“How American films depict Greek Americans tells us more about American culture than about Greek Americans. Cinema generally reflects contemporary cultural beliefs. By presenting those values in vivid forms, cinema reinforces them. The general rule is that screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, and actors do not have any special knowledge of Greek America and reproduce the dominant negative and positive cultural stereotypes”, states Dan Georgakas in his latest project “The Greek American Image in the American Cinema”
He is the director of the Greek American Studies Project at the Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Queens College-City University of New York. He is also a long-time editor of Cineaste film quarterly. His major occupation is that of writer and editor. For many years, however, he taught courses at Queens College and New York University.
He has conducted a unique filmography (still in progress), which offers an account of the image of Greek Americans in American cinema, reveals how mainstream America has perceived Greek Americans at any given moment and how American cinema has reacted to that perception. For the purpouses of the project, Greek America is composed of immigrants and any offspring who self-define themselves as Greek.
How did you come up with the idea to create the Greek American Film List?
The Greek American Image in American Cinema grew out of an article I wrote for Cineaste in which I noted that European ethnic images (not just Greeks) were largely absent in Hollywood films. The only exception to that rule is the Irish.
What is your goal with the project?
I wish to identify how Greek Americans are depicted in American films. I want to see if any thematic emerge that involve sex, chronology, foreign affairs, and the like. I commenced the project without any preconceived notions of what these themes might be.
Was there a previous bibliography similar to your project?
No other filmography of this type was ever been attempted.
What are the patterns that you can draw from your research in regard to how Greeks were portrayed throughout the years from the beginning of Hollywood?
I have identified approximately 80 films with Greek American characters. I have only been able to view about half of them at this stage of the project. But some themes have begun to emerge. From the 1930s-1950s well over half the Greek American characters are professional gamblers. There is also a theme of Greeks as wrestlers. Broadly, there are many more male characters than female, and the female characters are almost all stereotypical mothers or sisters. From the mid-1950s onward, there begin to be more and more Greek professionals such as attorneys and architects.The first Greek professional identified so far is from a film of the late 1960s.
What was the most common profession that Greeks had in the movies?
See above. Also there is a kind of minor genre featuring sponge divers of Florida. Greeks spongers are almost all positive images.
Were the characters realistic or close to the truth?
Most of the films seen to date tend to stereotypes, They reflect some actuality, they remain stereotypes. The films usually reflect attitudes of their time period.
Did Greeks appear often in American Cinema? Was their appearance in balance with regard to the actual population?
European ethnics are not well-represented in American cinema in other than minor characters. The major exception to this rule are Irish-Americans. Italians would seem to be well-represented, but if gangster films are excluded they are not. In that context, Greek Americans appear in films often as other European ethnics and far more than some much larger groups.
In your opinion were Greeks discriminated in the movies?
No, I don’t see any discrimination directed at Greek Americans. We should also note that many Greeks had prominent careers in Hollywood. Hermes Pan was the choreographer of all the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers. Theoni Aldridge is one of the industry’s most famous costume designers. Dean Tavoularis was set designer on all the Godfather films and most of Copolla’s other movies. Spyro Skouras was studio chief for Twentieth Century-Fox and many Greeks such as Jim Giannapolis remain powerbrokers at Fox. John Casavettes became a Hollywood legend for his innovations and Elia Kazan was a premiere Hollywood director for decades. A.I. Bezzerides was a prominent screenwriter of the 1950s. Telly Savalas was a frequent performer in Hollywood genre films. Etc.
Conversely, do you believe portrayal of Greeks in American cinema had any positive effects? Did it promote Hellenic culture?
Very few of the films have negative portraits of Greeks, which is positive. The stereotypes are usually benign. Most significantly, in the past 20 years, Greeks are often presented as model ethnic Americans. My Big Fat Greek Wedding actually represented culmination of the old trend. That is, the characters were stereotypes and not particularly well-educated, but they were presented very positively. Audiences laughed with their foibles rather than at them. Greek ethnic traits were presented in a manner that universalized them so that groups with far different cultures felt, “They’re just like us.” American cinema has not done much to promote Hellenic culture.
Please add anything else you want .
My comments have been limited to Hollywood films. When I looked at independent films made by Greek Americans, the patterns are much different. For example, there are as many full portraits of women as of men, and nearly all of the films have Greek themes as a major concern. Some lapse into the same stereotyping as seen in Hollywood films, but most present a far more accurate view of Greek America.
In many ways this is a collective project, but I take responsibility for writing all the entries and selecting their ranking. Vassili Lambropoulos reviewed everything, acting as my editor, an idea man, and general counsel. I’ve also received input from a score of persons who write about film or Greek America. I am particularly grateful for the insights provided by Steve Frangos.
Anyone wishing to contact Mr. Dan Georgakas can do so via email: [email protected]