If there is one other Italian actor who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Sophia Loren then it's Marcello Mastroianni, not just for his acting ability and his prodigious output but also for his enduring impact on Italian cinema. He and Sophia Loren made the world sit up and take notice of the Italian film industry for the first time, because both of them had huge charisma, both were physically attractive people and both were also very good at their craft. Sophia Loren of course still is and has two best actress Oscars as proof.
And both of these giants of Italian cinema hit their stride in the late 1950s and some of their best work was done when working together in the same film. Fortuitously they both came to prominence when some of the legendary Italian film directors like Antonioni, Bertolucci, De Sica and Fellini were also raising the international profile of Italian cinema, which only added to their appeal.
Mastroianni was propelled to international stardom in Fellini’s 1961 classic La Dolce Vita with the famous scene in the Trevi Fountain with his Swedish co-star Anita Ekberg. This scene was shot in January and apparently Mastroianni wasn't keen on going into the freezing water until fortified with a few shots of vodka and a wetsuit under his clothes if film lore is to be believed. Ekberg, being Swedish, was obviously made of sterner stuff because she was wearing a lot less than Mastroianni.
The film was released to both fanfare and controversy with the Catholic church condemning it, but it imbued Mastroianni forever with the aura of the quintessential Latin lover. However as he himself remarked some years later “Once they call you a Latin lover, you’re in real trouble. Women expect an Oscar performance in bed”.
La Dolce Vita may still be one of his most famous films internationally but I don't think it's his best work, good though he undoubtedly was. Part of the film’s impact at that time was the world’s renewed fascination with Rome which started with Tyrone Power’s glamorous Hollywood style wedding in Rome in 1949, followed by that other classic film set in the eternal city in 1953, Roman Holiday, with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. By 1961 la dolce vita had truly returned to Rome after all the post war gloom and this film clearly revels in the decadence and vacuity of the higher echelons of Roman society, much as Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza was to do 52 years later. Another interesting fact about La Dolce Vita was that Marcello's friend in the film was called Paparazzo and afterwards his name passed into common usage in its plural form to describe the photographers who make a living chasing celebrities.
Mastroianni didn’t exactly burst onto the scene from nowhere in 1961 because at 14 years old in 1939 he had his first uncredited part as an extra. During the war he was put in a labor camp by the Germans after Italy’s surrender in 1943, though he later escaped and managed to hide undiscovered in a tailor's attic in Venice until the end of the war. In 1945 he returned to Rome where he worked as a clerk with a film distribution company during the day and practiced acting in the evening with a group of university students.
In 1950 he achieved regular film work and he stayed busy throughout the 1950s with over 40 films under his belt before La Dolce Vita. His breakthrough in the 1957 film White Nights also brought its director, Luchino Visconti, to world attention, and Mastroianni did the same for Antonioni in La Notte in 1960. By the time of his premature death in 1996 aged 72 he had been active for over 45 years making well over 100 films. Everyone has their favorites but most people would choose from among the following movies if asked to name their preferred Mastroianni films:
1960 La Notte
1961 La Dolce Vita
1961 Divorce Italian Style (Golden Globe and BAFTA best actor awards and Oscar nomination)
1963 Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (with Sophia Loren) (BAFTA best actor award)
1964 Marriage Italian Style (with Sophia Loren) (Golden Globe nomination best actor)
1967 The Stranger
1970 The Pizza Triangle (Cannes Festival best actor award)
1970 Sunflower (with Sophia Loren)
1977 A Special Day (with Sophia Loren) (Nominated for both Golden Globe and Oscar best actor awards)
1987 Dark Eyes (Oscar nomination for best actor)
In addition to the four collaborations in the list above there are another ten films starring both Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, though not all of them are particularly well-known.
In a recent interview Loren had no hesitation describing Mastroianni as her favorite leading man and given that she didn't mince words when talking about some of the other male stars she worked with, perhaps there is no better testament to Mastroianni than that.
The British director John Boorman, who directed Mastroianni in his 1970 film Leo the Last, said in an interview shortly after Mastroianni's death: "I never felt the need to apologise to Marcello for making him wait during filming. He was the most relaxed person I've ever worked with. In fact, on Leo the Last, we were doing a scene where he was in bed and while we were altering the lights and lining up the camera, he fell asleep - just drifted off until we woke him up so that he could act being asleep again. There's so much behind that easy style, so much depth, so much subtlety and sensitivity behind it. He was extraordinarily aware of everything. He's always thought of as this Latin lover type, but in fact he was really a very gentle, unassuming man. And then, of course, he had that charm."
However easy he made it look however, his acting style was backed up by a solid technique learnt early in his career in Rome with a theatre group led by Visconti. Here, over a 10-year apprenticeship, Mastroianni performed almost every classical role, from Astrov in 'Uncle Vanya' to Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams's 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. There then followed another seven years working his way up from small roles in Italian movies, so that by the time he came to international prominence in La Dolce Vita, he was a 35-year-old screen veteran.
Excluded from the above film list is an Italian documentary called Mi ricordo, sì, io mi ricordo (I remember), screened in 1997 at the Cannes Film Festival.
It was recorded in Mastroianni’s last year and in it he talks widely and at length about his life as an actor, reminiscing with humorous anecdotes and a philosophical attitude. One such anecdote that has since become symbolic of his modest, almost melancholic approach to fame over his many decades as perhaps the best known Italian male actor:
"I was in Rome walking my dog and met an old friend whom I hadn't seen in 40 years," he said. "We stopped to chat, and I asked him about his life. He said he had quit school young, started driving trucks, married, and had two children. He then asked me about my life, and before I could say anything, he said: 'I see you got yourself a dog, good for you'. Did I need to add anything more?”
We have seen most of the Mastroianni’s films on the list above and you can’t go wrong starting with the four that co-star Sophia Loren. If you’re a fan of the director Federico Fellini (which we are not particularly) then La Dolce Vita and 8½ would be the ones to pick first, though if you’re a Fellini aficionado you will probably already have seen them.
Many people are enamored with the director Antonioni but I found La Notte predictable and a little tedious, one of those films that just hasn't aged well. Nor was it the best vehicle either for the very talented Jeanne Moreau, who by that time was already an established and successful French actress and had just finished the excellent Louis Malle film 'Elevator to the Gallows' (which has nothing to do with Mastroianni but is a film I would highly recommend). Watching La Notte you can easily see why Mastroianni's role in it led directly to his casting in La Dolce Vita the next year.
Possibly our favorite so far is Una Giornata Particolare (A Special Day) which we will review soon in a separate article. We're also very fond of I Girasoli (Sunflowers) if only because Mastroianni and Loren are so superb together.