Showing posts with label Mario Monicelli. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mario Monicelli. Show all posts

21 December 2018

Moira Orfei - circus owner and actress

‘Queen of the Big Top’ became cultural icon

Moira Orfei rarely strayed from her trademark look, with  heavy make-up and a turban-style hairdo
Moira Orfei rarely strayed from her trademark look, with
heavy make-up and a turban-style hairdo 
Moira Orfei, an entertainer regarded as the Queen of the Italian circus and an actress who starred in more than 40 films, was born on this day in 1931 in Codroipo, a town in Friuli-Venezia Giulia about 25km (16 miles) southwest of Udine.

She had a trademark look that became so recognisable that advertising posters for the Moira Orfei Circus, which she founded in 1961 with her new husband, the circus acrobat and animal trainer Walter Nones, carried simply her face and the name 'Moira'.

As a young woman, she was a strikingly glamorous Hollywood-style beauty but in later years she took to wearing heavy make-up, dark eye-liner and bright lipstick, topped off with her bouffant hair gathered up in a way that resembled a turban.  Her camped-up appearance made her an unlikely icon for Italy’s gay community.

Born Miranda Orfei, she spent her whole life in the circus. Her father, Riccardo, was a bareback horse rider and sometime clown; her mother, part of the Arata circus dynasty, gave birth to her in the family’s living trailer.  Growing up, she performed as a horse rider, acrobat and trapeze artist.

Posters for Circo Moira Orfei always featured her face and first name
Posters for Circo Moira Orfei always
featured her face and first name
Her film career began the year before she was married, with minor roles in a couple of action movies based loosely on historical themes. Dino De Laurentiis, the producer of one of them, suggested she changed her name from Miranda to Moira, after which the director Mario Costa gave her a bigger part in a swashbuckling adventure movie, Queen of the Pirates.

The so-called sword-and-sandal genre, very popular in Italy at the time, remained her speciality until she was given parts in a couple of comedies written for the great Italian comic actor, Totò.

Thereafter, although the adventure epic remained her staple, her acting talent was recognised in several movies that fell into the commedia all’Italiana genre.

She was in a cast headed by Marcello Mastroianni and Virna Lisi in Mario Monicelli’s Casanova ‘70 (in which her cousin, Liana Orfei, appeared as a lion tamer), played alongside Virna Lisi again in Pietro Germi’s Signore e Signori, with Nino Manfredi and Ugo Tognazzi in Dino Risi’s Straziami ma di baci saziami (Torture Me But Kill Me with Kisses), and with Vittorio Gassman in the Dino Risi classic Profumo di donna (Scent of a Woman).

Meanwhile, Circo Moira Orfei went from strength to strength. With Nones presenting obedient lions or tigers, she presented the circus’s performing elephants.

As a young actress, Orfei was a star of many sword-and-sandal adventure movies
As a young actress, Orfei was a star of
many sword-and-sandal adventure movies
Her animal acts gained silver and gold awards at the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo in 1987, 1989 and 2004 and she became known in the circus world as Moira of the Elephants.

In 1969, she and Nones launched Circo sul Ghiaccio - Circus on Ice - a monumental production which combined a circus ring and a skating rink. A highly elaborate show featured frequent set and costume changes and an international cast of circus and stars.

Circus on Ice toured in a huge big top, the largest seen in Italy. Moving from place to place involved 10 tractors, 34 articulated buses, two special trains and more than 100 caravans.

Orfei retired from performing in the late 1990s, although she continued to supervise every detail of the business.  She suffered some setbacks, including a serious car crash in 2000 that left her with a broken leg and five broken ribs, and a stroke in 2006, which happened during a show in Reggio Calabria and required her to take more than a year off in recuperation.

Subsequently, her active participation in shows was limited, although she would usually parade round the ring at the start, welcoming the audience. Her son and daughter, Stefano and Lara, followed in the family tradition and became part of the show, he becoming one of Europe's foremost animal trainers, she a talented equestrian.

