Venice, September 1956
Who is the Queen of the Film Festival here — a busty blonde with flexible hips and sun-bronzed limbs? Not this time.
She is a fifty-three-year-old woman with straggly hair and dark ringed eyes who can swear prodigiously in six different languages — and is learning fast. Her name is Anna Magnani. I regard her as the greatest actress on any screen today.
The Italians love her, idolize her, worship her — with the sacrificial adoration Lollobrigida can never enjoy.
Look what happened when Anna walked through the Hotel Excelsior foyer on to the sunlit terrace here today.
The sun — worshipping producer — chasing teenagers reclined hopefully and horizontally on the beach. Suddenly Magnani swept in and sat down at a table. There was a general stampede. Nearly every Italian on the beach, on the terrace and in the foyer rushed to get near her. Thirty kissed her hand in about as many seconds. One man fell on his knees. The smiling Magnani yelled (in Italian) “Arise, Sir!” — although not quite like a queen at an investiture.
Meanwhile, all the bikini babes were left deserted on the beach — very glum in the sun.
Finally, with a huge crowd chanting “Anna Anna!” the fifty-three-year-old actress sailed off in a motor-boat with a twenty-year-old boy friend.
Anna Magnani has burst upon this funereal festival looking like a guerrilla leader at a fancy dress party — or, alternatively, like an animated hand grenade from which the pin has just been removed.
The “magnificent Magnani,” and Oscar winner with her first Hollywood film, Rose Tattoo got a bigger reception than Lollobrigida from the fans. She went through them like a tank, scowling furiously.
Everybody was amazed that she had come including Magnani herself. Junketing in the sand is not her speciality. She signs autographs with as much relish as if they were death warrants. She could get claustrophobia in the middle of the Pacific.
Yet when she came out on the sun terraces the whispers were that Hollywood made Magnani more reasonable.
It was said with an air of disappointment, for nobody expects or wants a great eccentric to be reasonable.
When Magnani was first asked to come here she refused out-right. She said, with splendid arrogance: “If they wish to give me the prize they can do it without me being there. They gave me the Oscar without my being Hollywood.”
Sandro Pallavicini, the producer of her latest film, pleaded with her to change her mind, but she was adamant. The matter was referred to Tennessee Williams for arbitration. He said she should go to the festival, so she came.
Magnani arrived with her young friend, Gabriele Tinti, a 22-year-old actor, who is said to be the James Dean of Italy.
After the showing of her film Sister Letizia, she had dinner with Tinti, Pallavicini and his wife, and James Mason and his wife, but that junior eccentric, Portland Mason, was not there.
In the middle of the dinner there was a typical Magnani incident.
She began to upbraid her young friend, Tinti. He comes from Bologna and his accent is not purely Roman as Magnani would like it to be.
“You have to learn to speak properly,” she told him fierce’y. “You must learn to get rid of that terrible accent if you wish to be a star you must pay attention to what I say.”
The others were a little pained by this scene, but after all this was Magnani and with her there is no knowing what she will do or say next. To be a genius and a woman is a formidable combination. Italy is well aware of this.
Now that she is becoming and international star the rest of the world will have to preparate itself for a new personality who, by comparison, makes Brando look like a normal all-American college boy.
I offer you this introduction to Magnani so that you will know what to expect. For three years she has not made an Italian film. This is partly because she had not found a worthwhile subject and partly because most of the directors are terrified of her.
A famous, but none the less disconcerting Magnani phrase during the making of a film is “I do not feel to work to-day.”
I was told by Pallavicini that for a time nobody wished to make a film with her. There is always a quarrel between her and the director. She will have to become a director herself. It is the only solution.
Fir three years she had to sit back and watch all the other little actresses like Lollobrigida and Loren go up and up while she had to wait and wait.
“What does she think od Lollobrigida and Loren?” I asked. “It is better not to tell you.” he said. He added: “You should not misunderstand. She is very reasonable with people she trusts. The trouble is that she does not trust anybody. She always thinks they want to cheat her.”
I asked: “Is she arrogant?”
“Yes,” he said, “she is a woman of arrogance. She has no humility at all. For an artist I think this is not a bad thing. For a woman — well, it can make life difficult sometimes. For the men, her arrogance comes out of a complex. When she meets somebody new she is always very cold, but later, if she is happy, she warms up.”
“Is she often happy?”
“No, not often, perhaps fifty per cent of the time. But she likes to be happy because when she is happy she knows she can look beautiful.”
“Does she think she is a beautiful woman?” “No, but she thinks she has a great sex appeal.”
“Does she dress well?” “Jewelry, big huge diamonds. She is a very rich woman. She has jewelry worth.”
I said: “She sounds fascinating. I have admired her enormously. I would like to meet her.” “That,” said Pallavicini “is impossible. She is sick. When she does not want to do something she becomes sick.”
He looked at me and gave a worried smile. “If you ask her what you ask me, she will have a relapse.”