Mastroianni! Mastroianni! Mastroianni!
Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni (1924- 1996) was and still remains my favorite film actor of all time. He began appearing in films in 1948 (I Miserabili) but it wasn’t until 1960 with the release of Fellini’s controversial La Dolce Vita that the film going public outside of Italy knew who he was. He was so little known internationally that the producers of the film wanted someone more recognizable for the lead. But Fellini insisted on him because as Mastroianni put it; “He wanted somebody plain. Someone no one would pay attention to. Someone with an ordinary face. So I said; ‘Fine, I’m that ordinary face. Use me.’ And he did.” Upon its release La Dolce Vita with its episodic structure depicting several strata’s of Italian society created an international scandal of sorts when the Vatican and the Catholic intelligentsia condemned the film as a celebration of decadent and immoral behavior while on the other end of the spectrum Marxists and other political Leftists praised the film as a stunning indictment of certain bourgeois values. What no one disputed was the mastery of Mastroianni’s performance in the central role. The subtle nuances he invested in the character along with his low key, non showy acting style and (despite Fellini’s assessment), his charming good looks, quickly made him the most in-demand actor in Europe and other parts of the world as well.
He played so many romantic parts and the term “Latin lover” became synonymous with his name. He hated the moniker and tried to distance himself from it throughout his career by selecting roles that would discourage that kind of labeling. Roles like the impotent man in Bell Antonio (1960), the title character in A Slightly Pregnant Man (1973), a homosexual in A Special Day (1977), along with many other roles. Yet the name stuck and after a while he realized there was nothing he could do except let time pass as it did and the phrase became attached to younger actors.
I became aware of him in 1960 in La Dolce Vita along with everyone else. The impact of his performance and his laid back “Devil may care “persona hit the young film going audience like a freight train. All the women wanted him for their lover, all the guys wanted to be like him. Why? Because he seemed to embody the epitome of cool. Nothing about him was hurried or confused. Nothing seemed to upset his equilibrium or poise even when it was some woman demanding more passion than he was willing to give. Then he would take her coat along with her purse and show her to the door. If she resisted he might give her a push and then return to what he had been doing without showing any sign of distress. In a different instance he might make some romantic or sexual overture to a woman and be rebuffed. His response would always be a slight shrug and a benign smile as if to say; “That’s life” as he walked away from her. We all wanted to be like that in life. We all wanted to be Mastroianni.
Then in a seemingly short period of time he gave several terrific performances in films like La Note-1961, Divorce, Italian Style(1961), 8-1/2(1963), Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), The Organizer (1963)Marriage, Italian Style (1964)that told us that behind those “Latin lover” good looks was an actor of impressive range and depth.
What most of us didn’t know at the time is that in Italy he had appeared on stage playing a wide variety of roles. Everything from Shakespeare to Pirandello with Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Ionesco somewhere in the mix. So in many ways Mastroianni was as complete an actor as one could find anywhere.
In motion pictures he worked with virtually every major director playing everything from womanizers, assassins, priests, generals, thieves, landowners, counts, laborers, secret agents and beyond. The directors who worked with him referred to him as; “a monster of acting”. And “the only actor in the world who can play just about anything”. When asked Mastroianni modestly said that he didn’t subscribe to any school or style of acting. “I just see myself as a blank canvas on which the director can paint.”
Later in his life he was quoted saying; “I love to make movies, I love to act. I always want to improve that’s why I make so many movies.”And indeed he did .In a career that spanned 48 years he appeared in 143 films.
Now although he made more films with other directors: Ettore Scola (8 films), Marco Ferreri (7 films), Mario Monicelli ( 7 films) Eduardo De Filipo (7 films), it is with Federico Fellini with whom he made 5 films that he is most closely identified ( La Dolce Vita -1960. 8-1/2 – 1963, City of Women – 1980, Fred and Ginger – 1985 and Intervista – 1987). The critical establishment even went so far as to suggest that Mastroianni was Fellini’s alter ego. Both scoffed at the idea, especially Fellini. During a 24 year period (1954-1978) he co-starred with Sophia Loren in 14 films making them the most successful couple in film history.
Near the end of his life Mastroianni made a documentary film called; Marcello Mastroianni, I remember. It was released in 1997, one year after his death. The film is an interesting, charming and often amusing summation of his entire career. A graceful end to a great career spent in the public eye. “I like people” he says in that film. “And I love life.” And with it he left us with a legacy that will endure as long as cinema itself.