Obituary: Marcello Mastroianni

Gilbert Adair
Friday 20 December 1996 01:02 GMT

Inconceivable as it may now appear - particularly to a cine-illiterate generation of Hollywood-fixated moviegoers for whom film history was born more or less when they themselves were and for whom, finally, the masterpieces of those dim, now unknowable decades, the Thirties, Forties, Fifties and Sixties, constitute not only the cinema's history but its prehistory, not its Golden Age but its Dark Ages - Marcello Mastroianni was the most sheerly indispensable film star of the entire post-war period.

Though he made his first appearance on screen as an adolescent in 1939, in Carmine Gallone's Marionette, and could be glimpsed in scores of films (sometimes as little more than an extra) before he achieved real and enduring fame, his heyday as an actor, the Sixties and Seventies, coincided with that of the European art cinema, the cinema of the French nouvelle vague, of Bresson, Bunuel and Bergman and of his own compatriots Fellini, Antonioni and Visconti, and it is with that halcyon period that he will always be associated. Like that of the films in which he starred, Mastroianni's public image was imbued with a superficially glamorous panache. Yet, as was equally true of his films, that external romantic allure was gnawed at from within by a psychological and even sexual ambiguity present even in his earliest, jeune premier roles.

There was noting shallow about Mastroianni. His dark, matinee-idol facial features were humanised and spiritualised by more than a hint of melancholic insecurity. And to those for whom he represented the crudely sexist epitome of the "Latin Lover" - a more intellectual Rossano Brazzi, perhaps - it may come as a surprise to discover just how many of the characters he played, during an unusually lengthy and prolific career, were designed to undermine the cliche.

In Mauro Bolognini's curious Il Bell'Antonio (1961), for example, his provincial philanderer turned out to be sexually impotent; in Pietro Germi's Divorzio all'Italiana (Divorce Italian Style, 1962) he played a vain, languorous baron with greasy waxed moustaches and a hideously unbecoming hairnet; in Jacques Demy's L'Evenement le plus important depuis que l'homme a marche sur la lune (The Most Important Event Since Man Walked on the Moon, 1974) he was the planet's first pregnant man; in Allonsanfan (which was also made in 1974 by the Taviani brothers: that odd title, incidentally, is a slangy corruption of "Allons, enfants . . .", the opening words of La Marseillaise) he was a weary revolutionary resolved to make sense of his life; and in Ettore Scola's mawkish if widely admired Una Giornata speciale (A Special Day, 1977) he played a lonely, disgraced homosexual befriended by a neighbouring housewife (Sophia Loren!).

Just as the world's poets, novelists and dramatists have almost always elected to portray Don Juan at any period but that of his vigorously lubricious prime - Don Juan as an infant, as an adolescent, as an exhausted old codger - so the directors with whom Mastroianni frequently worked tended to divert his apparent donjuanesque suavity and good looks to their own equivocal ends. And it was to his credit, as the least narcissistic of film stars, that he so readily subordinated his own vanity to their vision.

As befits the most celebrated male actor of the Italian cinema, his childhood and youth recall the narrative of an early neo-realist film. Born of a desperately impoverished peasant family, he was sent to a German labour camp during the Second World War, effected a daring escape and went into hiding in an attic in Venice. Drifting into the theatre in 1948, while still at university, he started to acquire a reputation for himself as a promising member of Luchino Visconti's prestigious repertory company, for which he acted in Shakespeare, Goldoni, Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. Inevitably, though, he would focus his attentions on the cinema, which was then enjoying an extraordinary recrudescence in his native country.

For many years, in now forgotten comedies and melo- dramas, he played good-looking working-class heroes, skirt- chasing taxi drivers and small-time swindlers. But, by 1958, when he had completed both Visconti's exquisitely stylised adaptation of Dostoevsky's White Nights (Le Notti Bianchi, in which he co-starred with Maria Schell and Jean Marais) and Mario Monicelli's delightfully dizzy farce, precisely what one might imagine an Italian Ealing comedy to be, I soliti ignoti (generally, if crassly, translated into English as Big Deal on Madonna Street, with Tot and Vittorio Gassman), the parameters of his career had been established.

Mastroianni performed in scores of films, an astonishingly high proportion of which were made by major or, at least, prominent directors: Jules Dassin (La Loi, 1958, or, in English, Where the Hot Wind Blows - poor Mastroianni was never lucky with his English titles); Michelangelo Antonioni (he played a cynically disabused novelist in La Notte, 1961); Louis Malle (as Brigitte Bardot's theatre director in Vie Privee, A Very Private Affair, 1961, a supposedly scathing but ultimately unpersuasive dissection of the whole Bardot phenomenon); Valerio Zurlini (the very moving Cronaca familiare of 1962); Elio Petri (La Decima Vittima, The Tenth Victim, 1965); John Boorman (Leo the Last, 1970, a pseudo-Brechtian fable in which he was cast as a deposed prince who fetches up in Notting Hill Gate, of all unlikely spots); and Roman Polanski (What?, 1973). He was both poignant and hilarious as a flatulent, suicidal gastronome in Marco Ferreri's once notorious La Grande Bouffe (1973). And, in the cycle of frothy comedies in which he was regularly featured opposite Sophia Loren (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Marriage Italian Style, The Priest's Wife, etc), he could justifiably claim to be the Italian Cary Grant.

There is, of course, a name missing from the list, which is that of Federico Fellini, with whom Mastroianni enjoyed so close a personal and professional relationship that, in their later lives, the two men, by a bizarre but not unique phenomenon of physical convergence, actually came to bear an uncanny resemblance to each other (as also happened wtih Francois Truffaut and his filmic alter ego, Jean-Pierre Leaud). He was unforgettable as the disillusioned gossip columnist in La Dolce Vita (1960); became less Fellini's alter ego than what might be called his alter egoiste as the movie-director protagonist of 81/2 (1963); played the sumptuously named Snaporaz, whisked through a gaudy treadmill of militant feminism in La Citta Delle Donne (City of Women, 1979); was profoundly touching (especially for those of us who had known him young) as an ageing, dishevelled variety- hall trouper in Ginger and Fred (1986, opposite the director's wife and alter egoette, Giulietta Masina); and made a brief valedictory cameo in the Maestro's penultimate film, the semi-documentary Intervista (Interview, 1987, scandalously unreleased in this country, although now available on video), whose highlight was the affectionate and affecting reunion, almost 30 years on, of the two stars of La Dolce Vita, Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg.

For virtually four decades now, the principal methodology of film criticism has been the Auteur Theory, which postulates the director as the true and, indeed, sole author of a film. If ever a corresponding Acteur Theory were to be evolved, however, then Marcello Mastroianni would deserve to be accorded one of the most elevated niches in its Pantheon. Without him, the history of the contemporary European cinema is simply inconceivable.

Marcello Vincenzo Domenico Mastroianni, actor: born Fontana Liri, Italy 28 September 1924; married 1950 Flora Carabella (one daughter; and one daughter by Catherine Deneuve); died Paris 19 December 1996.

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