Marcello Mastroianni

Original Publication: GQ — May, 1986.

Five midgets, a punk with skunk-colored hair and a Woody Allen look-alike are poised on chalk lines in the vast lower level of Rome’s futuristic Esso Building. The camera crew is still eating lunch, and the production manager is grumbling about the demands of the director: “Yesterday he told us to have a cow with eighteen udders ready for tomorrow. I guess the cow is the kind of thing he thinks would end up on TV.” The scene is definitely Fellini-esque.

“Bette Davis…Bette Davis, you stand there, and Queen Elizabeth, you are here,” says a harried assistant director as he positions the bogus royalty among the midgets. “Where is my mafioso? Ah, Frankenstein and Marlene Dietrich, you go in the back.” Oblivious to all this activity, hunched over a counter off to the right of the set, scribbling madly on a piece of paper, is the maestro himself, Federico Fellini.

         “What is he doing?” I ask the production manager.

 “Inventing the afternoon’s dialogue,” he replies. “Do you know that he makes almost as much money directing a one-minute pasta commercial as he does for this whole movie? This is a difficult moment in Italian cinema. Originally his wife [Giulietta Masina] was supposed to star in a series of seven TV movies, each with a different director. But they decided instead to make this one, Ginger & Fred—a real movie—with Giulietta and Marcello Mastroianni.”

Ginger & Fred is not about whom you might think it is about. It’s really Fellini’s chance to satirize television. In the film, Ginger and Fred are actually two aging small-time hoofers—called tip-tap dancers in Italy—who used to imitate the famous duo in revues throughout the country. Now, thirty years after breaking up, they are being reunited for a bizarre Christmas TV spectacular called We Are Proud to Present. For example, on the show Masina and Mastroianni appear after an ex-priest who kisses his fiancée on camera and before an ancient admiral who can barely rattle his medals.

The rest of the cast is more of a cross between The Gong Show and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Yet it is a mark of just how far TV has (or has not) come that Fellini’s grossest fantasies are hardly weirder than the real thing.

Suddenly Fellini is crossing the set, waving a scrap of paper with most of the line on it crossed out.

         “Dov’é Marcello?” he inquires.


Well. In the midst of all this fake celebrity crowding the set, Italy’s most enduring heartthrob certainly does arriva.

Marcello Mastroianni looks incredibly pasty-faced and pale. His thick dark hair has been shaved, so now he has a receding hairline just like Fellini’s. He is wearing Fellini’s hat, a brown jacket, checked trousers and spats over brown-and-white tap shoes. Deep lines have been etched into his already wrinkled but still boyish 62-year-old face. In this makeup, Marcello the bello is long past his prime. Still, his brown eyes sparkle; his turned-up nose makes him seem impish; and no matter what he looks like for this particular picture, his every move telegraphs the same message: “Scusa, but can I help it if I’m totally charming?”

A gaggle of teenage girls begging for autographs immediately surrounds Mastroianni. He obliges graciously, as he always does. They die with pleasure. He then undulates toward his chalk line, master of the drop-dead entrance. Fellini watches the actor—his discovery, so to speak, whom he originally made famous by casting him as his own alter ego in La Dolce Vita in 1960 and in 8 ½ in 1963—betraying only the slightest hint of amusement as the girls clutch Mastroianni’s autographs to their bosoms and sigh.

Mastroianni has already made it clear he could care less that he has no idea what Fellini is conjuring up for him this afternoon. He certainly knows that in most Italian movies all the dialogue is dubbed in postproduction anyway. So, as Fellini nervously paces, dictating to his secretary and crossing out lines on scrap after scrap of paper, Mastroianni retreats to his trailer, parked outside the Esso Building. Puffing on a Philip Morris Light, he says in a sexy basso profundo, “It is exciting to discover what is happening day by day. Don’t you agree?”