Moira Orfei died in Brescia in 2015 a month ahead of what would have been her 84th birthday, passing away in her sleep in her trailer, having continued to follow the itinerant life of the circus to the end. Her funeral was held in San Donà di Piave - 40km (25 miles) from Venice and about 60km (37 miles) southwest of Codroipo.

A crowd put at around 5,000 watched the funeral cortege, with a hearse drawn by four white Lipizzaners - the breed closely associated with the Spanish Riding School of Vienna - carrying her coffin to the tune of a marching band playing circus music.

The Villa Manin in Codroipo, once home of Ludovico Manin, the last Doge of the Venetian Republic
The Villa Manin in Codroipo, once home of Ludovico
Manin, the last Doge of the Venetian Republic
Travel tip:

Codroipo, which used to be part of the Venetian Republic, is best known for the Villa Manin, once the family home of Ludovico Manin, the last Doge of the Venitian Republic, who governed from 1789 until 1797, when Napoleon Bonaparte forced him to abdicate. It was at the villa in 1797 that the Treaty of Campoformio was signed, marking Napoleon's victory, the fall of the First Coalition (of European states opposed to Napoleon), and the cession of Friuli to Austria.

A typically elegant street in the town of San Donà di Piave
Travel tip:

Elegant San Donà di Piave is one of the historical main towns of the eastern Veneto, although it needed substantial reconstruction in the early 1920s after being heavily damaged during the First World War, when the drawn out Battle of Solstizio took place on the banks of the Piave river. The municipality of San Donà had been established in 1797 as the administrative centre of one of the 15 cantons of the Treviso district. It was part of the Lombard-Venetian Kingdom from 1815 and during the Austrian domination it kept its position of county seat of the district. In the first part of the 19th century, the centre of the city underwent some development, with the building of palaces, commercial buildings and a new cathedral, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Find a hotel in San Donà di Piave with TripAdvisor

More reading:

How Dino Risi helped launch the career of Sophia Loren

Why Mario Monicelli was one of the greats of Italian film

The former pasta salesman who helped put Italian cinema on the map

Also on this day:

69AD: Vespasian becomes emperor of Rome

1401: The birth of Renaissance artist Masaccio

1872: The birth of priest and composer Lorenzo Perosi


3 November 2018

Monica Vitti - actress

Star of Antonioni classics also excelled in comedy roles

Monica Vitti made her name playing enigmatic characters in Antonioni films
Monica Vitti made her name playing
enigmatic characters in Antonioni films
The actress Monica Vitti, who became famous as the star of several films directed by Michelangelo Antonioni during the early 1960s, was born on this day in 1931 in Rome.

Antonioni, with whom she had a romantic relationship that lasted a decade, cast her as his female lead in L'avventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L'eclisse (1962), three enigmatically moody films once described as a "trilogy on modernity and its discontents".

She also starred for him in his first colour film, Il deserto rosso (1964), which continued in a similar vein.  Her performance earned her a second of four Golden Grail awards. Vitti was also honoured with five David di Donatello awards as Best Actress from the Italian Film Academy.

After splitting with Antonioni, Vitti excelled in comedy, working with directors such as Mario Monicelli, Dino Risi, Alberto Sordi and Ettore Scola.

Her performances in movies such as Monicelli’s The Girl With the Pistol (1968) and I Know That You Know That I Know (1982) saw her spoken of as one of the great actors of the Commedia all’Italiana genre alongside Sordi himself, Ugo Tognazzi, Vittorio Gassman and Nino Manfredi.

Monica Vitti made her screen debut in 1954 after honing her skills in the theatre
Monica Vitti made her screen debut in
1954 after honing her skills in the theatre
Although born in Rome - her real name was Maria Luisa Ceciarelli - Vitti spent eight of her childhood years in Messina in Sicily and returned to Rome after her brothers had left to seek their fortune in America.

She acted in amateur productions as a teenager before securing a place at the National Academy of Dramatic Arts in Rome, where she graduated in 1953. She toured Germany with an Italian acting troupe and made her first stage appearance in Rome in a production of Niccolò Machiavelli's La Mandragola.

