To the editors:
It was very heartening to see theater critic Albert Williams decry the crude Italian stereotypes in Breaking Legs (October 29). One question, however: Why the reluctance to acknowledge these images as politically offensive?
It is amazing (and depressing) to see how effective the media’s constant Italian bashing has been in making these images palatable to mainstream America. Portrayals which are rightly deemed offensive to other Americans–Stepin Fetchit, the Frito Bandito, et al–are considered “fun” or “cute” when applied to Italians. Why the double standard? Bigotry is bigotry, regardless of who’s the target.
The caricaturing has become so pervasive–so casually accepted by the political left as well as the right–that even Jonathan Rosenbaum, a usually sensitive critic, referred to Martin Scorsese as a “drooling paisano” in a recent review of The Age of Innocence (September 17). America’s greatest living filmmaker deserves better than a cheap shot.
It’s not Williams or Rosenbaum’s fault; it’s largely the media’s myopia. Their collective stunted vision has also infected the perceptions which many Italian Americans have of themselves. In the current film A Bronx Tale, for example, Chazz Palminteri, who wrote and stars, has admitted in interviews that the character he plays, Sonny the philosophical (!) crime boss, never existed–he made him up. Perhaps Danny Aiello’s “unease” in his Breaking Legs role is a realization that such witless self-denigration has to stop.
(That is, if Hollywood will let him: Whenever a film presents Italians as average, middle-class people–Once Around (1990), City of Hope (1991), Mac (1993)–Hollywood’s marketing machine always conks out–unless there’s a crime angle, of course.)
Italian Americans are sick and tired of being viewed as the official village idiots of popular culture. Indeed, it is our ancestors who have defined culture throughout the centuries, whether in Rome, Florence, or (despite the media’s ignorance) America. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, so popular prejudice will not disappear overnight. But Williams’ rejection of Italian stereotypes is at least a step in the right direction. It’s time for the media, the general public, and even some Italian Americans to do the same.
Bill Dal Cerro
Italian Cultural Center