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Great European Lives: Anna Magnani

Italian actress Anna Magnani showing a photograph of her son, Luca - Credit: Mondadori via Getty Images

“Dio mio, you Americans are crazy. Fly six, eight thousand miles. Talk to Magnani. Why? I cannot win Academy Award. Is impossible.”

It was the early spring of 1956 and Anna Magnani had just set Hollywood alight with her performance as Serafina Delle Rose in a screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo the previous year. Critics raved about her, audiences loved her, but that wasn’t enough, she felt, to have even a remote chance of an Oscar. The American journalist sitting opposite Magnani in her Rome apartment, begged to differ.

“You want to bet?” he smiled.

The 47-year-old lowered her eyes and shook her head.

“No bet,” she said, “but I no win. I no Hollywood star. Look my figure. Look my face. No young. No pretty. Only fire.”

A few days later it was confirmed that the journalist would have won his bet when Magnani was awarded the Oscar for Best Actress. She wasn’t there to receive it. So convinced was she that a middle-aged actress performing in her second language would never win an Academy Award she hadn’t even travelled to the US for the ceremony. She received the news, groggy and sleep-addled, at home in Rome via a telephone call from the reporter.

“You’re lying,” she said to him. “If this is a joke, I will kill you.”

Magnani’s conviction that she didn’t stand a chance was understandable given the glitz and glamour associated with Hollywood, yet her performance in The Rose Tattoo blew away every other contender with its intensity and flawless plausibility. There have always been actors who thrive on intensity but few could back it up with the authenticity of Anna Magnani.

Europe already knew this, Jean Renoir even said, “Anna acts with her heart, her mind, all her instincts and is one of the few authentic acting geniuses of our period”, but she took America by storm. Spencer Tracy declared he was “prepared to play any part opposite Magnani, her son, her father, even her grandfather”. Marlon Brando was moved to send a telegram to Rome declaring, “your performance so magnificent it defies description”.

Often when they show up in California European actors can be intimidated by the Hollywood machine. Not Magnani. She conducted her first press interview from her hotel bed in yellow silk pyjamas, smoking a cigar. When she arrived at the studio, having first banned visitors from the set, her co-star, Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster, straightaway complained that between takes she would try and direct him. So volcanically committed was her performance that in one scene she cracked two of Virginia Grey’s ribs. If she didn’t like a line she would flat out refuse to say it.

“I no feel this,” she’d declare, patting her hand against her chest. “I cannot do what is not real, what is not Magnani, what is not here.”

“Anna Magnani was born,” said Roberto Rossellini, director and her former lover, “carrying her liver in her teeth.” For the German-born Hollywood director William Dieterle she was “the last of the great shameless emotionalists”. That she gave everything to her acting, and was fiercely protective of herself on set, is no surprise because Magnani had been fighting to be seen, to be heard, to be accepted on her own terms for her entire life.

She was born in Rome to an Italian mother and an Egyptian father. Her father left for Egypt when Anna was a baby and her mother followed him soon afterwards, leaving their daughter to be brought up in a Roman slum by her grandparents. 
She was an authentic street child, learning fast that she had to scrap and scratch, growing streetwise long before her time. Tough it may have been but her upbringing forged both the adult and the actress.

“I hate respectability,” she said at the height of her fame. “Give me the life of the streets, of the common people.”

At 17 she fought her way into the Eleonora Duse Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, paying her way by performing torch songs and traditional Roman ballads in nightclubs and bars. 

When she began appearing in experimental plays in backstreet theatres she was spotted by film director Goffredo Alessandrini, who not only cast her in her first screen role he also married her in 1935. Magnani spent the next seven years as a dutiful housewife, taking only very minor film roles, until she separated from Alessandrini early in 1942 and later that year gave birth to her son Luca after a relationship with the actor Massimo Serato.

Before he was two years old Luca contracted polio, a condition that would confine him to a wheelchair. Magnani was determined he would receive the best treatment possible and to do that she had to do the thing she did best in order to earn the money she needed.

She was soon back on stage again, appearing in rough and ready revue shows for American servicemen and taking roles in minor films, working as hard as she could, earning as much as she could, before Roberto Rossellini cast her in 1945’s Rome, Open City and everything changed. Her performance as Pina, the wife of an Italian resistance fighter in Nazi-occupied Rome, established her as a major screen talent. The war was still fresh in Italian minds and Rossellini’s neo-realism took the production to locations still rubble-strewn and pockmarked with shrapnel scars. For Italians who could still practically smell the cordite from the real-life occupation Magnani’s performance meant something more than a mere character in a film. She was real, her death scene genuinely shocking, as if she were a metaphor for the wartime experience of her country and her city.

Luca’s polio had been diagnosed just before filming began and Magnani almost pulled out, but the short-term financial security the role offered persuaded her to carry on, throwing her anguish into Pina and launching herself onto the world stage. She would never struggle for money again. Luca would be treated at the best clinics in Switzerland.
During the making of Rome, Open City Magnani embarked on a relationship with Rossellini that was stormy and frequently violent – on one occasion Magnani tried to run Rossellini over in her car – until the director left her for Ingrid Bergman, with whom he’d begun a relationship in 1949. When he admitted his infidelity Magnani tipped a plate of hot pasta over his head. Rossellini went off to film Stromboli on the volcanic island with the woman who would become his wife. Magnani responded by making her own lava-filled epic, Volcano.

Magnani and Rossellini retained an unbreakable bond, however. When in 1973 Magnani was diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that would kill her, she contacted Rossellini who, despite their having not spoken for 13 years, dropped everything and rushed to her side. He was present, alongside Luca, when she died.

“In two hours of Anna there’s everything,” he said. “Summer, winter, tenderness, fury, jealousy, fighting, break-up, goodbye, tears, repentance, pardon, ecstasy, and then, once again, suspicion, anger, blows.”

When she made Wild is the Wind in Nevada the year after her Oscar success she was so volatile director George Cukor never spoke of the experience again. In 1960, at the age of 52, she starred with Marlon Brando in The Fugitive Kind, drawing blood when during a passionate kiss she bit down hard on his lip. Brando had to pinch her nostrils together to release himself.

It was all for Luca, this determination, this intensity. She even missed the premiere of The Rose Tattoo because it would have meant leaving her son at home for Christmas. It was for him that she fought and scrapped her way to the top, then fought and scrapped to stay there, determined to build a life for them both, the kind of life that nobody ever gave to a street urchin from Rome. Abandoned by her parents as a baby she knew what it meant to have to fight for affection, for love, for just a place in the world to call her own.

In her last major role, in Pasolini’s Mamma Roma of 1962, Magnani played a prostitute trying to ensure a comfortable life for her son, determined he wouldn’t grow up into the seedy world in which she was enmeshed. In one scene, at the end of her tether, she glares at the sky and addresses Christ.

“Explain to me,” she demands, eyes blazing, sinews straining, “why I am a nobody but you are the king of kings.”

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