Hollywood consistently portrayed Italians as fair skinned despite racism at the time

Jan 2017
84
North Carolina
Considering the common stereotype that Italians are olive skinned and among the darkest of the white people? I can understand modern cinema showing them as fair and even pale since much of the Italian Americans nowadays either have Germanic or Celtic blood or are immigrants from the wealthier Italian regions (or of middle class origin).

However even old movies from the 30s-50s, when racism against specific nationalities of white immigrants was still a thing, show them as fair skin. Even the stereotype of Italians being (by white standards) dark skin still lasted into the 70s. Yet much of the most popular flicks revolving around Italians or Italian Americans such as Rocky show them as milky white as your average American (especially Sylvester Stallone who is really of Italian descent). Even films that show Italian stereotypes such as The Godfather tended to portray them considerably lighter skinned than stereotypes at the time.

Why did this phenomenon occur in cinema despite Italians being portrayed as dark and borderline nonwhite in American bias at the time (and heck even Western Europeans saw them as lowly whites especially Anglo Saxon and Germanic nations)? I mean Hollywood stereotyped much of the Spaniards, Portuguese, and such as olive skin (with much of the same stereotypes as Italians in the early 20th century).

So why did Italians break away from this stigma in popular movies?

Hollywood usually portray the Arabs as brown skin as Mexicans or at best olive skinned if they are shown as white. Enough that when they use big stars like Guinness they darkened them intentionally with makeup and such (as seen in Khartoum and Lawrence of Arabia) to at least look olive skin dark shade. With the Balkans swarthy whites is the typical portrayal in cinema and recently video games as seen in Grand Theft Auto 4's protagonist Niko Bellic.

However Italians are shown as much lighter even when they hire olive actors (even using make up as seen in some of Rudolph Valentino's behind the scene stuff).

Stallone may have facial features associated with Italians, but his skin can pass off as WASP esp in his younger years and in certain shades of light.

The point I'm making is that from the 19th century up until the 50s Italians had a lot of prejudice similar to what Mexicans and other Latinos currently face. Dark skinned, uneducated, and lazy criminals or manual laborers.

They practically repeat these stereotypes with Hispanics and same with whatever national negative stereotypes with other groups (such as Russian immigrants being commies, French being perverts and white skinned, etc).

With the Italians, they refused to revert to stereotypes and portray them positively, even going as far as using make up to lighten up darker skinned Italians to make them appear more WASP in skin tone. VERY STRANGE which is why I asked this question. Why portray Italians in a positive manner and refuse to use the old negative racist stereotypes actual Italians were facing at the time?

Why couldn't say the French (portrayed as all pale skinned whites and aggressive imperialists abusing natives or perverts who chase skirts) be shown with an olive skinned citizen who has the sex drive of a monk? Or Chinese guys being romantic and rebelling against parents? Or better yet use a Mestizo Mexican who's light skinned with a role of a scientist (I know Salma Hayek is already one example but most roles don't try to aver stereotypes)?

What made Hollywood interested in averting negative prejudices about Italians? I mean Rudolph Valentino was Hollywood's first sex symbol and he was a recent immigrant when he became a star!
 

RoryOMore

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
3,396
USA
I think you've only named two actors of Italian descent and two movies, with result that you're creating stereotypes to analyze your ideas about stereotypes.

Stallone was cast in his breakout role as Rocky not because of his coloring, but because he wrote the script himself and refused to sell it unless he played the title role. At least one role in The Godfather specifically calls for someone with a northern Italian look, because that's the character description in the original novel.
 
Jan 2017
84
North Carolina
I think you've only named two actors of Italian descent and two movies, with result that you're creating stereotypes to analyze your ideas about stereotypes.

Stallone was cast in his breakout role as Rocky not because of his coloring, but because he wrote the script himself and refused to sell it unless he played the title role. At least one role in The Godfather specifically calls for someone with a northern Italian look, because that's the character description in the original novel.
Sophia Loren? Granted she does become sort of olive when she's been spending too much time in the sun as seen in her vacation days and pre-movie days. However the fact her shade of olive looks more like a fair skinned person intentionally tanning than the actual shades of olive with associate with Arabs and Latinos is what I meant by my question. In most of her films they portray her as looking American even when she's still recovering from getting a bit darker from vacation (even putting makeup to make her look paler than KKK members).

I won't pick out stars because there's too many examples.

