Magnani, Anna (1908–1973)

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Magnani, Anna (1908–1973)

Italian actress who won an Academy Award for her performance in the screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo . Born on March 7, 1908, in Rome, Italy; died on September 26, 1973, in Rome; daughter of Marina Magnani, from Romagna; father unknown, except that he was from Calabria; married Goffredo Alessandrini (a director), in 1935 (annulled 1950); children: (with actor Massimo Serato) son, Luca Alessandrini (b. 1942).

Studied at Rome's Academy of Dramatic Art while earning her living as a nightclub singer; began appearing in plays and variety shows (mid-1920s); made her first film appearance (1927), though she did not receive recognition as a film actress until 1941, in Vittorio De Sica's Teresa Venerdi; became international star with appearance in Roberto Rossellini's Roma, città aperta (Open City ) and given the American Board of Review's Best Foreign Actress award (1945); won an Oscar for her performance in the screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo (1955); continued to work steadily in film and television until her death.


Scampolo (1927); La Cieca di Sorrento (1934); Tempo Massimo (1934); Cavalleria (1936); Trenta Secondi d'Amore (1936); Tarakanova (1938); Una Lampada alla Finestra (1940); Finalmente Soli (1941); La Fuggitiva (1941); Teresa Venerdi (1941); La Fortuna viene dal Cielo (1942); La Vita è Bella (1943); L'Avventura di Annabella (1943); Campo dè Fiori (1943); L'Ultima Carrozzella (1943); T'amero sempre (1943); Il Fiore sotto gli Occhi (1944); Roma, città aperta (1945); Abbasso la Miseria (1945); Un Uomo ritorna (1946); Davanti a lui tremava tutta Roma (1946); Il Bandito (1946); Abbasso la Ricchezza (1946); Lo Sconosciuto di San Marino (1947); Quartetto Pazzo (1947); L'Onorevole Angelina (1947); Assunta Spina (1947); L'Amore (1948); Molti Sogni per le Strade (1948); Vulcano (1950); Bellissima (1951); Camicie rosse (1952); La Carrozza d'Oro (1953); Siamo Donne (1953); The Rose Tattoo (1955); Suor Letizia (1956); Wild Is the Wind (1957); Nella Città l'Inferno (1958); The Fugitive Kind (1960); Risate di Gioia (1960); Mamma Roma (1962); Le Magot de Joséfa (1963); Volles Herz und leere Taschen (1964); Made in Italy (1965); The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969); Correva l'Anno di Grazia 1879 (1972); Fellini's Roma (1972).

On a bright autumn morning in 1973, crowds thronged the narrow streets of Rome hoping to catch a glimpse of the funeral cortège carrying its sad burden to a final resting place. The outpouring of tears and grief was of a degree normally reserved for popes or lofty public officials, but the mourning on this occasion was for Italy's beloved "Nannarella," Anna Magnani, the actress whom director William Dieterle called "the last of the great, shameless emotionalists." Dieterle was referring not only to Magnani's acting, but to the passionate personality that was its genesis.

Even Magnani's birth and childhood evoked a great deal of dramatic speculation and innuendo during her lifetime. For years, she fought rumors that she was not really Italian, but had been born in Alexandria, Egypt, to an Italian mother and an Egyptian father. Magnani could never produce a birth certificate, having been born out of wedlock, but she claimed throughout her life that she had been born in Rome on March 7, 1908, in the Porta Pia section. Her mother was Marina Magnani , from Romagna; Anna knew nothing of her father, except that he was from Calabria. The story about her Egyptian birth may have arisen after Marina escaped the scandal of being an 18-year-old unwed mother by leaving her daughter in the care of her own mother and emigrating to Egypt, where she later married.

One of Magnani's earliest memories was the sobriquet which was given to her, la figlia della colpa (the daughter of sin). Her grandmother, she said, refused to talk about Marina, and Anna's most treasured possession was an album of photographs of her mother. "Mamma was beautiful," she once said, "with brown hair and eyes the color of steel. I was never allowed to speak of my dreams and fantasies about her, to hear her voice or feel the warmth of her affection." Magnani imagined Marina living like a princess in Egypt and was surprised when the two were briefly reunited in Rome in 1917 that her mother wasn't wearing the silks and brocades she had given her in dreams. Equally surprising was the little girl Marina brought with her, a daughter born after her marriage to a German living in Alexandria. The child, with her striking blonde hair and blue eyes, became an object of intense jealousy after Marina had gone back to Egypt, for Magnani felt the little girl was stealing the caresses and hugs that were meant for her.

