Friday, April 25

Silvana Mangano

While I am still in a European frame of mind but always willing to write about those actresses who have charmed me over the years, we go to Italy again and check out Silvana Mangano.  She is quite likely not known to young people, certainly not those in America, although perhaps her fame has endured in her homeland. 

Silvana Mangano... ah, I have always loved to say her name.  It just flows off the tongue.  Try it.  Sil-VAH-nah Mahn-GAH-noh.  Delicious.  I say it without pausing between the two names.  It would not be a stretch to think a name that pretty is made up but it's her real name.

She was born in 1930 in Rome.  Her family, consisting of four children, was very poor and WWII made them even more so.  I personally would have guessed that she was full-blooded Italian but only her father, a railway worker, was.  Her mother was English.  As a child she trained as a dancer but her sultry good looks got her into modeling.  At age 16 she was crowned Miss Rome in a beauty pageant and from there she was, not surprisingly, snatched up by the movies.

Mangano would never reach the heights that her contemporaries Anna Magnani, Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren would but she was a good actress, if a reluctant one.  She never seemed to have the drive to reach the top and once she had children, she had even less interest in acting, although she continued at it for many years.  Like Loren who married a producer who guided her career, so did Mangano when she married Dino De Laurentiis.

They wed in 1949 the same year their first collaboration, Bitter Rice (Riso amaro in Italy), hit the screens.  To this day, it is the film for which she is best remembered.  I didn't see it until the early 1960s but have kept with me the memory of her as a lusty rice harvester who becomes involved in murder.  It was her first film to become a success in America and throughout Europe and provided the world with a taste of Italian neorealism.  It also introduced to American audiences, her frequent costar, Vittorio Gassman.  He surely loved the acclaim the film brought him.  We're not too sure about Mangano.  International fame was not something she sought.

The New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowther, famously said of her: She embodied Anna Magnani minus 15 years, Ingrid Bergman with a Latin disposition and Rita Hayworth plus 25 pounds.  (Well, at least he began that well.)  He may not have known that her sensual film image was nothing like the private woman who eschewed makeup and all vestiges of glamour and rarely sought attention.

She came to my attention in 1954.  And it wasn't in just one film but in two... on a double bill.  I was staying with a friend for a long weekend in Chicago.  His family had just moved there from my hometown.  They were Italians living in an Italian neighborhood and they were hot for an Italian double bill, playing just down the street, so off we went.  I had never heard of Silvana Mangano and in some respects I wasn't impressed.  In other ways I certainly was. 

One film was Ulysses which starred Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn.  It was the Homer epic about the man who longed to return to his home in Greece after a years-long war.  Mangano played both Penelope and Circe.  The other film was Mambo in which she was a fledgling dancer who is caught in relationships with two men, Gassman again and Michael Rennie.  Angst filled every frame.

I am sure I was too young to have come up with a good sense of what acting was all about (although I was certainly ahead of my peers in knowing what I liked and didn't like beyond a plot) but in the years to come I found several things about the actress that seized me in some way.  She had an earthy beauty that captivated me and a voice that was wickedly alluring.  There was a quiet determination in the characters she played.  She was always a bit remote.  Often her characters lacked vitality.  They certainly did in Ulysses and Mambo.   Perhaps the lack of vitality was due to her lack of enthusiasm for the profession and could help explain why she never really floated in the same galaxies as those contemporaries. 

De Laurentiis was anything if not driven.  His zest for filmmaking, his sheer output, his machinations to get a film rolling is somewhat legendary.  One wonders how he coped with a wife who didn't share his zeal.  One wonders how she coped with him and his obsession with work.

She was back on a rice plantation in 1958's This Angry Age as the sister of Anthony Perkins and both are mistreated by their tight-fisted mother, played by the very capable Jo Van Fleet.  Mangano appeared opposite Quinn again in the religious epic, Barrabas (1961).  I have seen all of her films that reached America but there were a number that never did.

My favorite Mangano film is the 1960 Martin Ritt-directed war film, Five Branded Women.  She and Jeanne Moreau, Vera Miles, Barbara Bel Geddes and Carla Gravina play villagers who are accused of consorting with the Nazis during WWII and have their heads shaved to show their shame.  Mangano was the strong leader of the group who turned on their foes.

Heralded Italian writer-director Luchino Visconti took a liking to Mrs. De Laurentiis and used her several times in films not involving the producer.  (She worked for most of the great Italian directors.)  In 1971 she was in Visconti's Death in Venice (some have called it Slow Death in Venice).  I own it but have to be in a special mood to take it all in.  It's about a beautiful young boy, Björn Andrésen, who is the object of lust from a dying composer, Dirk Bogarde, while all are visiting Venice.  Mangano has a small role as the aristocratic mother of the boy.  It is beautifully filmed but the director's attention to small details always leaves me a little itchy in my seat.  Perhaps if I lived there...

The following year she joined Helmut Berger, Romy Schneider and Trevor Howard for Visconti's Ludwig, the story King Ludwig of Bavaria and his love for his cousin and madness over his homosexuality.  In 1974 she again joined Visconti and Berger and also Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale for Conversation Piece, lauded in some circles, ignored in others.  It concerned a retired American living in a sumptuous palazzo in Rome whose quiet life is interrupted by a noisy family headed by Mangano.

It would be 10 years before she would return to the screen in her penultimate film, the sci-fi adventure, Dune.  I never saw this David Lynch film (sci-fi not being a mainstay in my movie diet) and I remember the critical and public comments were decidedly mixed.  Her part was small.

And her time as an actress was coming to an end.  The parts offered to her were certainly not what they used to be and her long marriage was unraveling.  She and De Laurentiis had three daughters and a son and she put all her energy into her family.  A spark was extinguished in 1981 when her son was killed in a plane crash in Alaska.  Her granddaughter, Giada De Laurentiis, is a popular star of the Food Network and a regular contributor on The Today Show.

At the time of her death at 59 in 1989, she had been separated from De Laurentiis for six years and was in the process of divorcing him.  During this time she had lived in Paris and Madrid and made tapestries.  She died in Madrid of lung cancer and is buried in New York State next to her son.

For Him They Swooned

1 comment:

  1. Hi, it's me again. Thanks for Your( as usual) nice words on Italian actresses. She was a so-so actress who made so-so movies. But I think You should have remembered ANNA, just because the song Non Dimenticar which came from that film and gave the great Nat King Cole the chance to sing it. Do You remeber " Non dimenticar means don't forget You are my darling..."? Ciao and thanks . Carlo