27 May 2015

Going to Italy: Cinema, Hollywood and Romance on the Tiber

I'm going to Rome with the family this early fall, having never been there before (or anywhere in Italy for that matter), despite having pretty much grown up in an well-travelled, Italophile home.

I'm looking forward to it, because of, well, all the above reasons, but also because I've been interested in art of all kinds since a young age, and you simply cannot avoid coming across Italian culture and history when it comes to neither music, architecture, theatre, sculpture, painting, food, film, etc., etc..

There's SO MUCH to see in Rome that has just been piling up on my to-do-list over the years, so that's a big plus. But also because I - being a classic film fan - have watched several romanticized Hollywood renditions of the famous city throughout my youth - and I mean, who wouldn't want to visit the city as epitomized in "Roman Holiday" with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck?

Roman Holiday

I must admit not everything Italian has always struck my fancy. It has always been my father's Italophile influence that has surrounded everything Italian I came in contact with. He loves the food, the opera, the film makers, etc.. I'm not a big opera fan, but as a kid I fell in love with Maria Callas' recording of Bizet's "Carmen" (I imagined I was the evil queen from Snow White, waltzing majestically around in a big cape, haha!), and I liked Mozart's "The Magic Flute" as well (but that's also one of the more kids-friendly operas, I guess). None of them Italian, I know, but I guess it still somewhat counts since it all started in Italy, anyway ;)

My father was at one point convinced that me and my sister would love Fellini's "Roma" (1972) and find it as amazing as he did, even though we were perhaps a bit too young to understand the more than two hour long, poetic film ... Every time it has been mentioned since then he's spend the time demonstratively, passive-aggressively 'apologizing' for showing us such a film. Oh well, maybe we were a bit too loud and exaggerating in our critique at the time, but I also think we were simply too young. Besides, he practically sold the film solely on the basis of his own, personal childhood experience of arriving in Rome by train for the first time as a small boy (just as the main character in the film does), which isn't always the best way of selling a film to kids. There are also many cultural, inside jokes to account for when your parents choose a film director who has a specific style only they are familiar with, as well as a better understanding of a specific culture i.e. the Italians, Italian cinema and all its hidden commentaries to its society and history, and then continue to laugh at places kids just don't get. But I guess that's an everlasting dilemma when growing up, trying to understand and coming to terms with the world.

To begin with, I found some of the old masters of Italian cinema to be frightfully grandiose and theatrical - like their opera and everything else they did - as well as hypocritical in their portrayals of women. The latter were often represented in the same stereotypical ways the painter Edward Munch did; as the virgin, the mother, the vampire, the prostitute or the old woman; leering, praising and chauvinistic at the same time. But as I got older I realized many other (film) industries and directors have done so as well, just without me being aware of it before. Italian cinema may have been more ambiguous than what appeared to be - and always with a great sense of humor - though I don't doubt some of these boisterous fellas behind the cameras had as many personal faults as some of the masters in Hollywood (such as Hitchcock, Ford or Welles). I'm still not sure about the portrayals of women in (classic) Italian cinema, though. It is so male-dominated behind the screen that one cannot help but feel ambivalent about how one's own sex is portrayed on-screen.

The most male-centered - on-screen and off-screen - of them all is perhaps Sergio Leone. Yet, he is a subject I've studied twice during university, and I admittedly adore that man and all his spaghetti westerns (though basically a copycat of Kurosawa), as well as his brilliant collaboration with composer Ennio Morricone. The reason for this personal proclamation is that his films are so meta-commentating, so pre-postmodern, so self-mythologizing about its own genre and the idea of the American man on screen, perhaps never more quintessentially portrayed than in the American western. And one can argue that that is why his films are also practically devoid of women (when the latter aren't used as rag dolls, that is). I concede, one can also argue it's problematic Leone wasn't more critical of said subject.

