Italian stage and screen actress Anna Magnani (1909–1973) gained international fame with her passionate performance in director Roberto Rossellini's Open City, the first major work of the Italian neo-realist cinema movement. In the United States, Magnani was nominated twice for an Academy Award for Best Actress, winning the Oscar in 1955 for her role in The Rose Tattoo.
Details of Anna Magnani's early life could have provided plot elements for the grim Italian "neo-realist" films that later made her an international star. She was born in Rome, Italy, on March 7, 1908, an illegitimate child who never knew her father and was deserted by her mother. Responsibility for her upbringing fell upon her maternal grandmother. The pair led a poverty-stricken existence in the harshest parts of Rome.
Magnani received her early education at a French convent school in Rome. Later, she enrolled at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, also in Rome. To earn a living and support her schooling, she sang risqué songs in cabarets and nightclubs; she also performed in vaudeville. In 1926, she joined a company of performers that toured Italy and, in 1927, Argentina.
Early Film Career
She made an inauspicious film debut in 1927, playing a bit part in the silent film Scampolo. But at this time, films were not her main career focus, as she also sang and acted on the stage.
Magnani returned to films in 1934, for what some consider to be a legitimate film debut, in La cieca di Sorrento (The Blind Women of Sorrento). In 1935, she married film director Goffredo Alessandrini. Although Alessandrini did not consider Magnani a strong film actress, he gave her a supporting role in his 1936 film Cavalleria. The marriage was unsuccessful, and the couple went through a long period of separation that finally ended with an annulment in 1950. They had one son, Luca.
For the next five years, Magnani's acting work—on both stage and screen—was somewhat spotty, but she gained validation as a film actress when she appeared as the second female lead in Teresa Venerdi (Friday Theresa or Doctor Beware), by great Italian filmmaker Vittorio De Sica, who would later direct the neo-realist masterpiece The Bicycle Thief (1949).
Gained Fame in Open City
Magnani's true cinema breakthrough came nearly eighteen years after she made her first screen appearance in 1945 when she played "Pina" in director Roberto Rossellini's Roma, città aperta (Open City), the seminal work that launched the Italian neo-realist film movement in the immediate post-World War II period. The film dealt with the final days of Nazi occupation of Rome. Her performance earned her international attention, largely due to her memorable, well-acted death scene, which has been described as a great moment in film history. In 1946, in the United States, she was selected by the National Board of Review as the best foreign actress of the year for her work in the film.
Soon, she would work with some of Europe's greatest directors and, in Italy, she became a star, despite her unconventional looks—by film standards—and lack of glamour. Her dark hair, dark-circled eyes, somewhat plump frame and short stature provided her with a sensual look often described as "earthy." Because of her appearance and acting style, Magnani was often cast as working-class women or passionate widows or mothers. On screen, Magnani came across as fiery, tempestuous, loud, aggressive and at the same time vulnerable. When not exploding, she could be quiet but seething, her raw emotions evident in her countenance. She was blessed with an incredibly expressive face that enabled her to silently, yet easily, communicate characters' feelings. Her skills inspired De Sica, her former director, to call her "Italy's finest actress and one of the most interesting actresses in the world," as quoted on the theoscarsite.com, website.
Her off-screen life at times could be equally as dramatic. During this period, Magnani had a highly visible offscreen relationship with Rossellini. This lasted for several years, until Rossellini began his rather notorious affair with actress Ingrid Bergman. Earlier, in 1942, she became involved with actor Massimo Serato. Their affair produced her second—and illegitimate—son. Later, the child became a victim of polio, and Magnani devoted a great deal of her personal life to his care.
Magnani again worked with Rossellini in 1948, first in the Il Miracolo (The Miracle), a story segment presented in an episodic film called L'Amore (Love), and in The Human Voice. In the first, she played a pregnant outcast peasant who was seduced by a stranger and comes to believe the child she subsequently carries is Christ. American censors condemned Il Miracolo as blasphemous. The Human Voice was based on a play by famed French artist and writer Jean Cocteau, and, in a tour de force performance, Magnani portrayed a desperate woman trying to save a romantic relationship on the telephone.
Became Post-War Neo-Realist Heroine
After Open City, Magnani provided the screen with powerful performances as typical neo-realist female characters including strong-willed prostitutes and suffering mothers. In 1947, in L'onorevole Angelina, she played an Italian housewife who bravely fought against black market activities that were rampant in post-war Europe. In 1951, Luchino Visconti, another great Italian director who earned his reputation in neo-realist films, moved into the realm of satire with Bellissima, and he cast Magnani as "Maddelena," an overly aggressive stage mother intent on getting her daughter into movies. The moment when the character realizes that the studio heads are laughing at her daughter's screen test provides cinema with one of its great poignant moments, thanks to Magnani's considerable talents.
