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TitleHollywood's Italian American Filmmakers: Capra, Scorsese, Savoca, Coppola, and Tarantino
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Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Page
1. Frank Capra: Ethnic Denial and Its Impossibility
2. Martin Scorses: Confined and Defined by Ethnicity
3. Nancy Savoca: Ethnicity, Class, and Gender
4. Francis Ford Coppola: Ethnic Nostalgia in the Godfather Trilogy
5. Quentin Tarantino: Ethnicity and the Postmodern
Conclusion: Ancestral Legacies and History's Lessons
Document Text Contents
Page 1

Capra, Scorsese, Savoca,
Coppola, and Tarantino

Jonathan J. Cavallero

Italian American

Page 2

Hollywood’s Italian American Filmmakers

Page 116

middle-class respectability gained through his father’s profession as an artist,
Coppola was allowed to embrace his Italian roots as a unique aspect of his
personality and identity that did not threaten his sense of opportunity and
social advancement in the post–World War II era.11 Nonetheless, Coppola’s
public image has been saddled (or aided) by many of the stereotypes that
have plagued Italian Americans.12 He has been referred to as “like a Mafia
godfather” (Lindsey 134). George Lucas has described him as “very Italian
and compulsive” (quoted in Phillips, Godfather 52), and Cowie suggests that
he is melodramatic and blames his sexual politics on “the conservatism of
his Italian background” (Coppola 194, 7). Coppola has encouraged some of
these remarks by saying that he operates “very affectionately with people”
and frequently linking his Italian background with a “family attitude” (Cowie,
Coppola 6). Nonetheless, one cannot help but recognize the degree to which
critics use Coppola to validate more widely held Italian stereotypes.
While the Godfather films would become the ones most associated with
a specifically Italian ethnicity, a more general interest in ethnic characters is
present in many of the director’s other films. The main character in The Rain
People (1969) is Natalie Ravenna (Shirley Knight), an Italian American wife
on the run, in a film that features a brief Godfather-esque wedding sequence.
Coppola’s Tetro (2009) tells the story of two Italian American brothers living
in Argentina and was promoted by the director and his American Zoetrope
company as “semi-autobiographical.” Finian’s Rainbow (1968) focuses on two
Irish immigrants and is tied thematically to the first two Godfather films.13
And The Cotton Club (1984) delves into the interaction among Irish, Jewish,
and African American characters during the Harlem Renaissance. These
last two films reveal an approach to race that is fairly typical of Hollywood.
The Cotton Club, for instance, sets up a dichotomy between the criminal
activities of “bad” or “negative” whites and the artistic expression of “good”
or “positive” African Americans, but it marginalized (and marginalizes) Af-
rican Americans in its production and its narrative.14 Ultimately, it is white
actor Richard Gere who stars in a film that is supposedly about the Harlem
Renaissance. As in many Hollywood movies, African American characters
are subordinated to white ethnic or nonethnic characters in an effort to ap-
peal to a mass audience.
The Godfather’s conservative impulses are cloaked within a more nostalgic
view of the past and coexist with metaphorical overtones that challenge, but
do not completely undermine, the film’s politics. As a result, the film’s con-
servatism becomes less apparent and somehow more negligible. We should
recall that The Godfather was released at a time of uncertainty and unrest in
American culture. William Malyszko writes of the period, “Americans were

Francis Ford Coppola 103

Page 117

quite critical of their leaders. The Vietnam War and the Nixon administra-
tion, which led to the Watergate scandal, had created considerable unrest. The
central metaphor of the Mafia as representative of corporate America would
not be lost on many members of the audience” (8).15 However, whereas the
film invites a critical view of the dominant culture, its apparently noble and
benevolent Mafia don invites a less radical response. “Perhaps, [The Godfather]
indicated a change in thinking,” writes Schumacher, “an indication that the
public, weary of what it considered to be a free-wheeling, overly permissive
society, was willing to embrace a more rigid, almost Machiavellian leadership
in exchange for order in the house” (93). While sanctioning multiple viewing
positions, Coppola’s deployment of ethnicity smuggles traditionalist messages
into the films and makes them acceptable.16 The first two Godfather films
are marked by an obsessive interest in ethnic detail, an endorsement of the
sanctity of the patriarchal family, a need to defend and protect familial loyalty,
and a consistent effort to tone down the rawness of the Old World characters
of Puzo’s novel and make them more appealing to moviegoing audiences.

Puzo’s Novel versus Coppola’s Film

Coppola and Puzo engaged in a long-distance collaboration on the screenplay
for the first Godfather, but even Puzo concedes that the finished product was
largely Coppola’s.17 Critics have noted Coppola’s “more engaging” gangsters
(Cowie, Godfather 16), the absence of sinister words like omertà, Moustache
Pete, and 90 calibre (Lebo 32), and the transformation of Fredo from the
novel’s more competent and brutal character to the film’s bumbling nice guy
gangster (Phillips, Interviews 178). Noting the differences between the two
works is a useful first step, but scholars must strive to move toward a type
of analysis that interrogates the reasons for these changes and the general
goals they serve.
The difference in Puzo’s and Coppola’s visions (in spite of their shared eth-
nic background and gender) further exposes the diversity that exists within
ethnic groups. Gardaphé suggests that the differences between the novel and
the film are attributable, at least in part, to the generational differences be-
tween the works’ authors. He writes, “For the most part, Coppola follows the
direction of Puzo’s novel, but the choices he makes when changing the story
are made from a perspective that reflects the generational differences between
Puzo, the son of immigrants, and Coppola, the grandson of immigrants—
a perspective that reflects attitudes towards masculinity that had changed
drastically in one generation” (Wiseguys 38).18 However, whereas Puzo’s novel
offers a more critical representation of the Don (Marlon Brando) and his

