Masina, Giulietta (1920–1994)

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Masina, Giulietta (1920–1994)

Award-winning Italian actress who earned international recognition for her portrayal of Gelsomina in La Strada . Born Giulia Anna Masina on February 22, 1920, in San Giorgio di Piano, Italy; died of lung cancer on March 23, 1994, in Rome; youngest of four children of Gaetano Masina (erstwhile first violinist with Milan's Teatro Scala); grew up under the tutelage of her aunt Giulia Pasqualin; married Federico Fellini (a director), in 1943; children: one son (b. 1945, died in infancy).

First appeared as an actress while at university in Rome, performing with the school's drama society and attracting professional attention with her performance in a radio play written by Federico Fellini (1942); married Fellini (1943); won Best Supporting Actress award at the Venice Film Festival for her work in Without Pity (1948), and Best Actress for her performance in Fellini's The Nights of Cabiria at the Cannes Film Festival (1956); became an icon of Italian television and cinema (1970s), although her only recognition outside her own country was mainly due to her work with Fellini.


Paisà/Paisan (The Countryfolk , 1946); Senza Pietà (Without Pity , 1948); Luci del Varietà (Variety Lights , 1951); Persiane chiuse (1951); Europa 51 (1952); Lo Sceicco Bianco (The White Sheik , 1952); Donne proibite (1953); La Strada (The Street , 1954); Il Bidone (The Swindle , 1955); Le Notti di Cabiria (The Nights of Cabiria , 1956); Fortunella (1958); Nella Città l'Inferno (1958); La Grande Vie (1960); Landru (1972); Giulietta degli Spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits , 1965); Non Stuzzicate la Zanzara (1967); The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969); Frau Holle (1985); Ginger e Fred (Ginger and Fred , 1986); Aujourd'hui Peut-Etre (1991).

It was an odd couple that met for lunch one spring day in 1943, amid the rubble of war-ravaged Rome—a pert, blonde, northern Italian girl, urban and sophisticated, and a dark, swarthy young man from the provinces of coastal Italy. Giulietta Masina wondered if she would end up paying for the meal when she first caught sight of her frightfully thin dining companion, wearing a wrinkled black hat and trousers too short for his bandy legs. Despite his insistence that she order lavishly, she prudently limited herself to a bowl of minestrone while he proceeded to consume courses of ham, roast meats, and ravioli. The surprisingly thick wad of money which he produced at the end of the meal put her concerns to rest, although more serious apprehensions lay in store during the years of her upcoming, if as yet unexpected, marriage to Federico Fellini—a marriage plagued not only by the normal pressures of conjugal living but by the conflicting creative impulses of two artists intensely devoted to their craft. The two would live and work together for 50 years, making it impossible to consider Giulietta's life and career without Fellini. "I feel I am in his shadow," she once lamented, "but I don't mind it, because it is a wonderful shadow."

Masina had come to Rome for an education in the classics and in music, little dreaming that she would become one of postwar Italy's most famous actresses and the wife of its most flamboyant film director. The oldest of four children, she had been born into a middle-class family on February 22, 1920, in the small village of San Giorgio di Piano, near Bologna. Her father Gaetano taught music in local public schools after having spent 30 years as first violinist with Milan's Teatro Scala, acquainting his daughter with the arts from an early age. Additional cultural exposure had come from time spent in Rome as a young girl with her aunt Giulia Pasqualin , who frequented the theater and concert halls and who was acquainted with some of the most famous Italian performers and artists of the day. Masina recalled being taken backstage one theatrical evening to meet the author of that night's play, Luigi Pirandello; and she was fascinated with the witty conversation and theatrical gossip of the actors and actresses who came to tea at her aunt's home on Via Lutezia.

Although Masina might have been a talented musician like her father, it was the University of Rome's experimental student theater that held her attention when she arrived there for her studies shortly after the outbreak of World War II. She first appeared on stage in a university program of three one-act plays, attracting attention by portraying a middle-aged woman in the first play, a girl of 14 in the second, and a young prostitute in the third. Although Masina refused several subsequent offers of professional theater work, out of respect for her family's wishes, she began to accept small roles in radio plays and was eventually cast as a newlywed in the radio comedy series "Cico e Pallina," written by a young writer fresh from Rimini named Federico Fellini. Still, the two never met until Fellini was approached with the idea of turning the series into a film and decided it was time to meet the young actress who had been playing his Pallina. "He telephoned me one day," Masina once remembered, "and he said 'My name is Fellini and I am fed up with life, but before I die I would like to see what my heroine looks like.' I thought he might be joking, but I couldn't risk a corpse on my conscience."