Other works from this period included Abbasso la miseria(1945); Devanti a lui tremava tutta Roma (Before Him All Rome Trembled), Abbasso la richezza, and Un uomo ritorna, Il bandito, all in 1946; La sconosciuto di San Marino, Assunta spina, Molti sogni per le strade, and Vulcano in (1949).
In 1952, she worked with renowned French director Jean Renoir in Le Carrosse d'or (The Golden Coach), playing a commedia dell'arte actress. She also starred in Camicie rosse, directed by former husband Alessandrini.
Won Academy Award for The Rose Tattoo
With Magnani's international reputation firmly established, it was only natural that Hollywood would seek her considerable talents. Her American debut turned out to be one of her most famous movies and one of her greatest parts. She played the widow of a truck driver in the The Rose Tattoo, the film version of Tennessee Williams's play. Magnani was friends with the famous playwright, and Williams had written the role with Magnani in mind.
The film was directed by Daniel Mann, and Burt Lancaster co-starred with Magnani, who earned a mantle full of awards for her performance, including the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress, the British Film Academy Award for Best Foreign Actress, the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress-Drama, and the National Board of Review Award for Best Actress.
Ironically, following her triumph in The Rose Tattoo, the number of her film roles began to dwindle, even though she continued providing strong performances. In 1957, she was again nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in Wild is the Wind, a film by George Cukor, some consider one of America's finest directors.
Worked With Brando
In 1959, Magnani became involved in a major film project that, although it resulted in immediate failure, turned out to be perhaps her most interesting American movie. Further, it combined her considerable talents with those of arguably America's greatest actor, Marlon Brando, as well one of the movie industry's best directors, Sidney Lumet, and one of the country's finest playwrights, Tennessee Williams.
By the late 1950s, Brando and Magnani were the male and female actors whose names were most closely identified with Williams's work. In 1948, Brando's stage performance as "Stanley Kowalski" in William's play A Streetcar Named Desire electrified Broadway audiences and propelled him toward super-stardom; and Magnani, with her performance in The Rose Tattoo, personified, in many peoples' minds, the typical Williams female character. Thus, a Williams-Brando-Magnani collaboration seemed highly appropriate, and it turned out to be The Fugitive Kind, an adaptation of Orpheus Descending, one of William's earlier and lesser-known plays.
Brando starred as "Valentine Xavier," a guitar-playing drifter who finds his way into a small Louisiana town, where he encounters and develops a romantic relationship with an emotionally vulnerable woman (played by Magnani) who is married to a cruel man dying of cancer.
Brando demanded and got an unheard-of million-dollar contract, but the film's producers expected a smash hit, considering all of the talent assembled for a work by Williams. At the time, Williams was hot in Hollywood. His reputation had already been well established with his plays A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, and the movie version of his play, Cat on the Hot Tin Roof, was a current box office success. In addition, his new play, Suddenly, Last Summer, was doing well on Broadway, and the screen rights had already been sold.
But The Fugitive Kind failed to live up to expectations, and trouble began even before the filming started. Author Peter Manso reported in "Brando," his 1994 biography of the temperamental star, that Brando and Magnani's working relationship became strained during rehearsals and further deteriorated when filming began. Essentially, two massive egos collided. "Magnani, who was notorious for her stormy affairs with her leading men as well as her directors in the past, was now offended at Marlon's courtesy, which had become obsequious to the point of parody," wrote Manso. "Not surprisingly, Brando was testing her the way he tested everyone."
As for the film, the final results were odd, and both audiences and critics were turned off. "With a few scattered exceptions, the reviews were terrible," wrote Manso.
One of those exceptions was Bosley Crowther, then the influential film reviewer for The New York Times. He wrote: "… at the center of his drama, which grimly and relentlessly takes place in the sweaty and noxious climate of a backwash Louisiana town, there are two brave and enterprising people whose inevitably frustrating fate assumes, from the vibrance of their natures, the shape of tragedy. And because Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani play these two people brilliantly, 'The Fugitive Kind' has a distinction and a sensitivity that are rare today in films."
Acting Appearances Decreased
Following that film, but not as a result of its critical reception, Magnani's screen activity shrank even more. Her age was probably more responsible for her diminished activity: In 1960, she was fifty-two years old, and acting opportunities for women in that age bracket were limited; especially for a singular performer like Magnani.
During her American period, Magnani also continued working overseas with European directors. In 1956, she starred in Suor letizia. Two years later, she starred with Giulietta Masina, another major international actress (she appeared in Frederico Fellini's classic La Strada [The Street, 1954] and she later married the director), in Nella città l'inferno (And the Wild, Wild Woman), a drama taking place in a female prison. Magnani played a prostitute.