Her first small film role came 1954 but her performance of note was in Mario Amendola's Le dritte (1958). By then, she had joined Michelangelo Antonioni's company at the Teatro Nuovo di Milano, which is where her association with the director began.

Vitti’s acting brilliance came to the fore in Antonioni’s films, in which her characters were inevitably complex, tormented, mysterious sometimes neurotic young women, who she was able to portray with incredible empathy.

Yet, after Monicelli suggested to her that she could turn her talent to comedy, she quickly proved her versatility with a string of successes.

Monica Vitti now lives in Rome with her husband, director Roberto Russo
Monica Vitti now lives in Rome with her
husband, director Roberto Russo
A woman of natural beauty, Vitti was much-photographed and her private life subject to close scrutiny.  Politically left-wing, she was part of the guard of honour at the funeral of the Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer in 1984.

Her last movie was Secret Scandal (1990), which she also wrote and directed, and for a few years thereafter she worked in television. At the Venice Film Festival in 1995 she received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement.

In 2000, Vitti took part in the celebrations for the 80th birthday of Alberto Sordi and was a guest, along with many personalities from the entertainment world, at the Jubilee celebrations at the Basilica of San Pietro in the Vatican in December of the same year.

However, after 2002 she was not seen again in public and rumours began to circulate about her health. After some time her husband, the former director Roberto Russo, confirmed that she was alive and living in Rome but was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.

The cathedral at Messina had to be rebuilt twice in the 20th century because of earthquake and war damage
The cathedral at Messina had to be rebuilt twice in the 20th
century because of earthquake and war damage
Travel tip:

Messina is a city in the northeast of Sicily, separated from mainland Italy by the Strait of Messina. It is the third largest city on the island and is home to a large Greek-speaking community. The 12th century cathedral in Messina has a bell tower which houses one of the largest astronomical clocks in the world, built in 1933.  Originally built by the Normans, the cathedral, which still contains the remains of King Conrad, ruler of Germany and Sicily in the 13th century, had to be almost entirely rebuilt following a catastrophic earthquake in 1908, and again in 1943, after a fire triggered by Allied bombings.

The auditorium of the Teatro Nuovo di Milano, where Monica Vitti appeared in the 1950s
The auditorium of the Teatro Nuovo di Milano, where
Monica Vitti appeared in the 1950s
Travel tip:

The Teatro Nuovo theatre in Milan, located on the Piazza San Babila in the lower level of the Palazzo del Toro, was designed by architect Emilio Lancia and was the project of the impresario Remigio Paone. It was inaugurated on in December 1938 with a performance of Eduardo De Filippo's comedy Ditegli sempre di sì. Piazza San Babila is characterized by the presence of a fountain built in 1997 by the architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni in conjunction with the Ente Fiera Milano.

More reading:

Michelangelo Antonioni - the 'last great' of post-War Italian cinema

Why Mario Monicelli is called the 'father of Commedia all'Italiana'

The comic genius of Alberto Sordi

Also on this day:

1560: The birth of painter Annibale Carracci

1801: The birth of opera composer Vincenzo Bellini

1918: Armistice ends First World War in Italy


1 September 2018

Vittorio Gassman - actor

Stage and screen star once dubbed ‘Italy’s Olivier’

Vittorio Gassman in the 1948 movie Riso amaro, which provided him with his breakthrough as a screen actor
Vittorio Gassman in the 1948 movie Riso amaro, which
provided him with his breakthrough as a screen actor
Vittorio Gassman, who is regarded as one of the finest actors in the history of Italian theatre and cinema, was born on this day in 1922 in Genoa.

Tall, dark and handsome in a way that made him a Hollywood producer’s dream, Gassman appeared in almost 150 movies but he was no mere matinée idol.

A highly respected stage actor, he possessed a mellifluous speaking voice, a magisterial presence and such range and versatility in his acting talent that the Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham once called him ‘the Lawrence Olivier of Italy’.