Their fateful lunch was in June 1943. By the end of that month, Fellini was introducing her as his fiancée, and on October 30, 1943, the two were married in Masina's aunt's apartment by a priest who conveniently lived next door. It was not a particularly auspicious time to wed, given that Mussolini's government had just collapsed, the Allies had begun their push from Sicily to wrest the country from the Germans, Allied bombs were falling on Rome daily, and Fellini had become a hunted man after escaping a conscription attempt by the German army. Nevertheless, Fellini insisted that he and his new wife go to the theater that evening, where his actor friend Alberto Sordi stopped the show to announce the marriage and call for a round of applause for the couple. The parents of both young marrieds, cut off by blockades and bombs from Rome, never learned of the marriage until well after the fact.

The couple's first two years together, during the turmoil of the Allied victory, were marked by tragedy, beginning with a miscarriage in 1944 when a pregnant Masina fell down a flight of steps and, the following year, the death of a two-week-old son on April 1, 1945. Even worse, Masina had suffered an infection after her second pregnancy which left her unable to bear more children. She never spoke publicly about her pain, but she often peppered her conversation with maternal images, once describing the process of preparing for a role as making the character "my own chubby little darling." Fellini, when asked about the couple's lack of children, would only reply, "My films are my children."

He was my first and only love.

—Giulietta Masina, speaking of Federico Fellini

Masina's first film role came a year after the death of her son, in a picture her husband had written for Roberto Rossellini, Paisà/Paisan (The Countryfolk). She appeared in one of the film's six "chapters" detailing the advance of American troops northward through Italy from the points of view of the peasants they encounter. It was a small role and attracted little attention, but at least it meant she could travel with her husband from location to location during the shoot. For the next two years, while Fellini worked as a writer and assistant director for Rossellini, Masina did not appear again on screen, but she continued to accompany Fellini on location, even cooking for cast and crew at times. With Fellini occupied with learning his trade, Masina was forced to keep her distance—a characteristic of the marriage that would intensify as the years passed.

Masina's first significant film role was as the prostitute Marcella in 1948's Senza Pietà (Without Pity), Alberto Lattuada's gritty depiction of life in a small coastal town at the end of World War II. It was a role added by Fellini to the original script when Lattuada hired him as a collaborator. Marcella dreams of marrying an American GI and returning with him to the United States, only to have her hopes crushed in the conflicts arising from black-market trading in American arms supplies. Masina's poignant performance, generally considered one of the finest in any Italian film of the immediate postwar period, earned her a Silver Ribbon for Best Supporting Actress, equivalent to an Oscar, at the Venice Film Festival.

Although the award established Masina as a formidable dramatic actress, a reputation she consolidated in the next year's Luci del Varietà (Variety Lights), it was in the first film entirely directed by Fellini, 1952's Lo Sceicco Bianco (The White Sheik), that she displayed the comedic talent that would endear her to Italian audiences. For his first solo directing effort, Fellini cast her in a small part at the end of the film in which, he later said, "she revealed herself capable of being a tragicomic mime in the tradition of Chaplin [and] Keaton." Two years later, he gave her the role which brought her international recognition—as Gelsomina in 1954's La Strada (The Street).

The film told the story of a small band of traveling street performers, with Masina playing opposite two American actors, Anthony Quinn as the strongman Zampano and Richard Basehart as Il Matto. Masina claimed many years later that she had introduced both men to Fellini (there were rumors at the time that she and Basehart were lovers) after they had fled a rigid Hollywood studio system to seek their fortunes as leading men in European cinema. The production was a challenge for all involved, since neither Masina nor Fellini spoke English, Quinn and Basehart spoke no Italian, and Fellini was required to shout and act out his direction during each take, in which the actors traded dialogue that none of them could understand (the entire dialogue track was recreated on a dubbing stage afterward). Gelsomina, a mime who becomes Zampano's ill-fated lover, had little dialogue, forcing Masina to convey the character through carefully considered movement and gesture which Fellini trusted her to work out for herself. His only direction to her, she later remembered, was to keep her mouth closed when she smiled. Gelsomina became an extremely popular character in Italy. A Gelsomina Club was established in Naples, and Masina received bags filled with letters from Italian women who knew exactly what Gelsomina had felt near the end of the film when Zampano leaves her. La Strada was Fellini's first film to be released in America, bringing both director and actress an adoring new audience and an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film.