In 1962, she had yet another opportunity to work with a highly regarded European director, when she appeared in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Mamma Roma. Again, Magnani played a prostitute; it was her last film role of substance.
Later in the decade, in 1969, she appeared in the comedy The Secret of Santa Vittoria, directed by Stanley Kramer. Her last screen role was a cameo in Fellini's Roma in 1972.
In this later period of her career, she also appeared on Italian television and acted on the stage, most notably in 1965 when she starred in La Lupa (She-Wolf), directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and 1966 when she played the lead in playwright Jean Anouilh's Medea, directed by Gian Carlo Menotti.
Died of Cancer
Magnani battled pancreatic cancer late in her life, and she finally succumbed to the disease in Rome on September 26, 1973. She was 65 years old. It was reported that an enormous crowd turned out for her funeral in Italy, in a final public salute that is more typically reserved for Popes. She was laid to rest in the family mausoleum of Roberto Rossellini, who had remained her longtime friend and favorite director.
She was later honored in the United States with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.
In 2002, she was the subject of a "Billy Rose Tribute" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The two-week career retrospective included screenings of Magnani's most important films.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 3: Actors and Actresses, fourth edition, St. James Press, 2000.
Manso, Peter, Brando: The Biography, Hyperion, 1994.
The Village Voice, January 16-22, 2002.
"Anna Magnani," The Oscar Site,, http://theoscarsite.com/whoswho3/magnani_a.htm (December 19, 2005).
"Anna Magnani Biography," Hollywood.com, http://www.hollywood.com/celebs/fulldetail/id/193906 (December 20, 2005).
"Spotlight on Anna Magnani," Italiamia, http://www.italiamia.com/cinema_magnani.html (December 19, 2005).
Nationality: Italian. Born: Rome, 7 March 1908. Education: Attended a French convent school in Rome; Academy of Dramatic Art, Rome. Family: Married the director Goffredo Alessandrini, 1935 (separated), son: Luca. Career: Joined a touring repertory company, and made stage debut in 1926; also sang in night clubs; 1934—film debut in La cieca di Sorrento; continued theater work; 1954—first American film, The Rose Tattoo; later stage successes were La Lupa, 1965, and Medea, 1966. Awards: Best Actress, Venice Festival, for L'onorevole Angelina, 1947; Best Actress Academy Award and Best Actress, New York Film Critics, for The Rose Tattoo; 1955; Best Actress, Berlin Festival for Wild Is the Wind, 1958; also received Italian Nastri d'argento Awards for Best Actress, 1945–46, 1947–48, 1948–49, 1951–52, and 1956; Italian Grolle d'oro Award, 1958–59. Died: Of cancer in Rome, 26 September 1973.
Films as Actress:
La cieca di Sorrento (Malasomma); Tempo massimo (Mattoli)
Cavalleria (Alessandrini); Trenta secondi d'amore (Trente secondes d'amour) (Bonnard)
Una lampada alla finestra (Talamo)
Teresa Venerdi (De Sica); Finalmente soli (Gentilomo); La fuggitiva (Ballerini)
La fortuna viene dal cielo (Rathonyi); L'avventura di Annabella (Menardi); La vita è bella (Bragaglia); Campo dei fiori (Bonnard); L'ultima carrozella (Mattoli); Il fiore sotto gli occhi (Brignone)
Quartetto pazzo (Salvani)
Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City; Open City) (Rossellini) (as Pina); Abbasso la miseria (Righelli)
Devanti a lui tremava tutta Roma (Before Him All Rome Trembled; Tosca) (Gallone); Abbasso la richezza (Righetti); Un uomo ritorna (Neufeld); Il bandito (Lattuada)
La sconosciuto di San Marino (Cottafavi); L'onorevole Angelina (Angelina) (Zampa); Assunta spina (Mattoli); Molti sogni per le strade (Camerini); L'Amore (Woman; Ways of Love) (Rossellini)
Camicie rosse (Alessandrini)
Le Carrosse d'or (The Golden Coach) (Renoir) (as Camilla/Colombine); "We, the Women" ep. of Siamo donne (Visconti)
The Rose Tattoo (Daniel Mann)
Suor letizia (Camerini)
Wild Is the Wind (Cukor)
Nella città l'inferno (And the Wild, Wild Women) (Castellani)
The Fugitive Kind (Lumet); Risate di Gioia (The Passionate Thief) (Monicelli)
Mamma Roma (Pasolini)
Le Magot de Joséfa (Autant-Lara)
Made in Italy (Loy)
The Secret of Santa Vittoria (Kramer); Nell' anno del signore (Magni)
Roma (Fellini Roma) (Fellini)
On MAGNANI: books—
Wallis, Hal, and Charles Higham, Starmaker, New York, 1980.
