Anna Magnani - unity in contradiction

She collaborated with every important Italian director of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, becoming famous for her roles as a passionate, tough and often melancholic and sensitive woman. At the same time her acting was modern, vivid, intimate and authentic, but free of theatricality

Unity in contradiction is a phrase that probably best explains the great Italian actress Anna Magnani. She was adorned with huge dark eyes and white skin, but at the same time she was short, stout and not conventionally pretty. Audiences adored her and directors and film critics respected her, describing her as a loud actress with strong acting personality and volcanic Latin temperament, but also a tender, sensitive and lyrical soul.

Anna Magnani was born on March 7, 1908 as the illegitimate daughter of Marina Magnani and an unknown father. Her mother abandoned her as a small child and so she spent her childhood and young adulthood in a poor Roman neighborhood where she was raised by her grandmother. After spending several years in a convent high school, she enrolled in the Roman Academy of Drama Arts. At the time she supported herself by singing in nightclubs and earned a reputation as the Italian Edith Piaf. Even though she appeared in silent films, she began her real acting career relatively late in 1941, with a role in De Sica’s Teresa Venerdě playing Lolleta Prima, girlfriend of the main character (Pietro Vignali). De Sica wrote the screenplay and described Magnani as a “strong and tragic character”. It is certain that this great actress drew part of her impressive acting sensibility, like Edith Piaf, from the emotional abandonment of a childhood spent without parents.

The advancement of Anna Magnani’s career coincides with a great moment of Italian cinema, i.e. the creation of Roberto Rossellini’s master piece Rome, The Open City (Roma, cittá aperta, 1945) in which Magnani played Pina, widow and fiancée of one of the protagonists of this anti Nazi Roman story. Rome, The Open City was the first commercially successful Italian neorealist film in the post-war years and with it Magnani achieved international fame. From then on she did not stop working in film and television, collaborating with every important Italian director of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. She became famous for her roles as a passionate, tough and often melancholic and sensitive woman. At the same time her acting was modern, vivid, intimate and authentic, but free of theatricality.

In Luchino Visconti’s Bellisima (1951) Anna Magnani plays Maddalena, an obsessive and ambitious mother who drags her plain and talentless daughter to a competition for the “prettiest girl of Rome” in Cinecittŕ. Legendary is the shocked totality of Magnani as she reveals all the pain and horror of a mother’s humiliation when she realizes that the studio people make fun of her daughter’s test shots. In the film The Golden Coach (La Carosse d'or, 1953) by one of the greatest film directors of all time, Jean Renoir, she plays a woman torn between three men. Renoir said that Magnani was “the greatest actress he has ever worked with”.

She reached the peak of her international popularity in the 1950s with the role of Seraphine in Daniel Mann’s film The Rose Tattoo (1955) for which she won an Oscar. The screenplay for the film was written by Tennessee Williams based on is own play. Ana and Tennessee were great friends and the dramatist said after he met her that he “never saw a prettier woman”. Even though Williams wrote the character of Seraphine, a widow with a daughter who cannot get over her husband’s death, exclusively for Magnani, she could not play it on Broadway because her English was not good enough. She was thus replaced by Maureen Stapleton on Broadway who also did an excellent job in the play. Magnani was convinced that she could not possibly win an Oscar for this role and did not even attend the ceremony. Allegedly, she was woken up during the night by a journalist who told her the news -- but the actress did not believe him at first and accused him of lying. She repeated her association with Williams as screenwriter in 1959 in the film The Fugitive Kind, in which her partners were Marlon Brando and Joanne Woodward. Williams wrote the screenplay based on one of his plays, Orpheus Descending. Besides the fact that Brando and Magnani are strongly connected with Tennessee Williams’ world, they are male-female film icons representing the same character - a strong and often tragic persona that exudes a lack of adaptability along with overpowering emotions. Anna Magnani and Tennessee Williams’ friendship was so strong that it served as an inspiration for the New York off Broadway play Roman Nights by Franca D'Alessandra, in which Franca Barchiesi played Anna and Roy Miller played Williams.

Anna’s private life was characterized by great friendships and not such great love affairs. Several years before his decision to spend his life with Ingrid Bergman, Roberto Rossellini and Anna had an intense affair. However, they remained friends for life and he was always her favorite director. She had an illegitimate son, Luca, by the Italian actor Massimo Serato. She married only once, to the Italian director Goffredo Alessandrini, but the marriage was terminated after fifteen years. Magnani’s characters on film are typified by strength as well as loneliness, which the actress transferred to the screen after having experienced in her private life.

In the late 1950s she played one of her most important roles in Renato Castellani’s Hell in the City (Nella cittŕ l'inferno, 1958). In perfect harmony with Giulietta Masina, who in her victimhood is the polar opposite of Magnani, both actresses delivered excellent performances in this story of Roman prisons. At the end of her career Anna got a chance to work with another legend of Italian and European film, Pier Paolo Pasolini, in the film Mamma Roma (1962). Anna played a role perfect for her: an older prostitute who plans to spend her life savings for the benefit of a son whom she wants to become an honest man. Her last film, in which she played herself in a dramatic context, was Rome (Roma, 1972) by Federico Fellini. The following year she died from pancreatic cancer. The funeral of the Italian diva was attended by the entire city of Rome, the city that she, like many other artists, celebrated in her roles in all of its beauty and cruelty of poverty. (Alemka Lisinski)