Their next collaboration, however, was not as successful. Il Bidone (The Swindle, 1955), in which Masina again played opposite Richard Basehart in addition to Broderick Crawford, was one of Fellini's rare attempts at realism and was not well received by audiences in Italy or the United States, where it was not released until 1964 in a shorter version. Masina admitted years later that she had talked Fellini into making the picture against his wishes, and close friends of the couple said the film's poor reception generated a good deal of resentment toward her on Fellini's part. An encounter during the filming of Il Bidone led to further professional tensions, even though it would ultimately produce a Best Actress award for Masina at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. One night during the shooting, Fellini spent considerable effort and energy calming the ruffled nerves of a Rome prostitute into whose neighborhood the cast and crew had intruded and who complained of losing business from the disturbance. The result was the character of Maria Cecciara, nicknamed Cabiria, whose sordid life and ultimate redemption is explored in La Notti de Cabiria (The Nights of Cabiria). Relations between husband and wife on the set of La Notti de Cabiria were far from cordial, marked with very public arguments, because Fellini sensed that "Gelsomina's fallen sister," as he called Cabiria, was the most important role of his wife's career to date. As the conjugal waters calmed and the praise began building, Masina indirectly complimented Fellini for his creation. "She resembles me very much," she said of Cabiria. "[She is] naive, aggressive and finally very strong."

Despite the acclaim, Masina's career languished for the next decade. Deciding that her marriage to Fellini was more important than a career as his starring actress, she refused his offer to appear in La Notte (The Night), a role Fellini eventually gave to Jeanne Moreau . She also declined the leading role played by Daniella Rocca opposite Marcello Mastroianni in what would become one of the most successful Italian films of the early 1960s, Divorzio all'italiana (Divorce Italian Style). As if to refute charges that she could work with no one but her husband, she appeared in several undistinguished productions (one of which, Fortunella, Fellini co-wrote) but was absent from the films which marked the crest of her husband's career, such as 8½, La Dolce Vita. and Boccaccio '70. She often visited Fellini on the sets of his various pictures and was once likened by a Fellini associate to a political candidate's wife, "dutifully stumping. Her small face was almost hidden behind huge sunglasses. She took a chair and continued to smile at no one in particular." It wasn't until the spring of 1965 that the two again worked together, Fellini having created another role which even Giulietta admitted was the most challenging of her career, and one which even bore her name.

Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits) was written expressly for her. "Giulietta is the soul of my film," Fellini said at the time, but even he was not prepared for the difficulty that lay ahead. From the start, she and Fellini differed violently over the interpretation of Fellini's middle-aged housewife who is driven into a world of hallucinatory fantasy by her husband's infidelities. The character was closely modeled on Masina herself, Fellini having exploited her well-known superstitious fears and imagined her thoughts and reactions to his own rumored affairs

with other women. Perhaps unprepared for the nearly autobiographical accuracy with which Fellini wanted her to play the part, Masina resisted her husband strenuously, even before production began. She refused to attend a séance, telling Fellini that although she believed in the spirit world, she feared what might come of communicating with it; and during filming, she resisted Fellini's angry insistence that she play herself, not a character. "Those who have seen La Strada or La Notti di Cabiria know her as a poignant clown, a comedienne who can wrench the heart," Fellini recalled many years later. "But that engaging creature had to go. And all along I knew what I was losing." For her part, Masina told an interviewer after filming had ended that she remained convinced that Fellini had been mistaken. "I feel that this film doesn't permit me to arrive at the … high tide … of this character," she said. "But that's the way Federico wanted it." In later years, Fellini admitted that Masina may have been right, for the film was poorly received in both Europe and the United States. Audiences and critics alike complained that Giulietta degli spiriti was all style and little substance. It would be Masina's last work with her husband for some 20 years.