Governi, Giancarlo, Nannarella: La vita di Anna Magnani, Milan, 1981.
Hochkofler, Matilde, Anna Magnani, Rome, 1984.
Carrano, Patrizia, La Magnani, Milan, 1986.
Pistagnesi, Patrizia, editor, Anna Magnani, Milan, 1989.
Di Giammatteo, Fernaldo, Roberto Rossellini, Florence, 1990.
On MAGNANI: articles—
Kobler, J., "Tempest on the Tiber," in Life (New York), 13 February 1950.
Whitehall, Richard, "Gallery of Great Artists: Anna Magnani," in Films and Filming (London), July 1961.
Bianciotti, H., "Hommage: La Magnani, l'intensité de la passion," in Cinéma (Paris), December 1973.
Mitchell, T., "The Construction and Reception of Anna Magnani in Italy and the English-Speaking World," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), Fall 1989.
Stars (Mariembourg), March 1992.
Chase, Donald, "Anna Magnani: Miracle Worker," in Film Comment (New York), November-December 1993.
Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), July 1995.
* * *
Anna Magnani's persona was, above all, that of "great actress"; yet, in relation to her career, that description has to be understood in a very particular way. Conventionally, "actor" and "star" have been defined in an opposing manner: the latter is defined in terms of "presence," of an authentic and immediately recognizable personality, often glamorous and permitting identification on the level of fantasy-fulfillment; the former is defined in terms of the ability to transform the self, to "be" different characters. Magnani was always, irreducibly, Magnani, yet she lacked the most obvious attributes of the female star: though she had a remarkably expressive face, she was by no means conventionally beautiful; neither did she have a body that could be conventionally fetishized; her roles were never of the kind to encourage fantasy-identification. For American audiences, she represented exactly what Hollywood had consistently failed to produce: "reality," the nonglamorous human being. Hence, she could never be successfully promoted in Hollywood beyond a certain point (soon reached); for audiences conditioned by Hollywood expectations, "reality" is exotic, a striking novelty that swiftly palls.
Magnani's persona as a great actress is built, not on transformation, but on emotional authenticity (or, more precisely, on the signification of authenticity): she doesn't portray characters but expresses "genuine" emotions, the guarantee of genuineness being the rejection of glamour. There is clearly a problem here, exemplified but never resolved throughout Magnani's career. As an "unknown" in Rome, Open City, she was a "real" person, expressing real emotions; yet, overnight, she became a famous actress celebrated for her acting of "real" emotions. One might say that she spent the rest of her career acting authenticity. The problem is readily apparent in the films made with Rossellini. In Rome, Open City she is one of a team of largely nonprofessional players; her performance is extraordinary, but it is fully integrated in the ensemble. In The Miracle she is also extraordinary but in a far more dubious way: the film is so obviously a vehicle for her, and her acting of authenticity is so strenuous that we are impressed not so much by the sense of genuine emotions but by the sheer effort of their expression.
Perhaps her greatest performance is in Renoir's The Golden Coach, and there are very particular reasons for this (apart from, though not unconnected with, Renoir's fascination with and sympathy for actors): the entire film plays upon notions of theater and reality, the interaction between them, the relation between roles on stage and roles in real life. Opening and closing with the rise and fall of a theater curtain, it announces itself as "theater" and gives us the commedia dell'arte performances of Magnani's troupe as theater-within-theater. Every character, except Magnani the actress, is trapped in a social role or stereotype, and each man wants to impose an identity on Magnani who, in the film's final paradox, retreats back into the theater as the only place where, by consciously acting roles, she can be herself. It is a film that calls into question the very concept of authenticity and asks whether we do not, everywhere and always, act. While the film is centered unequivocally on Magnani, her performance is fully integrated in it, and we never have the sense that the material has been conceived merely as a showcase for her talents.
It is sad but predictable that Hollywood could find nothing more appropriate for her than the spurious pretensions of Tennessee Williams at his worst (The Rose Tattoo, The Fugitive Kind); and finally wasted her in a thoroughly conventional role in The Secret of Santa Vittoria. (What an amazing Cleopatra she might have made to Charlton Heston's Antony.) Her most distinguished work in Hollywood was acheived (again, predictably) under the sympathetic guidance of George Cukor, the American cinema's greatest director of actresses, whose distinction lies more in his ability to draw out the individual essence of a player than in encouraging the externalities of "great acting." Wild Is the Wind, a project Cukor took over at a very late stage of its development, awkwardly scripted, repeatedly sounding like a stage play, transcends such limitations through Magnani's sensitive and inward performance.