He may be 62 and well traveled, but Marcello Mastroianni still manages to look as if he might need taking care of, to be mothered, in fact. He also conveys that he is very hard to get. Naturally this is a combination that presents a fatal challenge to females both on and off the screen. Actually, his offscreen presence—witty, at ease, sophisticated, but with a certain reserve—reinforces the on-screen reality: that just moments ago this world-weary Lothario had to extricate himself, politely of course, from the arms of yet another panting woman. After all, is this not the consummate Continental, the matinee idol who for more than thirty years has held almost all of the world’s most beautiful women in mad embrace? Think of Sophia Loren in Marriage Italian Style—the two became the Rock Hudson and Doris Day of Europe. Think of Catherine Deneuve in It Only Happens to Others, Nastassja Kinski in Stay as You Are, Anouk Aimee in 8 ½, or of Gina Lollobrigida, Ursula Andress, Claudia Cardinale, Stefania Sandrelli, Brigitte Bardot, Jeanne Moreau, Hanna Schygulla, Sonia Braga.

“That must be something, to know you’ve held all the world’s most beautiful women in your arms,” I say.

         “Not all of the most beautiful women,” Mastroianni protests.

         “Eighty percent of them then.”

         “Yes,” he says, shrugging.

Yet if there is one thing Marcello Mastroianni hates, detests and will not tolerate, it’s being labeled a Latin lover.

“Such a banal concept,” he says half in English, half in Italian, flicking an ash. He leans forward begging for understanding.

“I do not search for women,” Mastroianni says. “I have never been one who goes looking for women. Why do they insist to keep saying this about me when I do not seduce. It is always I who am seduced!”

Shame on you, Faye Dunaway. Shame on you, Catherine Deneuve and Nastassja Kinski, etc., etc., etc. Shame on you all, on screen or off. Sighing, Mastroianni patiently tries to put all this Latin-lover chatter into its proper perspective. What it is, is an occupational hazard. A fireman might get burned, Mastroianni gets seducted.

“It is very normal to have love affairs with actresses,” he says matter-of-factly. “Ideally, I would like to have a love affair with another kind of woman. I dream about a simple person, the kind I fell in love with before I became a movie star—for example, a cashier in a cappuccino bar.” Before he gets too carried away, however, Mastroianni stops and reconsiders. “Of course, she must be a beautiful, healthy cappuccino cashier.”

Mastroianni would rather be given credit for his acting, and he has a point. Combining a special gift for comedy with the versatility of a virtuoso, he has seduced audiences in 114 films, appearing as everything from a homosexual to a pregnant man. In the past few years, almost every one of his performances has won unqualified raves. In 1983, The New York Times called his portrayal of Casanova in La Nuit de Varennes “dazzling, because he plays the vainest of men without bringing any of his own vanity to the role.” The Los Angeles Times found his portrait of an owner of a small bar in the Brazilian film Gabriela “delicate, mature, self-effacingly brilliant.”

Even if his movies sometimes aren’t. In 1984, for example, The New York Times reported that audiences at the Cannes Film Festival were “enthralled with Mr. Mastroianni’s acting in Henry IV, although the picture was less warmly greeted.” Similarly, in last year’s Macaroni, in which Mastroianni co-starred with Jack Lemmon, it was Mastroianni—playing a humble Neapolitan bank archivist who rekindles a friendship with his old wartime buddy, Lemmon, a rich American industrialist—who stole the picture. And here’s what Lemmon thinks of his costar: “Marcello has amply demonstrated his range is limitless, but he might have trouble portraying a character that lacks dignity and grace. Such a person would be incredibly alien to that marvelous gentleman.”

In Ginger & Fred, Mastroianni plays a wheezing, perhaps somewhat disturbed old dancer with few prospects of enjoyment or employment in old age, a man who consistently lies not only to others but also to himself. It is not a terribly sympathetic part, but, greatly aided by a superb performance by Giulietta Masina, Mastroianni is exciting, making the audience feel the tension of his character’s life and the stress he is putting himself through to get up and tap-dance on live television one more time.