As time wore on, the emotional distance between Masina and Fellini became more pronounced, noticeable even to casual acquaintances. Their apartment on Via Margutta, which had begun as a small one-bedroom flat and had grown as other apartments were added to it, included two sitting rooms and two bedrooms—because, as Fellini took pains to explain, Masina refused to give up her smoking habit and his health suffered from the fumes. Dinner guests at the Fellinis' seaside home, which had been modeled on the designs for the fictional villa in Juliet of the Spirits, would often see little of Masina once the meal was over and she retired to her private quarters. (The home later had to be sold to pay back taxes.) Masina accepted few film roles, taking up charity work, notably for UNICEF, and writing gardening and homemaking columns for La Stampa while Fellini created trademark works like Satyricon, The Clowns, and Roma. "The word marriage is not appropriate in our case," Masina told an interviewer in the early 1970s. "It would be better to speak of … two people who stay together by free choice." But the marriage was important enough for her to come to Fellini's defense after a much-discussed episode in which Fellini was seen enjoying an intimate dinner with the actress/model Capucine , marked by much kissing and petting. Masina told a press conference that rumors of his many affairs were greatly exaggerated. "He is an Italian man," she said, "and they have to talk about their sexual exploits in order to have the respect of other Italian men. I suppose the truth lies somewhere in between what he tells the world and what he tells me." A French journalist was perhaps more perceptive than most in evaluating the relationship, noting during an interview with Fellini, in which the director pompously discussed his films, that Giulietta "smiles, always impassive, next to her big adolescent, full of tempest."

Despite their marital tensions, Fellini continued to show great respect for Masina's talent as an actress. During the time she was in France playing opposite Katharine Hepburn in Bryan Forbes' film of The Madwoman of Chaillot, Fellini appeared on the set each day and sat silently, observantly, through every one of her takes. Later, when Masina had become a household name in Italy thanks to two television series in which she starred, Fellini delightedly told her of the conversation he'd overheard between two women while crossing Rome's Piazza del Popolo. "Look," one of the women had exclaimed, "there goes Giulietta Masina's husband!"

In 1986, Masina agreed for the first time since 1965 to appear in one of her husband's films, Ginger e Fred (Ginger and Fred), in which she and Marcello Mastroianni play an ageing couple, known in younger years as imitators of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, who are reunited 40 years later on a bizarre television chat show, "Ed Ecco a Voi!" (This One's For You!). Masina claimed the film had been her inspiration, based on an idea she had once had for a television series. Whatever its source, Masina and Fellini once again found themselves at odds over interpretation. To Fellini, the film was a means to satirize the banal state of Italian television and society in general; to Giulietta, it was a poignant story of two old lovers reunited for the last time and, she hoped, a way to revive her film career. The arguments between the two were as violent as they had been 20 years before, with Masina insisting that she be lit differently, costumed differently, made up differently, and Fellini sinking into an increasingly foul mood. "She was ever the actress, never the writer," as he put it. Also as before, the film opened to a lukewarm reception, although Masina's performance was regarded with affection by some reviewers. "She infuses this role with a touching mixture of pride, regret, and a wry kind of humor born of the resignation of middle age," wrote film critic Ralph Novak, while Time's Richard Schickel called her work "observant, original and infinitely appealing." The real Ginger Rogers disagreed, however, charging that Masina's imitation of her was offensive and suing Fellini for $8 million. (The suit was later dropped after Rogers admitted she had never actually seen the film but had been merely acting on the advice of lawyers.) Except for a French film released in 1991, Ginger e Fred was Masina's last screen appearance.

In the late 1980s, Masina was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent a painful series of radiation treatments to halt the disease. At the same time, Fellini's health began to fail and his pace slowed. He released only two films in the seven years between Ginger e Fred and his death in November 1993. Near the end of his funeral service, Giulietta was seen to raise her arm and wave a final goodbye. " Ciao, amore, " she whispered. Five months later, on March 23, 1994, Giulietta Masina died in a Rome hospital.

Despite the tumult and the confusion of the personal and the professional that marked her years with Fellini, Giulietta Masina managed to develop a successful career while maintaining the love and respect of one of the world's most famous and difficult film directors. During her last illness, Giulietta often fondly recalled her courtship with the thin, poorly dressed young writer she met that June day in a Rome restaurant. "Maybe deep down, I already knew intuitively that he was going to be my hero," she remembered. For his part, Fellini regarded her as his heroine and his muse. "I don't know what would have become of me," he admitted not long before his death, "if I had not found Giulietta."


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