Tuesday, September 16

Claudia Cardinale

Perfect for my tribute to the 1960s, Claudia Cardinale arrived in the U.S. from Italy in the early part of that decade, made a splash in a few popular American films, broke some hearts, puffed up some libidos and before decade's end, bid a hasty arrivederci.  It was our loss.

She wanted to be a movie star but she wanted to do it on her terms.  She has said I never felt scandal and confession were necessary to be an actress.  I've never revealed myself or even my body in films.  Mystery is very important.  She was never as popular internationally as Loren or Lollobrigida but she appeared, generally, in better films than they did.  She became known to Americans because of her 60s films but she did not like how she was being handled or much cared for the majority of her American films.  It required little effort for her to return to Italy.

Cardinale was born in Tunisia in 1938 to Sicilian parents.  She appeared in a short film while she was still in school that attracted the attention of filmmakers and she latched on to a small role in Goha (1958) which starred Omar Sharif.  Her earthy good looks, flashing eyes, sexy pout, ample bosom and mischievous demeanor got her noticed by beauty pageant folks.  She became The Most Beautiful Girl in Tunisia, which was sponsored by the Italian cinema.  Her win got her to the Venice Film Festival and obviously she attracted the attention of more filmmakers. 

She knew she wanted to be an actress and, in fact, had a lot of it mapped out in her head, determined girl that she was.  She was asked to attend a film school, which she accepted, but after three months bolted for home.  Once there, she discovered that she was pregnant and by a man she could scarcely stand.  She realized right off that she neither wanted to terminate the pregnancy nor give up the child.  She and some of those in her orbit didn't feel being an unwed mother at 17 was the image they wanted her to project to the world.  So (taking a page out of Susan Slade), the boy was raised for a number of years as her brother.  

Fortune favored her when she was noticed by Italian producer, Franco Cristaldi, who would manage her career for a number of years and marry her and ultimately adopt her son.  They were together as husband and wife for nine years.

Her career flourished.  Oddly, she would not learn Italian until she began making Italian films.  And when she did she worked with some of the best directors and actors.  She shared the screen with three of the Italy's finest actors, Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni and Renato Salvatori in one film, the crime comedy, 1958s Big Deal on Madonna Street. (She would work with them all again.)  Once she became popular in America, this film would be re-released so we could enjoy it as well.  I went because I was a big fan of Gassman, but again, I had only known his few American films.  He had a brief American career in the early 50s when he was married to Shelley Winters.  I certainly became an immediate fan of Cardinale's.

She not only became very popular in Italian films but also in French films.  To this day she has homes in Rome and Paris and feels close to the people of both countries.  Her popularity grew throughout Europe.  Soon she partnered many of the French stars of the day as well, such as Jean Paul Belmondo, Gérard Blain and Alain Delon.  In 1960 she, Delon and Salvatori worked for the esteemed Luchino Visconti in Rocco and His Brothers, a drama about a prostitute who comes between criminal siblings.  It received worldwide attention and Cardinale began to make noise outside of Europe.

It all came together for her in 1963.  She made three quite wonderful films.  The first of these was 81/2, considered by many to be director Federico Fellini's great showpiece.  It was about a crazed director, needing a hit, who has retreated into a fantasy world of his life and women.  Mastroianni was the fictional Fellini and Cardinale played a glamorous actress named Claudia.

The actress returned to work for Visconti in The Leopard.  It is highly regarded in some circles, perhaps most circles... in Italy, especially... in Europe one would assume.  In America, those who highly regarded it probably knew some Europeans.  They found the story of a prince trying to keep it all together during an 1860s turmoil in Sicily compelling entertainment, but I could never relate much to it beyond its ponderousness.  I expect I am in the minority.  Burt Lancaster was hired because Visconti needed American dollars to make the film and the stipulation was it would come with an American star.  They formed a most interesting coupling and would work together twice more.  Alain Delon was hired because he was a good actor, the most gorgeous one alive and Visconti had the hots for him.  Cardinale was a gorgeous noblewoman and Delon's love interest.

Yummy as Princess Dahla in The Pink Panther

Then came a trip to America.  Blake Edwards, at least, had caught on to the charms of the sexy Tunisian and he felt he had a screenplay that would display Cardinale's most-obvious charms in a most pleasing way.  It was the story of a bumbling police inspector in Paris who's investigating the theft was some royal diamond called the Pink Panther and other such robberies without realizing his own wife is in cahoots and in love with the thief.  What was the name of that movie?  Cardinale was gorgeous as a princess and the owner of the jewel.  Peter Sellers was sheer perfection as the whacked-out inspector.  My favorite actress ever, the enchanting Capucine, was his wife and the appropriately elegant David Niven starred as the thief.