Even so, the Latin-lover image is still so enduring that as recently as 1984 in Henry IV it was entirely believable to audiences that the daughter of Mastroianni’s onetime great love in the film falls in love with him. “That young girl was paid to fall in love with me because of the way the script was written,” Mastroianni once again protests. Yet because his acting so often appears effortless, concealing how good he really is, what Marcello Mastroianni does on-screen is often confused with who he is offscreen, a man who has been married to the same woman for forty-three years, a very understanding woman.

“They love each other, that’s the reality,” says director Lina Wertmüller, who is one of his wife’s best friends. “Between them there is great sympathy, affection and comprehension. He’s never left her, despite all the women, and that is important.”

Mastroianni is married to theater actress Flora Carabella. They have a daughter, Barbara, who designs costumes and furniture. In the Seventies, however, Mastroianni went to Paris for several years to live with Deneuve, and they have a 14-year-old daughter, Chiara, who stays with her mother in Paris but summers in Italy with Marcello.

“I have always stayed married—that is Italian, too,” says Mastroianni in the trailer. “I have in my wife a friend. We have another concept of marriage because of the church. Of course, all this will fade away with my generation, but for us to change would be very difficult. It is too late. In my time a woman was always someone to conquer—it was always a matter of going to bed.”

 In Rome, everyone of a certain class takes pride in knowing or believing he knows the most intimate details of everyone’s life. And in Rome there are those who will tell you that Mastroianni’s wife nursed him though his crisis with Deneuve, but the dalliance with the dreamy Deneuve was on the rebound from a failed love affair with Faye Dunaway. “He fell in love with her hands first,” a sophisticated Roman matron says with authority of Dunaway. “Fellini was all for the marriage, but somehow it fell apart. Then came Deneuve.” Some rebound. Mastroianni will not discuss Dunaway specifically. Nor she him.

“I have always had important encounters with women in my life,” he says, “even very beautiful ones, but there were affairs that were also very painful at times. We are like everybody else. In love, it makes no difference if one is Marcello Mastroianni, Paul Newman or Dustin Hoffman. Popularity and success have no importance in sentiments. I am very grateful for having had the opportunity to have met important women whom I have loved, who have enriched my life.”

Despite his reputation, Mastroianni, like many of his generation, feels more comfortable with men. “Men are easier to deal with,” he says. “If it’s a matter of laughing, it’s better to be in the company of men because you always revert back to the time you were army buddies or in school together. It’s easier with men to be stupid and to laugh. A male friend never reproaches you, will never say to you, ‘What are you doing, smoking another cigarette,’ but a woman, yes. So with a woman you should only have the magic moments of love and then spend the rest of the day with your buddies.”

Marcello Mastroianni was born south of Rome in the province of Frosinone, the son of a cabinetmaker. He first started acting in morality plays under the tutelage of priests at school—he took the part of a Christian martyr. During World War II he escaped conscription by the Germans by hiding in a Venetian attic for nearly a year. When the war was over, he studied architecture and joined an acting company that included his future wife and Lina Wertmuller at the University of Rome. After making his debut in I Miserabili, in 1947, he was invited to join the company headed by the late Luchino Visconti. For ten years Mastroianni plied his craft onstage and worked at various jobs, gradually winning bit parts in movies. His big break came in 1955, in the first of many films with Sophia Loren, Peccata Che Sia Una Canaglia (Too Bad She’s Bad). Loren is still a close friend and his favorite actress. “We began together thirty years ago,” says Mastroianni. “She’s Neapolitan and spirited. She has humor and intelligence. I have fun with Sophia.”