But the fact is Rudolf Valentino became Hollywood's sex symbol DESPITE the prejudice of Italians being dark skinned illegal aliens trying to steal our jobs (sounds familiar doesn't it?). Not just that but despite being a manual laborer from one of the hotter parts of Italy, Rudolf comes off as blatantly white. At darkest, a white anglo-saxon Protestant who's been intentionally sunbathing and and often inmost role as white as your average Klansmen member. Even during the times he tanned a bit from overexposure to sunlight and hard labor outdoors (as seen director commented during filming of his first film), Rudolf still has skin white enough that he's unmistakably appears as a a Brit or WASP and not say a light skinned Arab or Latino.

You'd think with all the racism America had, someone like Rudolf would never had made it into Hollywood as even a pale skinned Portuguese or Greek would probably have been denied a role. Yet Valentino not only got a starring role, he became so big an actor that he's credited as Hollywood's first sex symbol!

Its as though people in Hollywood were deliberately using movies to wipe away the image of Italians as dark skinned criminal and illegal aliens and trying to white wash them to be accepted into WASP society!
 

Pedro

Forum Staff
Mar 2008
17,151
On a mountain top in Costa Rica. yeah...I win!!
I've never seen a ''white'' person and I have been most everywhere. I suspect by white you are referring to those whose skin color is actually pink [pinkish?].

Give a class of 5 year olds a box of Crayolas and ask them to draw a white and a black person. They will choose the pink crayon, not the white. Or they will choose the brown crayon, not the black.

I also suspect you are a pink. You write like one. One with an agenda. Aaah! If only the world was as colorless as your prose. Oh wait! it is!
Color me confused.
 

Nemowork

Ad Honorem
Jan 2011
8,464
South of the barcodes
Gina Lollobrigida wasnt exactly Anglo
Sophia Loren
Al Pacino
Robert De Niro
Frank Sinatra
Dean Martin (ok he changed his name)
Rudolph Valentino
Don Ameche
Lou Costello
Enrico Caruso



Thats just off the top of my head. Apart from being stuck with the odd criminal role they all ended up playing some version of themselves.


Its the Mexican and hispanic ones who had problems, not counting exotic types like Dolores Del Rio they mostly ended up changing their names to fit in


Rita hayworth
Martin Sheen
 

Nemowork

Ad Honorem
Jan 2011
8,464
South of the barcodes
As for Rudolph Valentinto being white that was mostly the film makeup of the time. Theda Barra, Louise Brookes and everyone else come out the same shade of white gloss.



And by the way, Rudolph Valentino didnt succeed despite being Italian, he succeeded because he was exotic and Italian. The fashion of the time was setting aside the rather boring WASP actors and going for someone hot blooded, dashing and likely to do something insanely romantic.


So yes it was a stereotype about the Latin lover but women then had just the same fantasies about Mr Grey or some other exotic man whisking them away from boring suburbia to a Harem or a lovenest and dancing the tango, upright or horizontal.


Valentino fit the bill because he was euro enough to be safe to but dark enough to play an arab sheikh or a gaucho kidnapper.


Theda Barra was doing the same thing with the vamp image but she was a bit more mundane before the name change.
 

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
7,095
If you wanted to succeeded in Hollywood, your odds were much better if you confirmed to the typical standards. While exotic looks sometimes helped, in general there were far more roles available for regular but good looking white actors and actresses.

Good, English sounding names helped, and many, many actors and actresses changed their names from more foreign ones to English ones. Even those who had English names often changed them to sound better. John Wayne changed his name.from Marion Morrison. Martin Sheen was originally Estevez, and while his one son Emilio Estevez uses the original family name, his other son Charlie Sheen uses the Hollywood name. While Emilio has been successful, you hear a lot more about his father and brother who have more English sounding name.

Frank Sinatra may have an Italian last name, but it doesn't stike one as particularly Italian, his first name is good solid English name, and he doesn't fit the dark and swarthy mold of what Italians.are supposed to look like.

And while.sometimes exoctic looking people.were needed, there was more roles available for typical.white looking actors. So even when the actors were Italian, they often looked the same. Sophia Loren started her acting career in Italy, and was an established actress before coming to Hollywood.

Plus, Hollywood frequently did not pay much attention to accurately portraying ethnic groups,. Even if the Italians were all dark and swarthy, which is a myth, Hollywood would just cast them with their typical white actors anyways - they were more available. Does Charleston Heston look particularly Jewish? Yet they cast him as Moses. Most of the Egyptians in Ben Hur were just ordinary white actors, only in the role.thr Pharoah did they cast someone a little more exotic. Good looks were more important than accurate ethnic depictions.
 
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AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,051
Italy, Lago Maggiore
A part that you should define better that "fair skin". Overall Italian actresses of the "Golden Age of Cinecittà" didn't look Scandinavian ... Think to Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida [know in the history of movie as Cleopatra]. For actors it was different, but Italian actresses, in the American imaginary had to look Mediterranean. Even if, since the Middle Ages in South Italy Norman and Germanic blood is present [blonde hairs are not rare in South Italy, just to say].
 
