Oscar: Italian Winners–Magnani, Loren, Benigni

Italian Acting Winners

Italian performers and directors have a wonderful track record both as nominees and winners.

Three Italian actors have won the Oscar Award:

Anna Magnani for The Rose Tattoo;

Sophia Loren for Two Women;

Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful

Anna Magnani

Magnani won for an English-speaking film, the screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s famous play, but quite remarkably and rather unusually, both Loren and Benigni received the Oscar for appearances in Italian pictures. Unable to attend the ceremonies, Magnani asked Marisa Pavan (who played her daughter in the film) to accept the prize in her honor.

Sophia Loren

As for Sophia Loren, when she heard that she had been nominated, she ecstatically announced that she would attend the Hollywood spectacle. As she later recalled: “I felt that just being nominated was an honor in itself and a rare one at that for an Italian-speaking actress in an Italian film.”

But then, upon reflection, Loren changed her mind: “My competition was formidable (Audrey Hepburn, Piper Laurie, Geraldine Page, and Natalie Wood). Besides, the plain fact was that in its long history, an Oscar had never been given to an actor or actress in a foreign-language film.” Thereupon, Loren determined: “I could not bear the ordeal of sitting in plain view of millions of viewers while my fate was being judged. If I lost, I might faint from disappointment; if I won, I would also very likely faint with joy. Instead of spreading my fainting all over the world, I decided it was better that I faint at home.”

Loren had no real expectations of winning. But, as she later remembered: “hope being the eternal rogue that it is, on the night of the Awards, I was too nervous to sleep.” Photographer Pier Luigi came to Loren’s Rome apartment to keep the vigil with her. At three o’clock in the morning, “I tried to go to bed, but my eyes would not close and my heart would not stop pounding, so I went back to the living room to talk to Pier.”

By six o’clock, realizing that the Oscar ceremony was over, Loren was sure she had not won. However, at 6:45, she was awakened by the pleasant voice of Cary Grant (with whom she had an affair before marrying Carlo Ponti), telling her the good news. “I didn’t faint,” Loren recalled, “but I went rather giddy. It was incontestably the greatest thrill of my life.”

Roberto Benigni

Twenty seven years later, Roberto Benigni took quite the opposite approach of Loren’s, when he was honored with two Oscars: Best Foreign Language and Best Actor.

The Academy had asked Sophia Loren to present the Best Foreign Picture, in 1998, anticipating the triumph of Benigni’s Holocaust fable, Life Is Beautiful. Indeed, right after opening the envelope, she spontaneously exclaimed: “Roberto!”

Totally unabashed, Benigni stood up on the top of the chair in front of his. He then climbed to the next chair, which was occupied by Steven Spielberg; the director had to hold his hand to prevent a fall. Benigni then rushed to the stage and embraced Loren heartily. “I have the Oscar,” Benigni said, but I want you.” Overwhelmed, Loren had tears in her eyes.

Benigni then proceeded: “This is too much. I want to thank my parents in Vergaio, a little village in Italy. They gave me the biggest gift, poverty. I want to thank them for the rest of my life, and would like to dedicate the prize to those who are not here. They gave their lives in order that we could say life is beautiful.”

Minutes later, Benigni charmed the audience again upon getting the acting prize from presenter Helen Hunt. He said: “This is a terrible mistake, because I used up all my English. My body is in tumult…I would like to be Jupiter and kidnap everybody and lie down in the firmament making love to everybody.” Bill Conti’s orchestra began playing–not a subtle hint that the winner has overextended his welcome–while Benigni was still talking, and he was still at the microphone when the producers decided to have a commercial break.