Right after his first acclaim with Fellini and the comedies with Loren in the early Sixties, Mastroianni presented himself to the media much like the characters he had portrayed for Fellini—bored and alienated. Yet it appeared to some that he was putting on an act. Said producer Carlo Ponti at the time, “Marcello is uncomplicated. He likes to eat, to sleep and is the opposite of the Fellini character he thinks he is. He doesn’t have any psychological problems, but he likes to think he does. He’s created a real confusion. He thinks that in life he is the person that Fellini created on film.” Today, Mastroianni scoffs at that but said, “In my life it’s a comfort to have a little controlled neurosis. It makes you feel you’re really an artist. But I always try to let it go, through humor.”

In fact, now that he has attained the status of a Cary Grant or a Gary Cooper and his days as the hottest international sex symbol of cinema are behind him, Mastroianni virtually glories in the pleasures of his craft. He constantly refers to acting in sexual terms. He says that acting rivals sex in excitement. He compares himself to an old hooker who never wants to stop turning tricks. “I want to act until I die. We are like whores offering ourselves, displaying ourselves to the camera. In life, love is frequently unhappy, but acting is so exciting that I cannot understand why an actor has to feel tormented.” Nor does he confuse himself with his characters. “Never. I hate it when actors say their characters follow them out at night. I don’t believe in this kind of thing. Perhaps our characters have qualities we don’t have, and we prostitute them to make ourselves appear more interesting.”

Ask anyone on the set and you’ll be told he’s a delight to work with, undemanding and unpretentious. He is elegantly groomed but hardly vain, the opposite of a pomaded dandy. “I buy my clothes in stores, or I go to the same tailor for twenty-five years.” You won’t catch him in jeans either. “They’re too uncomfortable the way they have to cut them to show the balls.” He grimaces. “I prefer normal pants.”

Mastroianni’s only hobby, aside from work and occupational hazards, is renovating and redecorating his houses—he won’t say how many because like everyone else in Italy he is wary of the tax man. Recently, however, he has given up apartments in Paris, London, Madrid and New York. He has never spent much time in Hollywood, and although three of the films he has starred in have won Academy Awards, he himself has never won an Oscar. It is clear he would like to.

“Why not? I have a friend in Rome who made his own and put them in his house.”

Years ago, of course, Hollywood called him all the time, but he constantly begged of by saying his English wasn’t good enough. Still, he really wanted to play to an American audience.

“I tried to convince a producer once to star me in a Western as a sheriff deaf-mute. It’s not so crazy. You’ve made cowboys without arms, without eyes, without ears. Why can’t I be deaf and not speak? I even gave the story: The Indians came, killed my parents and took me. I become a sheriff, but I’m full of complexes. They said no. A mistake. Audiences are so naïve they think that if an actor doesn’t speak, he’s fantastic. It’s an old trick.”

         “Was not knowing English also kind of a trick?”

         “Yes, it was, or at least an excuse. I feel well in my country, not in your country. In the U.S., I am condemned to be an immigrant. It limits you.”

Mastroianni credits Fellini for making him famous in the United States by casting him as the alienated antihero of both La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ , in which he plays a character closest to Fellini—the egomaniacal film director, Guido. Surprisingly, though, including Ginger & Fred, the two have made only four films together (1980’s In the City of Women is the other). Yet theirs remains an easy collaboration. On the set, Fellini directs Mastroianni by acting out his lines for him and telling him what the dialogue will be, often for the first time. The two giggle so much, they behave as if they were teenage girls sharing secrets, in league against the world.

During the making of Ginger & Fred the two put in a bravura performance at Cinecitta when Bryant Gumbel interviewed them the week the Today show was in Rome. They arrived on the set separately but had nearly identical floor-length houndstooth-check coats draped over their shoulders. While Mastroianni displayed his usual nonchalance, Fellini was temperamental. At first, he flatly refused to do the interview in English. “Why do you expect this of me? So that I can appear as a pitiful old man?” he demanded in perfect English. “No, no, no.”

