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  • Writer's pictureJerry Della Femina


I saw a great movie the other night at the wonderful Hamptons International Film Festival.

It has the worst title in the history of bad movie titles, going back to the king of bad titles: “E.T.”

The title of this movie is “Green Book.”

So that you don’t have to wonder, the Green Book was the name of a motorist directory listing where a black person could find a motel, a hotel or a room – a place to sleep in the disgusting, highly restricted and constipated Deep South up until the 1970s.

The movie is based on a true story of a prominent black musician named Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) being driven through the Deep South by a tough Italian nicknamed “Tony Lip” (Viggo Mortensen), who serves as driver/butler/bodyguard as Shirley goes on a three-month tour of musical engagements in hostile cities like Memphis, Birmingham and Biloxi.

As an Italian I loved the depiction of the Italian sense of life in this movie. It’s the story of transformation and of a process that every child of immigrants has gone through. In this case, the sense of fairness that Tony Lip – a Neanderthal Italian thug – had to reach after a life-and-death struggle with the lifelong prejudices of his friends and parents.

I love this movie because I love being Italian.

“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” That one line from “The Godfather,” the greatest movie in history, sums up the Italian sense of life.

We’re all about food and fun, with a little menace thrown in to make life interesting.

Italians are obsessed with cooking, serving and eating great Italian food.

Italian men are the only men in the world who can think of food and get an erection.

Then, of course, for older Italians there’s the Mafia connection.

Don’t take that statement the wrong way.

99.9 percent of Italian-Americans are hard-working, completely honest and would never even jaywalk, but that doesn’t keep them from enjoying the tough killer reputations of the 0.1 percent who belong to the Mafia.

Think of the malevolent wisdom of a sign that Mafia leader Carlos Marcello had on a wall in his New Orleans office. It said: “THREE PEOPLE CAN KEEP A SECRET IF YOU KILL TWO OF THEM.”

And note how the Mafia played such a great part in Italian lore. For me, you can say, “it’s an ‘Italian’ thing.”

It’s never what people think it is. The simple, happy, mandolin-playing people never existed.

Older Italians like the Mafia for the same reason Wasps admired Microsoft. Guys who “coulda been contenders” always identify with guys of the same ethnic persuasion who got to the top of the heap – no matter how ugly the heap may be.

The Mafia had been around longer than Microsoft. Both were winning, efficient organizations that were merciless with their competition.

In the early days, before Steve Jobs and Apple, Bill Gates crushed competitors economically and left them the walking dead.

The Mafia, on the other hand, went that little extra step and actually whacked its competitors and left them the very dead – often wedged in the trunks of cars.

Both organizations had to put up with government interference. Bill Gates and his executives had to duke it out with the government and then paid a few billion-dollar fines here and there and went on their way.

The wise guys did their stretch in the slammer and came back to the old neighborhood the better for it.

So the Mafia didn’t have a website and wasn’t listed on NASDAQ. Big deal! The Mafia had something that Microsoft will never have – its own television show, and everybody loved it: “The Sopranos.”

“The Sopranos” did for Italians what “The Goldbergs” did for Jews and “I Remember Mama” did for Norwegians.

For honest Italians, their grudging admiration for a television show like “The Sopranos” or movies like “The Godfather” I and II and writer Nick Pileggi and director Martin Scorsese’s gem of a film “Goodfellas” leaves them with equal amounts of pride and paranoia.

Here’s how it worked out for this Italian:

Many years ago, my advertising agency received a call from a large corporation telling us they were interested in our handling their advertising account. I checked out the company and found the chairman was Italian and from my old neighborhood in the Avenue U section of Brooklyn.

“Nothing doing,” I told my staff. “If he comes from my old neighborhood, he’s got to be connected and I’m not going to deal with anyone who is connected to the Mafia.”

My associates persisted. “You’re not being fair,” they said.

“Okay, let’s investigate this guy before we take his account.”

So we hired a private detective to tell us all about the company chairman. The report came back: “He’s clean. An upstanding member of the community. Straight as they come.”

So we took the account. We did a lot of good work for the company and both our firms prospered. One day the chairman invited me out to his home in Greenwich, Connecticut for dinner. We talked about the old days in Brooklyn. He was older than I was and I got up the nerve to say, “You know, when you wanted to hire us, I knew you were from the old neighborhood and I had you investigated.”

He looked at me and laughed. “You jerk,” he said. “What do you think I did before we called you?”

We spent the night laughing about the Mafia.

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