Furthermore, as I got older, I began to objectively appreciate the baroque feeling of Fellini, the naked neo-realism of Rossellini or the patient dramas of Visconti and Bertolucci (I've even sat through some of Pasolini's highly controversial films!). I guess, it was this over-all unapologetic feeling Italian cinema had about itself that was and is so unique; seemingly highly self-aware and satiric, unafraid of controversies, the political incorrect, the grotesque and the dirty; of cutting into the bone and beyond. There's this distinct European or rather South European feeling tied to it, which sometimes only Europeans understand or recognize, as it so often is with bordering cultures. I began to understand just how big influences they were on film-making in general, such as the Nouvelle Vague in France - or in Hollywood (albeit the Americans were a bit slower to pick up on these new trends in their mainstream productions and have mainly stuck to their classic models, even to this day). 

So, speaking of Hollywood (and really the subject of this post - I apologize for the digressions once again), their renditions of Italy were, as said, much more romanticized than realistic or anything artsy and fancy than what the Italian film makers experimented with. No experiments here! Nope! Just good, old-fashioned romance after the typical, naturalistic Hollywood model.

Hollywood on the Tiber was the name of an era of film making in the 1950s and 1960s where in particular Rome or other parts of Italy became the center of the plots, given all the history, drama and romance the country had to offer (though, one could argue other countries had so as well). In contrast to the native Italian film industry, these were English speaking productions, targeting mainly American and British audiences. There were all the 'usual' epic, swords-and-sandals-films and then, of course, the romantic comedies set in a - at that time - contemporary yet romanticized setting.

Usually, the protagonists of the latter centered around single, young, innocent girls or lonely, wallflower spinsters from the Western hemisphere vacating in Italy, enjoying the change of scenery and the culture, contemplating their single life and meeting their handsome, exotic Prince Charming or just a fellow - yet equally dazzling - American. And that's...it. The story. Basically.
I will look closer at a couple of films from this genre in the following paragraphs. (There may be spoilers ahead!)

However, as time went on, the native Italian industry gained footing and escalated in popularity, but not without borrowing from Hollywood and its classic genres, as the swords-and-sandals films continued and the highly popular Spaghetti Westerns came about. The values of the 1950s were slipping in the sand and its idyllic visions of Italy disturbed by new and violent images of the 1960s.

Back to the topic, one of the most enduring and classic examples of Hollywood's settlement in Italy at the time is of course William Wyler's timeless "Roman Holiday" (1953). Also remembered by being Audrey Hepburn's breakthrough role as well as her first and only Oscar-winning role. I don't know what to say about it that hasn't already been said, other than I love it and that it's one of those films you'll never get tired of watching. Sentimental yes, but never so much it gets soppy or cheesy (albeit, you could call it a tear-jerker because of its ending). It is both light and serious, funny and heart-breaking. Audrey is one of the most authentic, humble and unpretentious actresses that has ever lived, in my opinion, and she never fails to bring that to a role. Gregory too brings his ever so solid, yet gentle, calm and believable personality to the table, and the fact that he insisted on giving Audrey equal billing for her role makes him all the more 'the Gentleman Icon', as I choose to call him. I wonder that if it had included the natural expectation of a happy ending, whether its legacy would have run as far as it has today? Audrey is wonderful as always and Greg as handsome as ever and together they make a brilliant team, but would we have liked them just as much, felt for them just as much, if they had ended up in each other's arms? Permanently? Perhaps. Perhaps not. We cannot be sure, but its legacy has definitely cemented itself in film history.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday

The following year came another 'romantic comedy' set in Rome: "Three Coins in the Fountain" (1954) directed by Jean Negulesco.

The movie itself is basically a lovey-dovey, or let's use the wonderful word 'schmaltzy', feel-good story, or rather: a battle of beauty between the younger cast members which include Jean Peters, Maggie McNamara, Dorothy McGuire, Louis Jourdan and Rossano Brazzi. Hot dayum, what a cast! Personally, they couldn't find much more beautiful, alluring, exotic and refined gentlemen from France and Italy, respectively. Those brown, puppy dog gazes - and those accents, oh boy! I could listen to them speak all day long. And the women are equally beautiful in each their compelling ways that never bore you, despite their character stories are rather contrived and limited: Jean is sensual, cynical, yet never one-dimensional, Maggie is waif-like, naive, curious a la Jean Simmons/Audrey Hepburn, and Dorothy is mature, yet shining, almost childlike in her enthusiasm and melancholy.

