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Married To The Mob: Mafiosos In The Media

Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, April 5, 2006

When “The Sopranos” debuted on Jan. 10, 1999, Tony Soprano – the show’s ursine, amoral center – did more than just get himself a gun. He became the stone cold veneer of HBO’s cable empire, helping the company whack its competition en route to instant cult-hit status, blockbuster ratings and 17 Emmys over the next five years.

Along the way, Tony and his crew joined a long lineage of notable Mafia families, gangsters who’ve been immortalized in pop culture lore. Names like Capone, Gotti and Corleone – some fictional, others not – have become inseparable from the public’s fascination with the dangerous, but enticing, world of organized crime.

Hollywood is no different. Mob stories have been popular destinations for Hollywood’s caviar dreams since the 1940s, when the crime noir genre of black and white films rose in popularity following World War II. Over the next few decades, Western outlaws outfitted with cowboy hats and six-shooters were slowly replaced by Tommy guns and trench coats in audience imaginations. The new folk anti-heroes had arrived – members of “La Cosa Nostra.”

Arguably the most influential depiction of the Mafia in popular culture is director Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” trilogy, based on works by author Mario Puzo. Populated by colorful characters, Coppola’s filmic glimpse at the Corleone crime family – about as close to privileged Mafia royalty as they come – has withstood the test of time and continues to be one of the most revered American films ever made.

While Coppola’s crime opus is essentially the story of Michael Corleone – the promising college graduate and World War II veteran who is initially sheltered from the family business – the most complex and beloved character is his father, Vito. With his strong moral code and an unwavering devotion to his clan, the Corleone family patriarch shone in every second of his considerable screen time. As regal as he was resourceful, Vito did more than just command fear and respect from his New York crime kingdom. He laid the tracks for Tony Soprano as a devoted family man and a charismatic friend, inspiring loyalty from both his families – domestic and criminal.

Played by two different screen giants – Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro – Vito was the heart and soul of the first two installments of the trilogy. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences apparently agreed, awarding both Brando and De Niro respective acting Oscars for their efforts – the only time two actors have won separate Oscars for playing the same character.

“The Sopranos” is replete with loving references to Coppola’s classics. Aside from spouting classic lines from the trilogy several times a season, Tony and his crew have entered into passionate discourses about each film’s merits. During one such occasion, Tony reveals that he prefers “Part II,” pointing to the segment where Vito goes back to Don Cheech’s villa in Sicily as his favorite scene from the trilogy.

In that same episode, Tony’s crew gathers around a TV set to test out an advance bootlegged copy of “The Godfather” on DVD. Alas, the DVD shorts out and produces a “no disc” error. This prompts crewmember Paulie Gualtieri to quip, “Somebody should tell Paramount Pictures to get their [stuff] together. We’re gonna be stealing thousands more of these things” – a clever tongue-in-cheek reference to the crew’s honest day jobs.

If “The Godfather” glamorized Don Corleone’s white collar operation, director Martin Scorsese took his view of crime directly to street level in “Goodfellas.” Released in 1990, the film follows the exploits of Jimmy Conway (De Niro, proving himself once more to be the yardstick by which all other fictional gangsters are measured), Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a triumvirate of New York mobsters who rise from low level hoods to genuine mafiosos in the ’60s and ’70s. For the first time, a film showed how working class mobsters operated, including a peek into the drug trafficking and money heists that launched their fortunes.

While the stately Corleones are the mob family Tony and his soldiers aspire to be, the felons in “Goodfellas” are their most direct ancestors. In fact, “The Sopranos” and “Goodfellas” share more than a few commonalities. Besides the common blue-collar crime roots of both dramas, “Sopranos” lifers Christopher Moltisanti and Dr. Jennifer Melfi are played by former “Goodfellas” cast members Michael Imperioli and Lorraine Bracco, respectively – a coincidence that the HBO drama exploits with comical repercussions.

Midway through Scorsese’s film, Imperioli – who plays an ill fated bartender named Spider – gets a bullet in the foot from an irked Pesci for being slow with the drinks. Almost a decade later, Imperioli repays the favor in a first season episode of “The Sopranos,” shooting a bakery clerk in the foot due to a perceived slight – a clear-cut homage to Scorsese’s Mafia classic. That style of dark humor – prevalent in many of Scorsese’s films, but especially in “Goodfellas” – is echoed in many “Sopranos” episodes.

Mob stories are never in short supply in Hollywood, and every decade boasts a Mafia gem of its own. While films like “The Godfather” romanticized the seedy, yet tight knit, underbelly of crime, others – 1983’s “Scarface,” 1987’s “The Untouchables” and 2002’s “Road to Perdition” come to mind – have painted this same world in blood-red hues that belie the respectful kisses and affectionate epithets of gangster solidarity.

Into this lineage steps “The Sopranos.” At once alluring, provocative and disturbing, the series represents an evolution of the genre as much as a vivid new interpretation. When Tony says to his nephew, “Once you’re into this family, there’s no getting out,” he voices his binding avowal to the Mafia’s past and present.

Fortunately for Vito, Michael, Henry and the rest of their cadre, the future of La Cosa Nostra in the media is assured – it lies in Tony’s burly hands, tapering down to the gun barrel nestled between his fingers.