Jan 2017
84
North Carolina
A part that you should define better that "fair skin". Overall Italian actresses of the "Golden Age of Cinecittà" didn't look Scandinavian ... Think to Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida [know in the history of movie as Cleopatra]. For actors it was different, but Italian actresses, in the American imaginary had to look Mediterranean. Even if, since the Middle Ages in South Italy Norman and Germanic blood is present [blonde hairs are not rare in South Italy, just to say].

They still can easily pass of as WASP especially on the Silver screen.
And even when they tanned in the sun (such as Sophia Loren) or were legitimately olive skinned such as Selene Carmazza, they at least gave the impression of a WASP or Brit who's been sunbathing too long or working over time in the field without long sleeves and hats.

I mean just look at screenshots of Sophia Loren from the Fall of the Roman Empire and don't tell me she doesn't pass for your stereotypical French person.

The claim Italian actress had to look mediterranean is false since you had stars like Rossana Podesta who not only looked WASP even when tanned from filming nonstop out doors but even dark skinned stars like Gina Lollobrigida were made to wear make up to look whiter when starring in big American film productions and front cover magazine shots.

And this still continued onto the 20th century such as Talia Shire who was so white they had to intentionally used tricks and makeup to make her look quite darker in the Godfather and some modern dark stars such as MOnicca Belluci often look much fairier in the Big screen than on TV interviews. Lets not even count Fabio's been the biggest sex symbol for much of the 90s and he had pretty Northern/Celtic features.

Why do we rarely get say Mexican stars treated this way? Yeah we may have Salma Hayek but many stars are darker than even Arabic olive skin and even Salma Hayek is in the olive range of white skin. Or how come Brits are frequently shown as rude disrespectful arrogant aristocrats? Or French as sexually loose?

With Italians every bad stereotype was thrown out of the window except maybe being Mafia and even that was turned into positive connotations by showing them as badasses who are intelligent and well-disciplined? This is in contrast to the common portrayal of Mexicans as uneducated illegal aliens stealing jobs and working as brutal criminals who chop bodies to pieces or lowly manual labor.
 

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,051
Italy, Lago Maggiore
They still can easily pass of as WASP especially on the Silver screen.
And even when they tanned in the sun (such as Sophia Loren) or were legitimately olive skinned such as Selene Carmazza, they at least gave the impression of a WASP or Brit who's been sunbathing too long or working over time in the field without long sleeves and hats.

I mean just look at screenshots of Sophia Loren from the Fall of the Roman Empire and don't tell me she doesn't pass for your stereotypical French person.

The claim Italian actress had to look mediterranean is false since you had stars like Rossana Podesta who not only looked WASP even when tanned from filming nonstop out doors but even dark skinned stars like Gina Lollobrigida were made to wear make up to look whiter when starring in big American film productions and front cover magazine shots.

And this still continued onto the 20th century such as Talia Shire who was so white they had to intentionally used tricks and makeup to make her look quite darker in the Godfather and some modern dark stars such as MOnicca Belluci often look much fairier in the Big screen than on TV interviews. Lets not even count Fabio's been the biggest sex symbol for much of the 90s and he had pretty Northern/Celtic features.

Why do we rarely get say Mexican stars treated this way? Yeah we may have Salma Hayek but many stars are darker than even Arabic olive skin and even Salma Hayek is in the olive range of white skin. Or how come Brits are frequently shown as rude disrespectful arrogant aristocrats? Or French as sexually loose?

With Italians every bad stereotype was thrown out of the window except maybe being Mafia and even that was turned into positive connotations by showing them as badasses who are intelligent and well-disciplined? This is in contrast to the common portrayal of Mexicans as uneducated illegal aliens stealing jobs and working as brutal criminals who chop bodies to pieces or lowly manual labor.

I was just trying and rationalizing ... btw, Monica Bellucci in Italy is considered quite "dark" as for skin ... if you want to see a "clear" Italian actress look for Laura Chiatti. But in US [what a coincidence] they know Asia Argento [who is "dark" ...].


P.S. may be I'm mindless, but I find it difficult to remember an Italian actress with blond hair, blue eyes and light skin who has become famous at Hollywood. Let's see ... Muti? No ... Cardinale? No ... [about Loren, Lollobrigida and Argento I've already said] ... Magnani? No ... Oh my ... Canalis? [Former Clooney's girlfriend] No ... [and she hasn't become famous ...]. Now I have to find a Nordic Italian actress who has become famous at Hollywood ... and I will remember someone. Someone existed for sure.
 
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