Oscar Actors: Magnani, Anna–Italy’s Greatest Actress

We live in such a climate of movie culture today that the centennial of Anna Magnani, arguably Italy’s greatest screen actress, went unheralded, in the same way that director Roberto Rossellini’s and David Lean’s centenaries were barely mentioned in the U.S. last year.

Magnani died young, at 65, on September 26, 1973, but she left a considerable body of work behind her, including some good American movies. She was nominated twice for the Best Actress Oscar, winning one in 1955, for the screen version of Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo,” in which she played a lusty, voluptuous Sicilian widow, who falls for a simpleton (Burt Lancaster, miscast), who reminds her of her husband.

Her second Oscar nomination was in 1957 for George Cukor’s family melodrama, “Wild Is the Wind,” opposite Anthony Quinn and Anthony Franciosa; the winner was Joanne Woodward for “The Three Faces of Eve.”

Born in Rome, on March 7, 1908, she was brought up in poverty by her maternal grandmother in a slum district of the city. After getting partial education at a convent school, she enrolled at Rome’s Academy of Dramatic Art and sang in nightclubs and cabarets to support herself. In her teens, she was dubbed by some as “the Italian Edith Piaf,” her contemporary French chanteuse.

In 1927, she acted in the screen version of La Nemica e Scampolo. She met Italian filmmaker Goffredo Alessandrini in 1933 and married him two years later. He was one of the first Italian filmmakers to use the then new sound technology.

Her marriage to Alessandrini ended in 1950, and she never married again, though had a long, tumultuous relationship with the brilliant Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini.

In 1941, Magnani starred in Teresa Venerd, (Friday Theresa), described by the actor- writer-director Vittorio De Sica asd her “first real movie.” She played Loletta Prima, the girlfriend of Pietro Vignali, played by De Sica who described her acting as, “loud, overwhelming, and tragic.” Soon, she acquired the nickname of “La Lupa.”

Magnani gained international accalim in 1945, as “Pina” in Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist milestone “Roma, Citta Aperta, aka “Rome, Open City” and “Open City,” 1945). Her harrowing death scene remains one of the most devastating moments recorded on screen.

In Italy and Europe, she became established as a star, although she lacked the conventional beauty and glamour associated with the concept, illuminated by her contemporaries Alida Valli or Sylvana Mangano.

Short in height and rather chubby with a face framed by unkempt raven hair and eyes encircled by deep, dark shadows, she projected erotic earthiness and volcanic temperament, and was often typecast because of these qualities.

Magnani was Rossellinis second choice to play Pina in “Roma, Open City.” His first choice was Clara Calamai, who played the lead in ” Ossessione” (“Obsession” (1942), a part that Luchino Visconti had originally and ironically offered to Magnani, who was under contract on another film.

Magnani demanded she be paid the same amount of money the male lead Aldo Fabrizi was earning. The difference in salary was only 100,000 lire, and more about principle than price. Rossellini was her companion at the time, and she appeared in several of his other films, such “L’Amore” (1948), a two-act film that includes The Miracle and The Human Voice (Il miracolo, and Una voce umana). In the former, Magnani, playing a peasant outcast who believes the baby she’s carrying is Christ, plumbs both the sorrow and the righteousness of being alone in the world. The latter, based on Jean Cocteau’s play about a woman desperately trying to salvage a relationship over the telephone, is remarkable for the ways in which Magnani’s powerful moments of silence segue into cries of despair.

In Visconti’s “Bellissima” (1951), Magnani plays Maddalena, a stubborn stage mother who drags her daughter to Cinecitta for the “Prettiest Girl in Rome” contest. When she realizes that the studio heads are laughing at her daughter’s screen test, a shattering close-up of Magnani’s face reveals rage, humiliation, and maternal love. She starred as Camille, a woman torn between three men, in Jean Renoirs film “Le Carrosse d’or” (“The Golden Coach”) in 1953. Renoir called her “the greatest actress I have ever worked with”.

As the repressed buy sensuous widowed mother of a teenage daughter in Daniel Mann’s 1955 version of Williams’s “The Rose Tattoo,” Magnani’s seminal performance becam the talk of the town–and the Academy.

For playing Serafina Delle Rose in “The Rose Tattoo,” she won the Best Actress Oscar. Tennessee Williams wrote it and based the character on Magnani as the two were good friends. It was originally put on stage starring Maureen Stapleton, because Magnanis English was not good enough.

Magnani worked with Williams again in Sidney Lumet’s 1959 film, “The Fugitive Kind,” where she played Lady Torrance and starred opposite Marlon Brando and Joanne Woodward.

“The Wild, Wild Women” (1958) paired Magnani, as an unrepentant streetwalker, with Giulietta Masina in a women-in-prison film. In Pasolini’s “Mamma Roma” (1962), Magnani is both the mother and the whore, playing an irrepressible prostitute determined to give her teenage son a respectable middle-class life. “Mamma Roma,” is one of Magnani’s critically acclaimed films and personal favorites; it was released in the U.S. decades later.

Gradually, she became tired with the kind of parts offered to her, claiming, “Im bored stiff with these everlasting parts as hysterical, loud, working-class women”.

Magnani made her final screen performance as Rosa in “The Secret of Santa Vittoria” (1969). She also made her uncredited appearance as herself in Fellini’s documentary “Roma” (1972).

She died at 65 in Rome, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. A huge crowd gathered for her funeral in a grand salute

Select Filmography

1928 Scampolo
1934 La Cieca di Sorrento Anna, la sua amante
Tempo massimo Emilia
1935 Quei due
1936 Cavalleria Fanny
1936 Trenta secondi d’amore
1938 La Principessa Tarakanova Marietta, la cameriera
1940 Una Lampada alla finestra Ivana, l’amante di Max
1941 Teresa Venerd Maddalena Tentini/Loretta Prima
La Fuggitiva Wanda Reni
1942 La Fortuna viene dal cielo Ziz
Finalmente soli Ninetta alias “Lul”
1943 L’Ultima carrozzella Mary Dunchetti, la canzonettista
Gli Assi della risata segment “Il mio pallone”
Campo de’ fiori Elide
La Vita bella Virginia
L’Avventura di Annabella La mondana
1944 Il Fiore sotto gli occhi Maria Comasco, l’attrice
1945 Abbasso la miseria! Nannina Straselli
Roma, citt aperta
1946 Abbasso la ricchezza! Gioconda Perfetti
Il bandito Lidia
Avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma Ada
Lo Sconosciuto di San Marino Liana, la prostituta
Un Uomo ritorna Adele
1947 L’onorevole Angelina Angelina Bianchi
1948 Assunta Spina Assunta Spina
L’Amore The Woman/Nanni segment “Una voce umana”)/segment “Il miracolo”
1950 Vulcano Maddalena Natoli
1951 Bellissima Maddalena Cecconi Nastro d’argento
1952 Camicie rosse Anita Garibaldi
1953 The Golden Coach Camilla
1955 The Rose Tattoo Serafina Delle Rose
1957 Wild Is the Wind Gioia
1959 The Fugitive Kind Lady Torrance
Nella citt l’inferno Egle
1960 Risate di gioia Gioia Fabbricotti
1962 Mamma Roma Mamma Roma
1969 The Secret of Santa Vittoria Rosa
1972 Roma