Ode to Anna Magnani

Her onscreen charm has been compared to both Brando’s and Garbo’s but those are two perfections. Magnani is all imperfection, charismatic and human.

Anna Magnani in Bellissima

Third time was the charm for Luchino Visconti’s successive attempts to work with the great Anna Magnani. He wanted her for Ossessione, his 1943 adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but the actress was pregnant and not available to play the Italian version of James M. Cain’s trapped, treacherous Cora. He did an enormous amount of preproduction work on The Golden Coach—what became instead Jean Renoir’s 1952 love letter to Commedia dell’arte (and Magnani)—before he was yanked off the project by justifiably twitchy producers. (The second-time director had already bankrupt one producer on La terra trema, finally released in 1948.) To make it happen, Visconti sat down with his closest collaborator, screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico, to adapt a Cesare Zavattini story expressly for Magnani. Bellissima (1952) is about a stage mother trying to get her young daughter into the movie business and, according to Cecchi d’Amico, “was tailor-made for her.” Magnani is all the reasons why.

Variously described as a “shameless emotionalist” and “authentic,” Magnani played guitar and sang to help pay her way through a year at Rome’s Academy of Dramatic Arts. She later made a name onstage—as “Nannarella” performing bawdy songs while baring her midriff—and although her movie-director husband Goffredo Alessandrini told her that “she wasn’t pretty, in the movie sense,” she went on to carve out her own cinematic immortality, succeeding relatively late in life in the business that favors ingénues. She brought her comic timing honed with her theater partner Totò. She brought her raw sensuality, her hyperbolic romanesco, her regality, and her realness into every role. “I live what I do, or I believe I’m living it, which is the same thing,” she once said.

Her onscreen charisma has been compared to both Brando’s and Garbo’s but those two are perfections. Magnani is all imperfection, charismatic and human. And such messy hair. There has never been anyone like her. Watch her stumble and fall as she chases after her husband-to-be as he’s hauled off in a German occupation army truck in Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945) or with Aldo Fabrizi a few scenes prior going from slapstick to terrified in a flicker. After seeing Open City Pasolini wrote that her performance “obliterates the song of poets” and spent the next 15 years trying to work with her. Her second film with director (and lover at the time) Rossellini, L’amore (1948), is introduced with the apt title card “An Homage to the Art of Anna Magnani.”

While Magnani was the key to Bellissima, Visconti also wanted to escape the constraints of neorealism, which after two films he complained had “stuck like a tattoo.” Shooting in a real Roman borgate and at the actual Cinecittà studio, he strips any possible glamour from slumming it or moviemaking, revealing the drab armature of the manufacture of dreams. Visconti still filmed in black-and-white and still used nonprofessional actors (the man who plays Magnani’s husband was found brawny and believable shoveling bones at one of Rome’s abattoirs). He also insisted that costume designer Piero Tosi buy off the rack rather than create a wardrobe. Eyeing one woman on the street Tosi asked if he could have her skirt for a film starring Anna Magnani and the woman immediately obliged. “In those days women were willing to undress in the street for La Magnani,” Tosi said years later.

She is nothing but convincing as Bellissima’s quixotic mother, peddling her young daughter to movie directors against all odds. Watch her monologuing about the nature of performance against Visconti’s carefully placed mirrors while shadows of passersby move across her face; and, later, desperately tender, regretful, pressing her petite daughter to her as if they were one precious flesh. She improvised some of the dialogue herself, as she often did, and became Maddalena Cecconi so completely, one film historian wrote, “that she even considered adopting [costar] Tina Apicella.”

Such a creature of the pretend in a cautionary tale about that pretend is an irony lost on no one, and it was a conceit she toyed with throughout her career. After an offscreen beating by her disapproving husband in Bellissima, slumped in a chair, her hair and dress in yet another rumple, Magnani, so close to victory, seems down for the count, pleading to be left in peace, a chorus of supportive female neighbors in full agitato. “Stop acting, Maddalena,” her husband shouts. “I’m not acting!” The second she sees he’s out the door, her tears abruptly cease: “We made it, honey,” she says, grabbing little Maria and giving her a big smacking kiss. “If we hadn’t done all that there’d be no audition.” In her only other collaboration with Visconti she plays a version of herself, the theater star. Perched in a Rome police station clutching her dachshund in the last episode of 1953’s Siamo donne, she holds forth on the injustices of taxi surcharges and ignorance of drivers, charming all the carabinieri within earshot. Winning her case and now late for the theater, her charm’s intact but now takes the form of invective-laced exasperation as she threatens to kill her dresser “if she doesn’t live her in peace right now” to prepare.

Much has made of her emotive abilities. She gave goosebumps to Mastroianni and struck fear into the heart of Marlon Brando who joked about keeping a “fair-sized rock” around for those times she would surely overwhelm him. “They’d have had to mop me up,” he told Truman Capote in 1957 about the possibility of appearing opposite her on the legit stage in Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo. (Maureen Stapleton, who eventually won the coveted role, said the audience must have thought during her performance, “She’s no Magnani.”) Magnani herself later complained about being typecast—“They wore me out with these eternal roles as a noisy, hysterical popolana”—as if she too had forgotten the subtlety she brought to her portrayals.

Heavily courted by Williams, then experiencing his Broadway-Hollywood crossover, she made four American films, proving Brando right, but for different reasons. She provided the sure center of the movie version of The Rose Tattoo (1955), winning an Oscar, I think, for not using a rock against the ridiculous Burt Lancaster and for a scene in which she unceremoniously tries to squeeze her middle-years flesh (actual fat) into a corset—a move no big-name actress would dare today. In Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind (1960), she outmatches Brando’s magnetism molecule for molecule while the other cast mates all seem bent on out-Magnani-ing each other (in particular Joanna Woodward). Watch Magnani on the phone seeing Snakeskin for the first time and, before the plot starts to unfold, convey the whole sordid story with a look. Watch her seamless response to the package of pills Brando tosses to her in one of his improvised bits of business with a prop. Then watch her quietly die, her death mask coming to rest between the banister spindles.

Back in Italy she continued to appear onstage, in cinema and television, providing evidence both for her popolana cred and her powerful allure. In the 1962 film she finally made with Pasolini, Mamma Roma, she brings her hand to her mouth in a strange, wrist-first gesture worthy of suffering silent divas. In Made in Italy (Nanni Loy, 1965), she pushes and pulls a chain of children through bumper-to-bumper traffic and, in Tre donne (Alfredo Giannetti, 1971), exits a disco bar a cool, elegant diva. In 1972, she made a brief but potent cameo near the end of Fellini’s Roma. The director, who years earlier had appeared as the silent saint opposite her chatty goatherd in “The Miracle” episode of L’amore, follows Magnani through a plaza to the door of her home, calling her the living symbol of his beloved city: a wolf, an aristocratic bag lady, a dark clown. She chuckles at his idea. “Federico, I am sleepy.” He asks if he can interview her. “No, I don’t trust you.” The door is already closed. Those are the last words spoken in the film and the last she ever said on camera. She died the next year, far too young, at 65.

— Shari Kizirian © 2016

Originally published in September 2016 on the editorial pages of Fandor.