Magnani also spent a good deal of her very public life denying stories of a wild, undisciplined life as a child of the streets. "How many times do I have to explain that I wasn't a waif or a stray," she complained in exasperation to journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1967, "that I went through high school, that I learned the piano for eight years, that I went to the conservatory of Santa Cecilia?" It is true that Magnani received a standard public school education and studied music at Santa Cecilia with an eye toward becoming a concert pianist. Her grandmother, she said, had always sung to her as a child; and Anna remembered her delight in accompanying her grandmother on the old piano at home. Sometime in the early 1920s, with her grandmother in failing health, Magnani enrolled at Rome's Academy of Dramatic Art, earning her tuition and a living by singing bawdy songs in less-than-elegant nightspots around Rome. During this period, she appeared in her first play, taking the role of a maid in La Nemica e Scampolo for 25 lira a day. The play was later filmed, marking her first motion-picture appearance. In 1926, her grandmother died and Magnani, now without a family of any kind, took to the road for the next six years with a traveling repertory company, living out of a trunk and sleeping on the train that carried the troupe from one sleepy country village to the next. During this period, she met a young comic actor learning his trade named Vittorio De Sica, who was struck by Anna's laugh, which he later described as "loud, overwhelming, and tragic." She left the company after a tour of Argentina in 1932, returning to the nightclub circuit and gaining a reputation for herself as the Italian Edith Piaf . One night, a handsome young film director, Goffredo Alessandrini, introduced himself. Alessandrini came from a wealthy Roman family, had attended Cambridge University, and had just returned from Hollywood, where he had been studying American film production techniques. He would be one of the first Italian filmmakers to adopt the new sound technology from America and was involved in the design of Rome's legendary studio complex, Cinecittà, built as part of Benito Mussolini's plan to boost Italian film production. But Alessandrini's interest in Magnani, at least initially, had little to do with film work. Soon after their meeting, Anna had become his mistress.

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Women like me can submit only to men capable of dominating them, and I have never found anyone capable of dominating me.

—Anna Magnani

The Italian film industry during the late 1920s and early 1930s was at a low ebb, after an initially prosperous two decades during the silent era. Overwhelmed by an influx of more imaginative and better made American films, Italian studios did little more than release static versions of stage plays, such as Magnani's first film in 1927, Scampolo, which was merely a filmed replica of the stage presentation. With the rise of Mussolini's Fascists during the 1920s, Italian studios came under increasing pressure to produce not only more native product, but product that was in keeping with Mussolini's political authoritarianism. By the 1930s, Italian cinema consisted mainly of either propagandizing social dramas reflecting the Fascist party line or innocuous, sentimental comedies or dramas set against a glamorous, high society background which had little to do with the actual lives of most Italians. Moviegoers jokingly referred to these films as telefoni bianchi, or "white telephone."

It was this sort of superficial cinema in which Magnani labored after becoming Goffredo Alessandrini's lover and, in 1935, his wife. Alessandrini did not consider her suitable for the screen, though he cast her in a secondary role in his Cavalleria in 1936. It was true that Magnani was no match for the elegant, Hollywood-inspired actresses of the telefoni bianchi. She was short, somewhat plump, with a mass of unkempt dark hair and large, dark, pleading eyes. Fallaci once wrote that Magnani had "that look of a wounded bird that doesn't know where to beat its wings." Anna took small roles in a series of forgettable pictures, usually as maids or peasant women, but spent most of her time trying to hold together a marriage that was in trouble almost as soon as the ring was on her finger. "When I married [Alessandrini]," she once said, "I was only a young girl. And as long as I was his wife, his infidelities gave me more horns than a basketful of snails. I did nothing but weep and moan." Alessandrini was considerably older than Magnani, and friends noted that he treated her like a child rather than a wife, while Magnani may have seen him as more of a father figure than a husband. Such was not the case, however, when she met a young actor on the set of one of her films, in 1940. Her passionate affair with Massimo Serato, nine years her junior, resulted in a son, Luca, born in 1942.

