Excerpted from An Offer We Can’t Refuse by George De Stefano. Copyright © 2006 by George De Stefano. Published January 2006 by Faber and Faber Inc, an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
The Mafia is dead.
Long live the mafioso.
At the dawn of the new millennium, the Italian American mafia barely resembled its old fearsome self. Beginning in the 1980s, vigorous law enforcement drove gangsters out of many of their traditional rackets and put many of its leaders in prison. In early 2003, Joseph Massino, the Bonanno organization boss and the last purported head of New York’s notorious “five families” of crime still at large, was arrested and a year later was convicted on murder and racketeering charges and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Then Massino did something unheard-of for an old-time mafia chief: he broke omertà the venerable code of silence, and became a government witness.
John Gotti, the publicity-loving “Dapper Don,” died of cancer in prison in 2002; a year later his brother Peter, his successor as boss, was tried, convicted, and imprisoned.
Vincent “the Chin” Gigante, the Genovese family chief who had eluded justice for years by feigning insanity—how could this mumbling old man shuffling through Greenwich Village in a tattered bathrobe be a cunning crime lord? his lawyers had argued—was also put behind bars. At his sentencing in March 2003, the Chin admitted, to the chagrin of his lawyers and the mental health professionals who had long attested to his impaired state of mind, that it had all been an act.
And among those mafiosi not yet dead or incarcerated, omertà further collapsed as wiseguys increasingly chose to do the unthinkable: spill family secrets to prosecutors rather than stoically accept decades of imprisonment.
Chazz Palmintieri, the Bronx-born actor who has played gangsters in such films as Analyze This and Bullets Over Broadway, and who grew up in a mobbed-up neighborhood, explains why omertà no longer governs mafiosi in their dealings with law enforcement. “Once a DA says to a wiseguy, ‘I wish you’d talk to me, ’cause if you don’t you will never see the sun for the next fifty years,’ whaddaya gonna do? The guy will talk. It’s just that way. And by rights, he should talk. Let ’em put you away for forty years, fifty years?…People talk. So that’s what broke that code of silence.”
No wonder an Italian journalist has called the current chapter of the American mafia’s history “il declino del padrino”—the decline of the Godfather.1 But if the mob indeed is dying, American popular culture tells a different story, one in which Italian American organized crime—the mafia, La Cosa Nostra, the mob—remains a potent, if troubled and diminished force.
The spectacular success of the HBO series The Sopranos currently provides the most compelling testament to the gangster genre’s enduring popularity. Created by veteran television writer David Chase (ne; De Cesare), the series, about a depressed New Jersey mobster whose two “families,” his crime crew and his blood relatives, are giving him major agità, is the most successful program in the history of cable television. The show has consistently attracted more viewers than its competition on broadcast television, even though the networks reach three times as many homes as HBO. 2 In 2004 The Sopranos received an Emmy award for Best Drama Series, the first time a cable show won in that category.
The Sopranos has made stars of the actors who portray the two central characters, Tony and Carmela Soprano: James Gandolfini, previously a character actor with a solid but unspectacular career in movies, and Edie Falco, acclaimed for her roles onstage and in independent films. The show has also served as a virtual employment agency for dozens of Italian American actors and actresses, based in New York and New Jersey.
To cultural critics, The Sopranos is not simply an enormously popular and clever spin on gangster mythology. Academics and journalists have acclaimed the show as dramatic literature, reminiscent of Dickens and George Eliot, as a reflection of the concerns and struggles of the postmodern American middle class (“our gangsters, ourselves”),3 and as a deconstruction of the male supremacy, racism, and fascism inherent in gangsters and gangsterism.
No, The Sopranos is no mere entertainment. The show is “so perfectly attuned to geographic details and cultural and social nuances that it just may be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century,” according to New York Times critic Stephen Holden.4 Critical adulation of The Sopranos inspired a Saturday Night Live spoof that led off with Holden’s quote and followed it with ever-more-effusive pretend blurbs from other critics, reaching peak absurdity with “Someday The Sopranos will replace oxygen as the thing we use to breathe.”
Plaudits for the show also come from psychiatrists enthralled by the portrayal of their profession in the scenes of Tony Soprano’s therapy sessions. (There appears to be a general consensus among practitioners that these scenes constitute the most accurate depiction of the talking cure in the history of American popular culture.)5 The Internet magazine Slate runs a feature every Monday in which a group of shrinks comment on the previous night’s episode, paying particular attention to the performance of Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Tony’s therapist.
The Sopranos also has spawned a growth industry in merchandising, including soundtrack CDs with titles like Peppers and Eggs, DVDs of each season’s complete episodes, pricey coffee table books, a cookbook featuring recipes purportedly created by the chef in the show’s fictional Nuovo Vesuvio restaurant, and even a line of men’s clothing. Now male fans can actually dress like Tony S: HBO has signed a licensing pact calling for Zanzara International, a Florida apparel maker, to market dress and casual shirts and silk ties under the Sopranos brand to department stores.6
Tony Soprano may be the top dog in today’s media mafia, but his arrival on the cultural landscape was preceded, and has been followed, by many other portrayals of mob life. From Rico “Little Caesar” Bandello and Tony “Scarface” Camonte in the 1930s to the Corleones in the 1970s to today’s intrapsychically troubled New Jersey “waste management specialist,” the mafia gangster has been established as a pop-culture archetype of enduring fascination to Americans of all ethnic backgrounds.