1 May 2018

Laura Betti - actress and jazz singer

Long-time companion of director Pier Paolo Pasolini

Laura Betti made her screen debut in Fellini's 1960 classic about fame and decadence, La Dolce Vita
Laura Betti made her screen debut in Fellini's 1960 classic
about fame and decadence, La Dolce Vita
The actress and singer Laura Betti, who appeared in a number of important Italian films in the 1960s and 1970s, including Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Novecento and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, was born on this day in 1927 in Casalecchio di Reno, in Emilia-Romagna.

In addition to Teorema, which won her the coveted Volpi Cup for best actress at the 1968 Venice Film Festival, Betti appeared in six other Pasolini films as the two developed a special and unlikely relationship.

Betti, a vivacious blonde with striking good looks, had no shortage of suitors among the authors, artists, singers and aspiring actors that made up her circle in Rome in the 1950s, but Pasolini was homosexual and had no interest in her in a romantic sense.

Yet he became a regular guest at her apartment near the Palazzo Farnese and she wrote many years later that a kind of love developed between them. They met while he was an unknown poet and it was with her encouragement that he realised his aspiration to become a director.

Betti the jazz singer was a popular performer in Rome nightclubs
Betti the jazz singer was a popular
performer in Rome nightclubs
Over time she effectively became his cook and housekeeper and after his death in 1975, the victim of a brutal murder that was never fully explained, she devoted much of her time to preserving his memory and championing his work.

She was the driving force behind the establishment of the Pasolini Foundation in Bologna, where he was born. She also set up an annual literary prize in his name.

The daughter of a barrister, she was born Laura Trombetti. Her first interest was in singing, particularly jazz, and she moved to Rome at a young age, acquiring a following on the cabaret circuit, for which her husky voice was ideal.  Both Pasolini and Alberto Moravia supplied material for her act.

Her interpretations of jazz tunes and songs by Bertolt Brecht brought comparisons with the sultry-voiced French singer Juliette Greco. She released a number of albums, which sold well.

Betti's first venture into theatre came with a 1955 production of Arthur Miller's Crucible staged by Luchino Visconti, although the night clubs continued to be her domain for much of the late 1950s until Fellini launched her film career with a cameo role in La Dolce Vita (1960), as one of the authentic Roman eccentrics in the beach villa orgy sequence.  It was the first of 76 movies in her career.

Her first Pasolini film was La Ricotta, a controversial 40-minute short that featured Orson Welles as an American director shooting a film about the Passion of Christ in Rome, with Betti a temperamental Madonna.

Laura Betti was for many years the companion of enigmatic director Pier Paolo Pasolini (left)
Laura Betti was for many years the companion of
enigmatic director Pier Paolo Pasolini (left)
In 1968, her first substantial Pasolini role, as the peasant maid in a bourgeois household in Teorema, won the best actress award at the 1968 Venice festival.

After returning to the stage to give an electrifying performance in Samuel Beckett's Not I for the Rome Municipal Theatre, her next Pasolini film role was in The Canterbury Tales (1972), shot in England, in which she was the Wife of Bath.

In the early 1970s, she also appeared in films by Marco Bellocchio, Mauro Bolognini, Miklos Jancso and the Taviani Brothers. She was also in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango In Paris (1972), Novecento (1976) and La Luna (1979).

After Pasolini's murder, Betti was sceptical, like many, of the explanation for his death and the confession by Giuseppe Pelosi, a 17-year-old youth he had paid for sex, when the evidence suggested the involvement of more than one attacker.  She preferred the idea that, as a communist sympathiser, he had been the victim of a conspiracy of the political Right, perhaps because he knew damaging secrets about senior figures, a theory that gained credence when it emerged that the Italian secret services were involved in the investigation into his death.

She continued to appear in films for her whole life, although at the same time devoting much time to travelling in Italy, and around the world, to fight Pasolini's corner. In 2001, she made a 90-minute documentary, Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Reason For A Dream, emphasising what she considered to be his optimistic vision of the future.

Betti, who never married, struggled with her health in the early 2000s and died of a heart attack in 2004.

The Villa Marescalchi, outside Casalecchio di Reno
The Villa Marescalchi, outside Casalecchio di Reno
Travel tip:

Casalecchio di Reno, which takes its name from the Roman word for a small collection of houses, in this instance clustered around the Reno river, is nowadays effectively a suburb of Bologna. An important industrial area in the early part of the 20th century, it was heavily bombed by the Allies in the Second World War, its population growing rapidly as it was rebuilt after 1945. The Villa Marescalchi, just outside the town, once contained paintings by the noted Bolognese painter Cesare Baglioni, but these were destroyed in a bombing raid.

The Palazzo Farnese now houses the French Embassy
The Palazzo Farnese now houses the French Embassy
Travel tip:

The Palazzo Farnese is one of the most important High Renaissance palaces in Rome, which currently serves as the French Embassy in Italy. Designed in 1517 for the Farnese family, it was expanded when Alessandro Farnese became Pope Paul III in 1534. The palace was designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and the development involved input from Michelangelo, Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola and Giacomo della Porta, who were alls prominent in Rome in the 16th century.


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