The beauty of the cast is perhaps only trumped by the beauty of the city, Rome, shot on location, including a short peak of Venice, as well! Not many films of that era take us round the streets and backdrops of 1950s' Rome and Venice, so all in all, the film is definitely worth a watch for all its eye candy (cast included) ;)

Dorothy McGuire (left), Maggie McNamara (middle) and Jean Peters (right)

However, its plot lives up to its era and cements it's a Hollywood production. It's awfully antiquated, as expected, when it comes to values regarding female roles and what women in society are taught at the time: That their sole purpose in life is to find a man, or more precisely, a husband. A rich, eligible husband.

One of the women is disillusioned in love (Jean Peters' character), another still carries around (false, declining) hope of love (Dorothy McGuire's character) and a third arrives to fulfill the above goal no matter the means (Maggie McNamara's character). The three single girls and secretaries of course get three male counterparts and romantic interests: Jean's meeting with a poor, rural, soon-to-be-lawyer (Rossano Brazzi's character) just as she is about to leave the country, Dorothy's unrequited love for her unaware, curmudgeonly employer (Clifton Webb's character) and Maggie's manipulative, yet naive and highly worrisome pursue of Rome's royal playboy numero uno (Louis Jourdan's character).

Rossano Brazzi
Louis Jourdan
But I want to focus on the three leading ladies first:

When I first came across Jean Peters, I must admit, I was afraid she was just another stoic, pretty Jeanne Crain-face but she has surprised me every time I've watched her. She's got this pouty-seductive, girly-yet-womanly panache going on and boasts of a dry, intelligent wit and determination, not without an enthralling, melancholy vulnerability attached to it, which makes her an odd combination of depressive and beautiful in a very human, relatable sort of way (Hedy Lamarr had the same feeling about her, but just seemed more like a goddess than a human). You can almost feel Jean's inner fight for being regarded as more than a sex symbol shine through some of her more sarcastically delivered lines in several of her movies.

I haven't watched Dorothy McGuire before and though her character in this one is a bit of a pushover and a wallflower, she surprised me with a serene sense of depth and warmth as well as a very cute and funny drunk performance in the end of the film. She doesn't at all appear as the no-good, unattractive spinster whose life has practically ended because she isn't married (Dorothy is only 36 here, for crying out loud!) as she is painted out to be, and it makes me so angry to think if all women back then truly thought of themselves like this at that age or that they were 'told' to feel so by society! The idea that women should put so much effort into being something of value (for the men), whereas the men just are valued! You feel like shaking some sense and self-respect back into these women; to tell them to stop serving the men and go make their own happiness - which is possible without the men! Okay, I'm ranting again, but those 1950s ideals just get on my nerves sometimes! At least, "Roman Holiday" had the decency to be a bit more creative and modern with the whole 'romantic chase'-thing, if you could call it that.

Maggie McNamara invokes, as I said before, the Jean Simmons/Audrey Hepburn vibe, but sadly falls in between the two of them, not really personalizing the role (or gets enough time or material to do so). She gives her character that cute, naive, curious trait that you would think is just right for Louis Jourdan's notorious playboy character, but she does everything wrong - in the most demeaning and cringe-worthy of ways (especially from a feminist POV)! - by deleting herself and wooing him solely based on what HE likes. Of course, she ends up realizing how wrong this is when he truly falls for her, and in the end admits stringing him along. Unfortunately - and highly unsettling - they do end up together despite this, without any explanation, which makes one wonder how this could come to be if his love for her was based on an entire lie and, the fact, that they have nothing in common??
Like Laura, the couple I was most interested in, Jean Peters and Rossano Brazzi's characters (and two of my favorite actors), had the least amount of screen time, which is a shame.

Jean Peters (left), Maggie McNamara (middle) and Dorothy McGuire (right)