By the time of Luca's birth, Magnani and Alessandrini had separated, but Alessandrini agreed to help support the boy and even gave Luca his family name, the same agreement they had reached some years earlier when a child was born to one of Alessandrini's mistresses. Despite the separation, the marriage would not be formally dissolved by annulment until 1950, but Magnani, always frank in her low opinion of most men, would speak kindly of Alessandrini in years to come. "Whenever I see him I feel a great tenderness," she said more than 20 years after their separation. "[He is] the only man, of all I've known, for whom I have ungrudging respect

and of whom I am really fond." Even two years after the annulment was formalized, she appeared in Alessandrini's Camicie Rosse. Her passion for Massimo Serato quickly cooled, and by 1944, the two lovers had gone their separate ways. "Great passions don't exist," Magnani later observed. "They're liars' fantasies." For the rest of her life, Anna's only passion would be for Luca, who was diagnosed with polio during an epidemic which swept Rome in 1944 and whose care and education would become her life's work.

During her years with Alessandrini, Magnani worked several times with her old friend Vittorio De Sica. By the late 1930s, De Sica had turned from acting to directing, and in 1941 cast Magnani in what he grandly called "her first true film," Teresa Venerdi (Theresa Friday). Although hers was not the leading role in the film, Magnani's work drew the attention of another young director who had collaborated on several of Alessandrini's films. Anna probably first met Roberto Rossellini while visiting the set of one of her husband's pictures, Luciano Serra, Pilota, in the late 1930s, although their affair did not begin until several years later, in the midst of World War II. Like Alessandrini, Rossellini was the scion of a wealthy, aristocratic Roman family and frankly admitted that he had been drawn to the film world as a way to meet beautiful women. But he developed into one of Italy's most creative directors of the so-called neo-realist school, and La Magnani became his muse. They seemed drawn to each other, Rossellini having recently separated from his wife Marcella de Marquis , and Magnani despondent over the end of her own marriage. Anna said she was fascinated by "this forceful, secure, courageous man."

In later years, each would accuse the other of starting the affair. "It was Rossellini who wouldn't leave me alone, who wouldn't let me move a step," Magnani claimed, "not I who ran after him. Let Rossellini say what he likes. If I had shared that great passion, I would have been able to keep it alive, be sure of that." But even Magnani would readily admit that it was Rossellini who was responsible for her meteoric rise to international stardom. "I've worked better with Rossellini than with any other director," she said. "Whenever he was setting up a sequence, it was always the sequence I'd have shot if I'd been in his shoes."

Their first collaboration has often been called the opening salvo of Italian neo-realism. Roma, città aperta (Open City), shot in 1945, was a brutal, gritty depiction of war-ravaged Italy, the complete antithesis of "white telephone" films. Even the title was a sardonic comment on the state of affairs when Rome was declared an "open city" after the fall of Mussolini in 1943. The Nazi regime took control in the interim and kept the city in a grip of terror until its liberation by the Allies two years later. Rossellini began shooting the picture during the last days of the Nazi occupation, with his cast and crew continually dodging German military police determined to shut the film down. He was forced to shoot his scenes on the scraps and loose ends of film which were all that could be found in a looted and ruined city. Roma, città aperta told the story of a Nazi manhunt for a Communist leader of the Italian resistance movement, and painted a bitter portrait of Romans betraying their fellow compatriots and switching loyalties as the moment demanded. Few could forget Magnani's wrenching portrayal of Pina, whose attempts to keep her brother out of German hands ends in disaster. The scene in which a distraught Pina, chasing the truck carrying her brother away to be tortured, is shot dead and falls to the rubble-strewn pavement remains a potent symbol of Italy's suffering during the war.

Magnani had not been Rossellini's first choice for the role, for she was not regarded, even by her peers in the business, as a serious actress. After discovering that his first choice was under contract for another film, Rossellini found himself in an argument with Magnani, who demanded equal pay with the film's leading male actor before accepting the part. It very nearly went to yet a third actress before she relented, and she later laughed that a few hundred lira almost cost her the most important film of her career. It made her an international star, as well as publicizing her affair with Rossellini, with whom she toured Europe and the United States to promote the film. In America, the National Board of Review named Magnani the Best Foreign Actress of 1946, marking the beginning of her reign as Italy's best-known screen presence in theaters around the world.