He enjoyed a career that spanned five decades. Inevitably, he is best remembered for his screen roles, although by the time he made his movie debut in 1945, he had appeared in more than 40 productions of classic plays by Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, and others.

On screen, his major successes included his portrayal of the handsome scoundrel Walter opposite Silvana Mangano in Giuseppe De Santis's neorealist melodrama Riso amaro (Bitter Rice, 1948), and several Commedia all’Italiana classics, including Mario Monicelli’s I soliti ignoti (Big Deal On Madonna Street, 1958), La grande guerra (The Great War, 1959) and L'armata brancaleone (1965), and Dino Risi's Il sorpasso (1962).

With Silvana Mangano and Alberto Sordi (right), his co-stars in the comedy classic La grande guerra (1959)
With Silvana Mangano and Alberto Sordi (right), his co-stars
in the comedy classic La grande guerra (1959)
At this time, his popularity was rivalled only by Alberto Sordi, his co-star in La grande guerra, which shared the Golden Lion prize at Venice in 1959 with a Rossellini film.

Gassman’s portrayal of a blind military man in Risi’s 1974 film Profumo di donna received the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Al Pacino played the same part and won an Oscar in the 1992 remake, Scent of a Woman.

His flirtation with Hollywood came after he met and fell in love with the American actress Shelley Winters while she was touring Europe.

When Winters returned to Hollywood because of contractual obligations, he followed her there and married her. With his natural charisma and fluency in English he landed a number of roles in Hollywood, including Charles Vidor’s Rhapsody opposite Elizabeth Taylor, and with Gloria Grahame in Maxwell Shane’s film noir The Glass Wall.

He was the only Italian star in the cast of King Vidor's epic War And Peace (1956), produced by Dino De Laurentiis in Rome and for which the Italian composer Nino Rota wrote the music score. Later, Gassman gave distinguished performances in the Robert Altman films A Wedding (1978) and Quintet (1979).

Gassman was the only Italian cast in the 1956 epic War and Peace, in which he is pictured with Audrey Hepburn
Gassman was the only Italian cast in the 1956 epic War and
in which he is pictured with Audrey Hepburn
Born to a German father and a Jewish Italian mother, Gassman had aspirations to be a lawyer. But his mother encouraged him to pursue his interest in acting and he remained devoted to his first love, theatre, throughout his career.

A student at the Accademia Nazionale d'Arte Drammatica in Rome, he made his stage debut in Milan in 1942 before moving back to Rome to work at the Teatro Eliseo.

Even after his film debut in 1946 was followed by his breakthrough role in Bitter Rice two years later, he devoted much energy to Luchino Visconti's theatre company in productions such as Tennessee Williams' Un tram che si chiama desiderio (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Come vi piace (As You Like It) by Shakespeare.

In 1952 he co-founded and co-directed the Teatro d'Arte Italiano, which produced the first complete version of Hamlet in Italy.  Later in his career, he created his own company, Teatro Popolare Itinerante, with which he toured Italy staging the works of 20th century authors and playwrights as well as the classics of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and the Greek tragicians. He also founded a theatre school in Florence.

For a while he was the star of a popular TV series, Il Mattatore, which was later turned into a movie.

Married three times - to actresses Nora Ricci, Shelley Winters and Diletta D'Andrea - he also had numerous affairs.  The father of two daughters and two sons - one of whom, Alessandro, became a film actor - Gassman died in June 2000, in Rome, following a heart attack.

The Piazza de Ferrari in the centre of Genoa
The Piazza de Ferrari in the centre of Genoa
Travel tip:

Gassman’s home city of Genoa boasts Italy's largest sea port, its maritime power going back to the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Republic of Genoa ruled the Mediterranean. The old city is fascinating for its large maze of narrow caruggi (streets), opening out occasionally into grand squares such as Piazza de Ferrari, site of an iconic bronze fountain and Teatro Carlo Felice opera house. There is a Romanesque duomo, the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, recognisable for its black-and-white-striped facade and frescoed interior.