Clifton Webb, who plays Dorothy McGuire's employer, is always a treat to watch in all his cool, acerbic flamboyance - which worked perfectly in "Laura" (1944). But, in this film, his surprisingly badly concealed sexuality unfortunately skews the plot to become something else than a man motivated to get married because he is on his death bed and because his sweet and lonely secretary is in love with him. Suddenly it becomes a homosexual man's last resort to save himself and his secretary from further loneliness - in a world that doesn't look kindly on his sexual preferences or her spinsterhood. And then suddenly the reason behind her unrequited love for him has an entire new meaning than what she assumes: That she's just not attractive enough of a woman for him... The whole narrative is problematic, to say the least.
Maybe I'm just reading things into it and I'm definitely sure there was no intention whatsoever by the film makers or studio to hint to this. Though it surprises me that they didn't at least try to make him seem 'less' flamboyant in that case or choose another actor to play the role (Webb, as I said, is brilliant being himself, but I doubt he could be any less himself, and I would be sorry to see him try that). Don't get me wrong, I almost wish it was intentional; that it was some sort of hidden commentary to the bigoted, polished society of the 1950s' view and horrible treatment of homosexuals, but sadly, the film never goes that deep. Actually, don't expect any film from the 1950s to touch on such sensitive subjects directly (I can't even think of any that did it indirectly... "Rebels Without a Cause" perhaps?). Instead watch Todd Haynes' 1950s/Douglas Sirk-inspired drama films, "Far from Heaven" (2002) and "Carol" (2015), which deal more realistically with those matters and come highly recommendable.

In Venice

At the Trevi Fountain in Rome

The single girl/spinster/secretary-topic was apparently hot in the '50s and continued the following year with David Lean's "Summertime" (1955), starring one of my favorite actresses, Katharine Hepburn, and, once again, handsome Rossano Brazzi in the lead roles; this time shot in beautiful Venice. I really want to experience this version of Venice when I go visit it one day, but having heard rather off-putting stories of how the tourism has practically invaded the place I'm afraid it cannot be quite as idyllic and peaceful as portrayed by Lean. Anyway, I just want go there before it drowns.

Katharine plays the single, middle-aged (Kate is 48 at the time) secretary, Jane Hudson, who travels to Venice on a long awaited summer vacation and encounters the younger, swarthy, dashing Renato (Brazzi) eyeing her up in a café. At first she is put off by this and hurries away, but when she meets him again by chance, she slowly becomes attracted to him yet is confused by her feelings and keeps him at bay when he starts to pursue her. Eventually, she gives in and they start a sweet, but passionate romance. When he admits being separated from his wife, it throws her off, but he convinces her to seize the day and give in to what he offers. However, in the end, she sees their relationship as eventually doomed, and despite his protests she returns to America with a bittersweet farewell between the two lovers.

Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi in Summertime

On the surface, it is a somewhat cliché tale of a 'prudish', American spinster who tries to hold the moral high ground when she meets the younger, exotic and dashing foreigner who pursues her. Any other actress in the role of Jane Hudson would have seem pitiful to the point of laughable, or maybe it's just me who cannot picture the film without Katharine's great sense of vulnerability and human insight. If it wasn't for Katharine's wide-ranging acting abilities and David Lean's sensitive direction, the film might not still be able to power through with its quiet and surprisingly relevant philosophy about life and loneliness. 

I think we can conclude, in its essence (and most stereotypically of fashions); there's something beautifully tragic or melancholy-romantic about Italy that just draws lonely people to it. People who hasn't much else in life to live for; people who are sensitive, contemplative, who appreciate and seek out beauty and put up walls or facades to protect themselves from temptations, but end up giving in to them, despite inner struggles of what one should or shouldn't do. Just like Gustav von Aschenbach in Visconti's "Death in Venice" (1971). Some seek solace, romance or adventure; the exotic and different; where time and history stand still yet live; while others simply run from their old lives or present situations at home.

Death in Venice

These films also made me think of American photographer Ruth Orkin's wonderful illustrative series of photographies from when she was a young girl in the 1950s and went alone to Italy. There she met a fellow American, Ninalee Craig (also known as Jinx Allen) and used her as a model for her experiences in Italy. I find the pictures very much invoke many of the feelings from the above-mentioned films and give you a sense of how it was (and maybe still is) to be a young, single girl travelling in a foreign country on her own:

Ruth Orkin's most famous photo: American Girl in Italy, 1951

Maybe, when I return from my vacation this fall, I'll be able to recognize some of these portrayals of being a foreigner visiting Italy. I've already romanticized the hell out of Paris and the real thing has yet to disappoint me.

Who knows? Maybe I'll meet my own Rossano Brazzi and make him fall in love with me..? (Nah, I wish!)

Hubba hubba!

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