Robert Fulford's column about Marcello Mastroianni

(Globe and Mail, June 3, 1998)

Marcello Mastroianni, one of the greatest of film actors, managed against all odds to make male anxiety the trademark of his career. He had a lot working against him, notably good looks, an Italian cultural tradition that emphasized aggressive masculinity, and a show-business world that was eager to place him in the category of "Latin lover." Nevertheless when he died in 1996 he left behind a gallery of subtle screen characters, men chronically unsure of themselves. Better than anyone else, he enacted the male side of what someone in La Dolce Vita called the "dialogue between feminine wisdom and masculine uncertainty." In that film, decades before the subject became a staple of feature writers, Mastroianni played a male who felt unmanned by assertive, demanding women. And his performance looks as good now as it did in 1960.

Even so, La Dolce Vita left him stereotyped (or so he believed) as a Latin lover. He hated the term, and he was still angry about it when he sat down in September, 1996, to be interviewed for Anna Maria Tatò's rich, wonderful documentary, Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember, which arrives in Canadian theatres this week. He was 72 and only months from the end of his life, but on the screen he's full of energy and good humour. The only thing that makes him angry is "Latin lover."

He reminds us that he always toyed ironically with his appearance, that he was homosexual in one film, cuckolded in another, impotent in a third. And always he exuded an air of disappointment. Sex was a game that his characters managed, somehow, to lose. As the critic David Thomson wrote, "Melancholy and postcoital disenchantment shine in Mastroianni's eyes." His sexuality had an epicene quality. Sexual ambiguity worked for him as it worked for female stars like Garbo and Dietrich.

La Dolce Vita was intricately constructed and stylishly made, but the story seemed worn even 38 years ago: young gossip writer finds "sweet life" disappointing, despairs, yearns to write novel. But it worked so well that it lodged in the world's imagination. Among other things, it changed the image of Rome. As Federico Fellini was making it, Rome was the Holy City, the old fascist city, and the city dominated by remnants of antiquity. But after La Dolce Vita became a hit, Rome suddenly looked like the capital of glamorous, self-conscious hedonism. In Fellini's vision, fascism was forgotten, ancient Rome became a backdrop, and Christianity was pushed to the margin.

Many scenes were unforgettable: I still can't look at the Trevi Fountain without seeing Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg wading in it. Fellini also created a new word: he gave the name Paparazzo to Mastroianni's photographer friend, and soon all the obnoxious, grab-shot cameramen of the world were called "paparazzi."

A handsome movie star and an inspired comedian, Mastroianni had qualities similar to Robert Redford's, but their careers took radically different paths. Through luck and intelligent choices, Mastroianni worked with great directors such as Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Luchino Visconti. Even the lesser directors in his life make a remarkable list--Louis Malle, John Boorman, Jacques Demi, Ettore Scola, Lina Wertmuller. On the other hand, Redford has spent most of his acting career in the hands of workmanlike fellows whose individual styles can be detected by few outside their immediate families.

The difference in their careers says something about different historic eras and even more about the difference between Italy and America. At its height the Italian cinema lived in an atmosphere of daring and spontaneity, with a let's-try-this attitude that created large spaces for movie art.

Sometimes the spaces were too large, of course. Shortly after La Dolce Vita, Fellini made 8 1/2, a film about his own inner life, which he called "a shameless and brazen confession," with Mastroianni as a Fellini-like director. A remarkable movie that now feels more like a historical curiosity, 8 1/2 has unfortunately been much imitated, most notably by Woody Allen in Stardust Memories and Deconstructing Harry, most recently in a Ken Finkleman TV show. The imitations always feel stunted and narrow; what they lack is Mastroianni. He animated material that otherwise would have been heavy-handed, studied, and (in the dream sequences) too obviously borrowed from the surrealist painters.

In Tatò's documentary we hear Mastroianni talk about everything from his preferences in TV nature films ("Not birds--I like mammals; forget birds and fish") to his willingness to accept just about any film part that took him abroad (Russia, the Congo, Brazil, Algeria, Hungary). Mastroianni says he made 170 films, only a few were really terrible, and some were perhaps great. He discusses his theatre career, which is only a rumour to non-Italians but is said to have included some towering performances. Mischievously, he says he hopes someday to play a deaf-mute movie character in a wheelchair: "Perhaps I'll win three Oscars, one for the deaf, one for the mute, and one for the chair." We overhear Fellini saying his friendship with Mastroianni was based on "total, deep, honest mistrust." The end of this 98-minute documentary came too soon for me. I wanted to spend more time with its magnificent subject.

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