The Accademia Nazionale d'Arte Drammatic in Rome
The Accademia Nazionale d'Arte Drammatic in Rome
Travel tip:

The Accademia Nazionale d'Arte Drammatica "Silvio d'Amico", the dramatic arts academy where Gassman trained as an actor, can be found in Via Bellini, between Villa Borghese and the Parioli district, in an elegant four-storey building. Founded in 1936 by the critic and theatrical theorist Silvio D'Amico, in addition to Gassman it has seen students such as Rossella Falk, Anna Magnani, Paolo Stoppa, Nino Manfredi, Gian Maria Volonté, Monica Vitti, Michele Placido, Nicoletta Braschi and Luca Zingaretti attend lectures and workshops there.

More reading:

Mario Monicelli - the father of Commedia all'Italiana

The genius of Alberto Sordi

How Silvano Mangano's acting talents overcame her critics

Also on this day:

1878: The birth of conductor Tullio Serafin

1886: The birth of vaudeville star Guido Deiro


16 May 2018

Mario Monicelli - film director

Life’s work put him among greats of commedia all’italiana

Mario Monicelli directed his first film in 1949, which also  marked the start of his successful relationship with Totò
Mario Monicelli directed his first film in 1949, which also
marked the start of his successful relationship with Totò
Mario Monicelli, the director who became known as ‘the father of commedia all’italiana’ and was nominated for an Oscar six times, was born on this day in 1915 in Viareggio.

He made more than 70 films, working into his 90s.  He helped advance the careers of actors such as Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale, and forged successful associations with the great comic actors Totò and Alberto Sordi.

Commedia all’italiana was notable for combining the traditional elements of comedy with social commentary, often addressing some of the most controversial issues of the times and making fun of any organisation, the Catholic Church in particular, perceived to have an earnest sense of self-importance.

The genre’s stories were often heavily laced with sadness and Monicelli’s work won praise for his particular sensitivity to the miseries and joys of Italian life and the foibles of ordinary Italians. He claimed the lack of a happy ending actually defined Italian humour and that themes drawn from poverty, hunger, misery, old age, sickness, and death were the ones that most appealed to the Italian love of tragi-comedy.

Monicelli continued to direct films into his 90s
Monicelli continued to direct films
into his 90s
He was part of a golden generation of Italian directors including Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Dino Risi and Luigi Comencini, and many of his films were hailed as masterpieces, including the caper comedy I soliti ignoti (1958), which was packaged for American audiences as Big Deal on Madonna Street, the satire La grande guerra (The Great War, 1959), which won him Venice's Golden Lion award, and the bitter-sweet drama I compagni (The Comrades, 1963), also known as The Organizer.

Monicelli was the son of a noted journalist, Tommaso Monicelli, and had two older brothers, one a writer and translator, the other a journalist. He attended the universities of Pisa and Milan, where he studied literature and philosophy, and after graduation became became a film critic and amateur film-maker. At the age of just 20 he made a feature-length film, I ragazzi della via Paal, which won an amateur prize at the Venice Film Festival  in 1935.

He spent 12 years as scriptwriter and assistant director, collaborating on some of the most celebrated Italian films of the 1940s, including Giuseppe De Santis’s Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice, 1949).

Monicelli’s debut as a director came in a collaboration with Steno (real name Stefanio Vanzina) on Totò cerca casa (Totò looks for a house, 1949), the first of several popular films the pair made starring Totò over the next four years, including Guardie e Ladri (Cops and Robbers, 1951) and Totò e i Re di Roma (1952). 

Totò cerca casa was typical of the genre, a farce set against the background of Italy’s desperate housing shortage. Guardie e Ladri caused controversy because it was about the friendship between a thief and a policeman, two men from similar backgrounds sharing similar problems, a concept considered so revolutionary that Monicelli had to appear personally before the sensors before it could be released.