Two years later, she was again directed by Rossellini in a pair of films that were released together as L'Amore. The first was La Voce Umana (The Human Voice), a 35-minute adaptation of the Jean Cocteau play in which Magnani was the only character—a woman talking to her lover on the telephone. The film, shot in long takes with Cocteau's abstract dialogue, was a tour de force for Magnani. Rossellini trusted her instincts so well that some sequences were shot with Anna's back to the camera, her voice and gestures powerful enough to carry the scene. Rossellini included a dedication to Magnani's talent in the film's opening credits, and said the phenomenon he wanted to explore in the picture "was called Anna Magnani." The second part of L'Amore was Il Miracolo (The Miracle), based on a village tale remembered by a young Federico Fellini, who was working for Rossellini as a writer at the time. Magnani plays a simpleminded peasant who believes a stranger she meets in the forest (played by Fellini) is Saint Joseph. Yielding to the stranger's advances, she later becomes pregnant and is rejected by her village as a sinner and outcast, much as Magnani's own mother had been in real life. Her character is thus condemned to giving birth to her child alone, but chooses to do so in the village church, where she clings to the bell rope for support during her labor and announces her "miracle" with peals of God's music. Under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, the film was banned as blasphemous in the United States, where only La Voce Umana was released.

The next ten years contained Magnani's best work for directors that included, besides Rossellini and De Sica, Luchino Visconti (Bellissima) and France's Jean Renoir (La Carrozza Doro), who called her "the greatest actress I have ever worked with. She is the complete animal—an animal created for the stage and screen." Her career peaked in 1955, when she won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Serafina in the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tatoo, playing opposite Burt Lancaster. "Miss Magnani sweeps most everything before her," The New York Time s' reviewer wrote: "She overwhelms all objectivity with the rush of her subjective force." It was the first of two film versions of Williams' plays in which she appeared, the second—Sidney Lumet's 1959 Orpheus Descending—faring less well.

Although she was nominated a second time for Best Actress for 1957's Wild Is the Wind, Magnani's career had begun to decline as Italy left behind its postwar traumas and began to produce more sophisticated material for the world market, starring glamorous young actresses like Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren . Magnani, with her plainer looks and passionate acting, seemed out of step with the new style. "I'm bored stiff with these everlasting parts as hysterical, loud, working-class women," she complained in 1963, perhaps thinking of the previous year's Mamma Roma, in which she had played just such a character and which had been the latest in a string of box-office failures. "The day has gone when I deluded myself that making movies was art. Movies today are made up of … intellectuals who always make out that they're teaching something," she said, pointing out that a film's first duty was to amuse its audience—a surprising statement from the woman who owed her success to films like Roma, città aperta. "Everyone blames la Magnani for the failure of her movies," she went on. "Everyone forgets I'm not a drama-school type actress, that my work comes off only when I'm free to do what I want, like a writer when he writes or a painter when he paints."

While Magnani's self-professed freedom had been an asset ten years earlier, the new Italy began to look on her as a bitter, vulgar, ill-mannered holdover from a painful past—"a woman who lives on foul language and beans," as Fallaci described the prevailing view. Magnani's very public affair with Roberto Rossellini had ended in 1949, when Rossellini became infatuated with Ingrid Bergman . The two remained close friends for the rest of Magnani's life, but there were no more of the grand passions of which she was so suspicious. Fellini, who some said had been a rival for her affections in the old days, wrote in his memoirs of her bawdy behavior at parties and industry gatherings and told of a dance Magnani would perform only for close friends, in which she mimicked a man with an erection by stuffing stockings under her dress. "She talked about sex often, and in a vulgar way," he said, "but because it suited her persona, it didn't seem startling that she had a man's sense of humor." Indeed, when Magnani sought Fallaci's opinion of her notorious behavior, Fallaci replied, "I think you're a great man, Signora Magnani."

Despite her opinions of the current state of the cinema, Magnani continued to work frequently during the 1960s, her most commercial film during the period being Stanley Kramer's The Secret of Santa Vittoria in 1969. She devoted most of her off-screen time to Luca, her only source of consistent affection, who continued to suffer from the paralysis brought on by his childhood polio. Her personal habits included never rising much before noon and, late at night, wandering the streets of Rome feeding the stray cats of which she was so fond. "She was their best friend," Fellini said. "When she died, all the stray cats of Rome mourned for her." Anna Magnani died of pancreatic cancer on September 26, 1973, and was buried in Roberto Rossellini's family mausoleum.

It was Fellini, as it turned out, who acted opposite her in her last film, his own Roma, in 1972. Ill and tired, Magnani took only a small, cameo role, but, as was her habit, asked Fellini who would play opposite her. Having not yet cast the male role, Fellini spontaneously said that he would play it, and thus found himself in front of his own cameras one soft Rome night, following Anna Magnani up a flight of stairs to her apartment door. "May I ask you a question?" he asks her. Her reply, her last words spoken on film, is simply, "Ciao, go to sleep." Then she quietly closes the door.


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Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York