Obituary: Ferdinando Scarfiotti
Wednesday 11 May 1994
CINEMA's power is primarily visual. Design in cinema changes our lives, influencing the way we view the world, a world subtly different because of what we have seen on the screen. Ferdinando Scarfiotti had a larger influence than we know, as the production designer of some of the best-looking movies of our time: Death in Venice (1971), American Gigolo (1980) and The Last Emperor (1987), among others.
Born in Porto Recanati, Italy, Scarfiotti was graduating in architecture at the University of Rome when he attracted the attention of Luchino Visconti, who asked him to design his stage production of La Traviata for the 1963 Spoleto Festival. Throughout the Sixties, Scarfiotti was responsible for the magnificent 'look' of Visconti's operas and plays, including Der Rosenkavalier, Falstaff and Simon Boccanegra, plus such dramatic works as Goethe's Faust, Natalia Ginsburg's The Advertisement, and The Cherry Orchard, in venues as diverse as La Scala, Milan the Royal Opera House, in London, the Vienna Staatsoper, and in Dallas, Amsterdam and, of course, Spoleto. Soon Scarfiotti was designing for other talents including Franco Zeffirelli and Eduardo di Filippo.
Although theatre was in his blood, Scarfiotti was a great movie fan, especially of the Hollywood masters. He knew and loved Vincente Minnelli's An American in Paris (1951) and George Stevens's A Place in the Sun (1951). By his own count he had seen Gone with the Wind 15 times by 1985 and he adored William Cameron Menzies's use of Technicolor. 'If you watch that movie carefully you can learn from it every aspect of movie-
making,' he once said. Unsurprisingly, he was also a big admirer of Walt Disney, and in the early Sixties he responded to the new 'style and detachment' (his words) of Godard, Pasolini and Antonioni.
In 1971 the director Bernardo Bertolucci asked Scarfiotti to design the film The Conformist and to help select locations in Rome and in Paris. The look of The Conformist was inseparable from the overall technical design, and Scarfiotti established a unique relationship with Bertolucci and with the cameraman Vittorio Storaro. Scarfiotti used Hollywood Thirties Art Deco as a background to the suppressed homosexual drama of the plot, and managed to reawaken popular taste to the joys of Deco.
His work on a second feature with a homosexual theme, Visconti's Death in Venice, won the 1971 Bafta award for art direction, and he rejoined Bertolucci on Last Tango in Paris (1972), largely shot in a cramped block of flats in Montparnasse. Peter Bogdanovich invited him to recreate the world of Henry James's Daisy Miller (1974), and for Billy Wilder he art-directed the wickedly funny Avanti] (1972).
But in 1980, in the United States, Scarfiotti made what was probably his greatest fashion statement. The film was Paul Schrader's American Gigolo and the image of the Armani- clad Richard Gere staring at a harsh Los Angeles blue-grey bedroom illuminated by slatted lights became a poster icon for the next two decades. Schrader 'cast' Scarfiotti from The Conformist and he built sets for Schrader like those of Citizen Kane, sets with hard ceilings designed in a grey monotone so that the walls could be used to create shadows and light forms, brilliantly photographed by the underrated cameraman John Bailey. Scarfiotti and Bailey worked together again on two completely dissimilar movies, Schrader's Cat People (1982) and John Schlesinger's Honky-Tonk Freeway (1981), in which, Bailey says, 'Nando did a fabulous job of catching a certain gone-crazy pop Americana.' The style of American Gigolo was massively influential, simultaneously clinical, brash and camp, and caused Brian de Palma to hire Scarfiotti for Scarface (1983) with its hyper-expensive mansion that drugs built in which Al Pacino's Tony Montana sinks into a slough of white powder. It influenced the television series Miami Vice and Scarfiotti became known as the Designer's Designer.
Scarfiotti was based in Los Angeles, credited as a 'visual consultant' until his green card came through. Michael Apted asked him to design the set for a Sting concert and it was duly filmed in 70mm as Bring on the Night (1985).
But Scarfiotti's finest 70mm moments were the now classic opening sequences revealing the Last Emperor, whose fabulous red and gold both established and embellished the glory of the Forbidden City in China. Scarfiotti won the 1987 Academy Award for Art Direction as one of the nine Oscars won by The Last Emperor. Scarfiotti and Storaro had worked out a colour scheme for Bertolucci that subtly played upon the audience's emotions: it was the very essence of cinema in a film that couldn't quite live up to the quality of its design.
Barry Levinson's long-gestating personal project Toys (1992) was a Scarfiotti delight. His richly multi- textured bold designs were, alas, the only watchable elements in a tedious movie, but, once again, the poster remains a classic, a sort of sub-Magritte Robin Williams with an open window in his crimson derby, at one with Scarfiotti's crazy world, and as far removed as possible from the half-lights of American Gigolo.
The Sheltering Sky (1990) reunited Scarfiotti with Bertolucci, and its period reconstruction was immaculate: however the film was over- length and virtually plotless. Nevertheless, Scarfiotti's reputation was well able to survive both Toys and The Sheltering Sky for there could be no doubt that Scarfiotti was, in the words of Paul Schrader, 'the most influential film designer of the last three decades. His work has influenced an entire generation of directors and designers.' And, Schrader might have added, the very way that the cinema-going audience now views the real world. Scarfiotti's last work is the Warren Beatty-Annette Bening remake of the classic romance Love Affair, expected from Warner Bros this autumn.
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