the role of Italians in Hollywood, with an emphasis on the careers of Frank Capra, Frank Sinatra, and "The Sopranos." Talking heads like Ben Gazzara, Santo Loquasto, Jack Valenti, Chazz Palinteri, Stanley Tucci, and Susan Sarandon contribute insights, anecdotes, or, as in the case of Susan Sarandon, irrelevancies.

Clips range from silent movies through "The Godfather" to "The Sopranos." One of the Heads has a good point to make about how much sound added to the impact of the gangster movie -- not just the gestures anymore, but the lingo. "Cheez, boss, you should have plugged Joe." "Screw, mug." "I wish you was a wishing well so's I could tie a bucket to ya and sink ya." Well -- that last quote isn't in this documentary. It's from "Public Enemy" with James Cagney as an Irish gangster and it makes no sense whatever. (How do you sink a wishing well?) But the line cracks me up every time I hear it and I had to shoehorn it in somewhere.

There's some surprising candor by and about Italian-American film makers. Ben Gazzara speaks resignedly of being insulted by the Irish immigrants who were here before the Italians. Then the Italians insulted and beat the Puerto Ricans. He wonders abstractedly who the Puerto Ricans are abusing. Isabella Rossellini, my co-star in "Blue Velvet," opines that the first generation of Italian immigrants merely maintained their identities and did what work they could; the second generation assimilated; and the third now looks back fondly on their ethnic roots.

And Frank Capra, one of the most famous and successful Italian-America directors of the 1930s and 40s, the man who brought us "It's A Wonderful Life," being caught up in the anti-communist craze of the 1950s for making movies about "the little people" and who retired in a state of depression. He returned for a visit to the small village in Sicily where he'd been born but it didn't help him a bit. "Who gives a **** anymore." I said it's better than it could have been, and I meant it. It would have been easy, and probably was tempting, to roll out another film about an ethnic group suffering from prejudice, stereotyping, and misrepresentation in Hollywood movies. There IS some of that pity for one's self but not much of it. The weakness is compensated for by the occasional nuggets of perception sprinkled throughout the script. It's not all like the last shot of the film, in which Jerry Vail stares directly into the camera lens and declares: "I am an Italian-American -- and proud of it." There was more than enough of THAT from all ethnic groups during the 1960s.
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