104 chapter 4

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Index 219

Springsteen, Adele Zerilli, 191n19
Springsteen, Bruce, 163, 191n19
Stallone, Sylvester, 8
State of the Union, 26, 171n60
Storm of Strangers, 73
Strong Man, The, 13, 15–19, 23, 26, 40–42, 167n7,


Tamburri, Anthony J., 165n1, 190n1
Tarantino, Quentin, 4, 185n1, 186n15, 186n29,

188nn45–51, 189n57, 190n70; and African
Americans, 129, 141–45, 188n47; and Asian
cultures, 128, 138, 146–47; audience for the
films of, 134, 136–37, 141, 144–45, 147–48,
161, 189n54; and blaxploitation, 10, 144, 145,
189n56; and Capra, 128, 160, 187n37; child-
hood of, 126–27, 129, 131, 142, 144; cinematic
style of, 128–29, 131–32, 134–35, 138–40, 145,
185n10; critics of, 126–27, 131, 133–35, 137,
140–41; ethnic background of, 7, 125–29,
130, 132, 141–42, 144–45; father figures in the
films of, 125–26, 127, 130–33, 186nn15–16; and
F. Coppola, 124, 128, 135–36, 137, 139, 141, 161;
gender politics in the films of, 130–34; and
The Godfather, 124, 130, 135–36; and Good-
Fellas, 136, 138, 140; and Hollywood norms,
144–45, 147–48, 189n54; issues of class in the
films of, 144–45, 148; and John Travolta, 129,
136–37, 139, 140, 141; and Mean Streets, 126,
130, 135, 138, 185n13, 187n31; performance in
his films, 124, 126–33, 137, 143, 148–50, 161;
politics of, 127, 145, 185n5; postmodernism,
126–28, 133–35, 140–41, 148; representations
of African Americans in the films of, 127;
representations of Germans in the films of,
134, 148–50; representations of Italian/Italian
Americans in the films of, 127, 128, 140, 149;
representations of Nazis, 187n37; and Savo-
ca, 128, 160; and Scorsese, 126, 128, 185n4,
187n31, 187n37, 187n40; Scorsese’s influence
on Pulp Fiction, 135–41; Scorsese’s influence
on True Romance, 131–32; self-quotations in
his films, 139–40, 145, 187n41; and Taxi Driv-
er, 131–32, 138, 186n20; use of previous mov-
ies, 126–27, 131–33, 135–41, 145–48, 161, 185n2,
186n23; violence in the films of, 126–28, 131,
133–34, 138, 148–49, 186nn24–25

Taxi Driver, 46, 131–32, 138, 173n12
Tetro, 103, 108–9
That Certain Thing, 26

Thurman, Uma, 129, 134, 136–37, 139
Tomasulo, Frank P., 65, 110, 176n47, 181n16,

183n40, 191nn12–13
Top Hat, 35
Travolta, John, 129, 136–37, 139, 140, 141, 187n34
trickster characters, 35, 36
True Love, 77–79, 81–85, 87–89, 91, 97–98,

True Romance, 130–33, 136, 141, 148, 186n19,

Tucci, Stanley, 151, 166n9
Tucker: The Man and His Dream, 109, 182n28
24-Hour Woman, 77

Untouchables, The, 1, 151
Untouchables, The (TV), 155–56

Valentino, Rudolf, 14, 41, 171n59
Vietnam War, 89–90, 92, 104, 109, 123, 125, 136
Virgin Suicides, The, 156
vitelloni, I, 51–52, 173n19

War Comes to America, 39–40, 170nn56–57
Warner Bros., 90–91, 171n58, 179n12
Wesleyan Cinema Archives, 43, 166n4, 169n40
White Ethnic Revival, 5, 47–48, 73–76, 97, 101,

111, 177n64
Who’s That Knocking at My Door, 47–49, 53–57,

63, 65, 68, 174n28, 175n38; compared to
Savoca’s movies, 83; compared with It’s Not
Just You, Murray!, 174n30; influence of Ital-
ian neorealism, 51; representations of non-
Italian ethnic groups, 61; Scorsese’s views
on, 174n23, 174n25

“Why We Fight,” 13, 33–40, 42, 169n41,

Winterset, 35
Wood, Robin, 21, 177n67, 183n40, 185n3
World War I, 15, 32, 38, 125, 169n39
World War II, 3–4, 47–48, 125, 149, 155, 169n38;

and Frank Capra, 32–40, 42–43

You Can’t Take It with You, 25
Younger Generation, The, 12–13, 15, 20–23,

26–27, 41–42, 168nn19–22
Young Racers, The, 135
You’re a Big Boy Now, 108

Zastoupil, Connie, 126, 185n1, 186n15

Page 233

jonathan j. cavallero is an assistant
professor of communication at the University
of Arkansas.

The University of Illinois Press
is a founding member of the
Association of American University Presses.

Composed in 10.5/13 Adobe Minion Pro
at the University of Illinois Press
Manufactured by Cushing-Malloy, Inc.

University of Illinois Press
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Champaign, IL 61820-6903

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