It was a year like Cardinale had never known and likely never did again.  The Pink Panther would start her on her American film career, although she still continued to make films in Italy and France and elsewhere in Europe.  

What could better show that your two feet are planted firmly on American soil, Pilgrim, than appearing in a film with John Wayne?  Too bad it wasn't a very good one.  The title says it all... Circus World.  Cardinale played the daughter of Rita Hayworth and was top-billed over Hayworth, which says a lot about the state of both actresses' careers.

In 1964 she returned to Italy and made three films, one of which, Time of Indifference, was a moody drama of a man carrying on with a woman and her daughter, costarring those two heartbreakers, Rod Steiger and Shelley Winters.  Cardinale was top-billed but few saw the film.

Then it was back to America for her first of two films with Rock Hudson, Blindfold (1965).  It was a silly romantic-comedy-crime-caper that Hudson couldn't seem to do enough of.  By the time she finished her second one with him, A Fine Pair (1968), Cardinale was flying east over the Atlantic for a permanent stay.

In 1966 she had a small but important role in The Lost Command, costarring Anthony Quinn and Delon.  It was all about French paratroopers and their battles in French Indochina and Algeria.  I saw it for the first time a week ago.

Her next assignment, the same year, was, in my opinion, the best American role she had... as the kidnapped wife, Maria Grant, in Richard Brooks' ace western, The Professionals.  The truth is, she wasn't kidnapped but running away from her older husband, Ralph Bellamy, into the arms of Mexican bandit, Jack Palance.  Bellamy hires four men who are specialists in various areas to go deep into Mexico to retrieve her.  Thinking she'd be thrilled to see them, they're more than a little surprised when she resists.  So they steal her, kicking and screaming, and head home with the outlaws in pursuit.

She's much trouble in The Professionals

This was a superb western on every level... taut direction by Brooks, the old taskmaster, excitement from start to finish, a storyline one could believe and an exciting cast.  The title stars were played by Lancaster,Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan and Woody Strode.  Filming in Mexico, California and Nevada was no picnic and it's unlikely Cardinale would regard this as one of her glamour roles but it was a good part for her and she made the most of it.

All prints of 1967s insipid Tony Curtis sex comedy, Don't Make Waves, should be burned and destroyed.  Although seeing beauties like Cardinale and Sharon Tate in the same film might be worth saving just one copy.

Her last film before the second Hudson film was To Hell With Heroes, an action-adventure piece starring Rod Taylor.  Cardinale was lovely and sexy but the film wasn't exactly what she had in mind for American stardom. 

Upon returning to Italy, Cardinale immediately jumped into another western, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West.  It has legions of fans who consider it one of the director's legendary westerns but I have never understood its appeal.  And this from a dude who loves westerns...!!!  The plot concerned two thugs who band together to protect a woman from an even meaner thug who has just made her a widow.  There is no justification for its interminable length.  I foresaw and understood the entire story in the first 45 minutes but we needed to sit through the director's obsessive attention to the smallest details (like a fly climbing all over Jack Elam's face).  Despite a cast that included Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Charles Bronson, I had aged by the time this thing was over.  It is often cited as one of Cardinale's great films, but I thought she was on quaaludes.

The last film I recall seeing her in was Conversation Piece (1974), about a retired American professor living quietly in Rome when an uncouth local family rents an apartment in his luxurious palazzo.  It was again directed by Visconti and  starring Lancaster along with Silvana Mangano and handsome Helmut Berger (Visconti's real-life lover).  I liked it, although Cardinale's role was small.

After this film, I virtually lost track of her despite the fact that she not only made many more films and works to this day.  But her films, all European, are never seen in the movie theaters I frequent.  It was lovely while it lasted.

She has lived with Italian movie director Pasquale Squitieri, with whom she has a daughter, since 1975.  She is a diehard feminist and has been a UNESCO good-will ambassador for the Defense of Women's Rights since 2002.  In 2001 The Los Angeles Times named her as one of the 50 most beautiful women in film history. 

Movie Review


  1. Beautiful post on a beautiful woman and an excellent actress. It's a post written with extreme sincerity, with no place for fan enthusiasm. I think that in the "trio" formed by Lollo, Loren and Cardinale she was the best one and even now that she is aging, she faces
    reality with dignity and class. Yes, a very good post. BRAVO!- Carlo
    P.S: If You happen to see her tv movie " Rue Paradis" by Henri Verneuil don't miss it.

  2. So glad you liked it, Carlo. Of course I thought of you with every word.

  3. Read John Lahr's (Bert Lahr's son),--
    "Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh", and review