Italian American Cinema: From Capra to the Coppolas, an original, documentary exhibit by the Museo Italo Americano, written by Joseph McBride, will be on exhibit at the Museo from September 18, 2015 through March 6, 2016.
The American cinema, from its inception, has played a major role in shaping our perceptions of our country and ourselves, and impacting the way that other countries perceive us, as well. American movies were multiethnic from the beginning, made initially for largely working-class and often immigrant audiences and shaped by filmmakers strongly identified with their ethnic groups. Italian Americans have long been one of the most important and influential groups represented onscreen, and many major filmmakers and stars have been Italian American. In such films from the heartwarming Rocky and Marty to the chilling Godfather trilogy and Raging Bull, their work has both reflected the Italian American experience in this country and shaped the overall society’s perceptions and sometimes misperceptions of this ethnic group’s identity.
Our upcoming exhibit, Italian American Cinema: From Capra to the Coppolas, will promote greater understanding and appreciation of the rich contributions made by Italian Americans to our national cinema and culture as well as to the world at large. Through documentary panels written by film scholar Joseph McBride, photographs, memorabilia, and video installations, the exhibit will recognize the contributions of major Italian American filmmakers. The exhibit will explore the cultural heritage these artists have contributed as well as the themes on which they have focused and the compelling but sometimes troubling issues raised by their work. The exhibit will also deal with the ways the general audience perceives and misperceives Italian Americans onscreen. This multimedia exhibit should do much to advance a greater recognition and understanding of the Italian American heritage, both mythical and actual, and its contributions to the most influential artistic medium of modern times.
Among the filmmakers who will be featured in this exhibit are Frank Borzage, Frank Capra, Gregory La Cava, Vincente Minnelli, Ida Lupino, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Joe Dante, Chris Columbus, Michael Cimino, Nancy Savoca, Quentin Tarantino, Penny Marshall, David Russell, and Sofia Coppola. Actors and performers spotlighted will include Rudolph Valentino, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Lou Costello, Anne Bancroft, Liza Minnelli, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Sylvester Stallone, Marisa Tomei, Mira Sorvino, Paul Giamatti, and Leonardo DiCaprio. A sampling of other influential figures will include the Hollywood entertainment banker and film company executive A. H. (Doc) Giannini; James Bond series producer Albert R. (Cubby) Broccoli; production designer Dante Ferretti; film score composer Carmine Coppola; Godfather novelist and screenwriter Mario Puzo.
Among the frequent themes of Italian American filmmakers that will be treated with special emphasis in panels and displays:
- Family — From the 1915 silent feature The Italian to such varied works as Marty; the Godfather films; Martin Scorsese’s documentary about his immigrant parents, Italianamerican; the popular comedies Moonstruck, True Love, and Big Night; and the controversial cable television series The Sopranos, the family is the multilayered rock on which Italian American culture depends, and its strength is often severely tested onscreen, as the socioeconomic and other conflicts in these films show.
- Community — Ethnic pride commingled with a drive toward assimilation and economic success help make Italian Americans and their films so influential.
- Immigration — The struggle of immigrants to achieve the “American Dream” is the subject of many of the most important films by Italian Americans.
- Assimilation — The ambivalent view of America portrayed by these filmmakers: How far should an ethnic group go in blending into the “melting pot” that was once the norm in America? How have Italian Americans maintained the cultural heritage while also defining their identity as unhyphenated Americans?
- Stereotypes — How exaggerated imagery, both comic and sinister, has marred screen portrayals of Italian Americans, perhaps more than any other ethnic group other than African Americans.
- Music — A celebration of the role in perpetuating Italian culture in the wider American community and an exploration of how some of the finest screen actors are also musical performers.
- Comedy — The often-delightful but sometimes stereotypical tradition of Italian Americans poking fun at themselves or having it directed at them onscreen, a popular but problematic tradition.
- Crime — One of the ironies of Italian American filmmaking, is that some of the most accomplished artistic cinematic depictions of this ethnic group have dealt with Italian Americans as gangsters or “wise guys.” This controversial cultural association of an ethnic group with crime dates back to the earliest days of American cinema and persists even though the proportion of law-abiding Italian Americans is similar to that of other groups in our multiethnic society.
These same themes recur, in one way or another, throughout the work of Italian American filmmakers from the early 1900s until today, helping define this ethnic group’s crucial role in American culture. Some other Italian American filmmakers, then and now, have followed Frank Capra’s lead in not putting their ethnicity in the forefront and in presenting themselves as largely assimilated (these successful mainstream directors have included Vincente Minnelli and Ida Lupino in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Quentin Tarantino and Sofia Coppola in current cinema), but they all are strongly influenced by their background and heritage. Other prominent filmmakers, such as Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, have often foregrounded their ethnicity while still venturing into broader thematic and cultural areas as well. But since the central themes of Italian American cinema — such as family, community, immigration, and assimilation — are also among the central topics for historians defining the “American Dream” and its evolution over the past hundred years, the exhibit will show how and why Italian Americans are so central to any discussion of American cinema and its tremendous impact on our society.
— Joseph McBride