Alberto Sordi (left) and Vittorio Gassman in a scene
from the tragic Italian movie La grande guerra
Totò e Carolina (1955), which depicted a young suicidal girl being helped by Communists, was actually banned for a year and a half, and was ultimately granted a certificate only after Monicelli had made 34 cuts.

I soliti ignoti, sometimes called Italian cinema's first true Commedia all'Italiana film, was his first hit. Starring Totò, it gave early comedy roles to Mastroianni, Gassman and Cardinale. Despite the lack of a happy ending, it was a success both in the United Kingdom, where it was titled Persons Unknown, and in the US, where it was also turned into a Broadway musical.

Next came Monicelli’s bravest and possibly most controversial film, the funny but poignant La grande guerra, a scathing satire of the First World War with Sordi and Gassman as peasants thrust into the bewildering world of battle, which opponents claimed would defile the memory of the 600,000 Italians who died in the conflict but once released was seen as a triumph, a film that at last dared to say that so many men, poor men who were badly dressed, badly fed, ignorant and illiterate, had gone to fight a war that had little to do with them and was ultimately pointless.  The film won the Golden Lion award at Venice, and, like I soliti ignoti, was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign film.

Totò (left) and Aldo Fabrizi in a scene from Guardie
e Ladri.
They worked together in numerous films. 
I Compagni brought his second Oscar nomination and in 1968 came a third, for La Ragazza con la pistola (Girl with the Gun), which starred Monica Vitti as a girl who travels from Sicily to London intending to murder her unfaithful lover.

Amici miei (My Dear Friends, 1975), a tale of ageing friends who play jokes on one another to camouflage the realities of disillusionment, loneliness and failure, proved one of his greatest hits, breaking records in Italy and France. The following year he won his final Oscar nomination, for another Mastroianni hit, Casanova '70. 

His last feature film was Le rose del deserto (Rose of the Desert, 2006), the story of a group of soldiers in Libya during the Second World War, which he directed at the age of 91. Yet he had still not finished working, in 2008 directing a documentary entitled Monti, about his adopted neighbourhood in Rome.

A lifetime supporter of left-wing parties, he remained politically active until late in life, in 2009 calling on students to protest against the government's proposals to cut the culture budget. He described Italy's then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi as “a philistine” and "a modern tyrant".

Monicelli’s father, Tommaso, had committed suicide and when he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in 2010, he decided he would end his life the same way, dramatically jumping from a window on the fifth floor of the San Giovanni Addolorata Hospital in Rome.

Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano said Monicelli would be "remembered by millions of Italians for the way he moved them, for how he made them laugh, and reflect."

Viareggio's Grand Hotel is a throwback to its heydey
Viareggio's Grand Hotel is a throwback to its heydey
Travel tip:

Viareggio, the seaside resort in Tuscany in which Monicelli was born, has an air of faded grandeur, its seafront notable for the Art Nouveau architecture that reminds visitors of the town's heyday in the 1920s and '30s. Thanks to its wide, sandy beaches, however, the resort remains hugely popular, especially with Italians. In addition, it boasts a colourful Carnevale, featuring a wonderful parade of elaborate and often outrageous floats, that is second only to the Venice carnival among Italy’s Mardi Gras celebrations.

Via dei Serpenti, looking towards the Colosseum
Via dei Serpenti, looking towards the Colosseum
Travel tip:

One of Rome's oldest and most charming residential neighbourhoods, Monti retains a bohemian flavour with chic cafes and street food and alternative fashion shops. Occupying the area between the Quirinal Hill and the Colosseum, in Roman times the area was home to craftsmen but also to prostitutes and good-for-nothings and was hidden from the more refined areas of the city by a large wall. Nowadays, it is popular with architects, screenwriters and other creative types as one of Rome’s most fashionable central areas.  Monicelli’s former home in Via dei Serpenti is marked with a plaque.

Also on this day:

1945: The birth of business tycoon and former Inter chairman Massimo Moratti

1974: The birth of top-selling singer-songwriter Laura Pausini