Then, just before the cameras rolled, Fellini had an assistant run up with a mirror and a comb. As Mastroianni sat quietly in the makeup that made him look so much older, Fellini quickly started combing the hair growing on the top of his hands. He even tried to cover his double chin by leaning on one arm. Once the camera lights blinked on, however, both men were in radiant, perfect sync—in English. Mastroianni described working with Fellini as comparable “in life to making love. Everything is ideal. I would like to have this kind of relationship with women.” Fellini returned the compliment, saying that “Marcello can play both very easy and very difficult characters. He has always been kind of a guide through the situation, a witness and a judge at the same time in the story.”

Their relationship began over twenty-five years ago when Fellini called Mastroianni one day about La Dolce Vita. Mastroianni had already appeared in several films but was not yet terribly famous. “He told me the producer wanted Paul Newman for the part, but that he was thinking of somebody more ordinary. I told him I thought I was pretty average, but that I would like to see a script.” Fellini then invited Mastroianni to his seaside villa. “When I arrived,” Mastroianni explains, “he gave me a script with blank pages. There was nothing on them—only a cartoon Fellini had drawn of a man swimming with a huge penis that reached to the bottom of the sea. And there were many fish and sirens swimming around the penis in an Esther Williams water-dance formation. I opened it up and turned completely red. I was mortified. I told him that it seemed a good scenario.”

That was the last time Mastroianni ever asked Fellini for a script. “Now he just explains me the story.”

There is a strong underlying dignity to Marcello Mastroianni, and though he does not say so outright, he makes it clear by inference that he is not about to be dallied with by the usual comportment of film-world machination and sleaze. Yet for all his reserve and the seriousness with which he regards his work, Mastroianni also clearly loves to play to a crowd.

Publicizing Macaroni in New York and Los Angeles last fall, Mastroianni wowed them everywhere. He broke up talk-show host Larry King on CNN by describing what happened every time he had to kiss a certain unnamed actress he didn’t like. He got a terrible ring in his ear: “Areeng, areeng, areeng,” he said. For Entertainment Tonight’s cameras he pronounced Jack Lemmon “simpaticissimo,” and in front of one of those adult film classes at New York’s Lincoln Center, the kind that Woody Allen parodied in Stardust Memories, Mastroianni preferred to entertain rather than to explain.

         “Mr. Mastroianni,” said one woman, “you were a star when I was a child.”

         “Do you want to destroy me, madame?”

         “How did you prepare for your role with Sonia Braga in Gabriela?”

         “First, I called my lawyer. What do I have to prepare, madame?” He patted his head. “I make my top a little more dark. There is money, sun, bananas. Sonia Braga is a beautiful woman…I make the film.”

         “You’re a matinee idol, yet you play mature people. I doubt Robert Redford or Paul Newman would play that role you played in Macaroni.”

         “Me too. I pretended to be a star, but nobody believed me. I have to accept these kinds of roles.”

         “Robert Redford would not play that role, period.”

         “Because he is blond!”

Later, in his elegant hotel suite high above Manhattan’s Le Cirque restaurant, he puffed on a Philip Morris Light and contemplated his career.

Mastroianni calls himself a lazy man, but clearly he is not. When he is not making a movie, he keeps busy acting on the stage, most recently in Paris. His output is prodigious. For example, he and Jack Lemmon are about the same age. Yet Mastroianni’s filmography lists 114 movies, Lemmon’s 45.

“Italy is a small country,” Mastroianni said. “For me to earn what an American star earns, I have to make ten movies.”

But surely that is not the whole story for someone who so often defines acting as the same thing as making love.

“No,” Mastroianni admitted. “Perhaps American stars ask too much. They always want something beautiful and important, but that happens only rarely in cinema. To succeed, you have to be a buffone, a clown. One important film in ten is a good ratio. Whether it is something good or mediocre, the importance is to keep working. It’s like life—not all days in life are beautiful.”

Beautiful or not, for Marcello Mastroianni acting is the ultimate security. “Being an actor is like being in a fortress,” Mastroianni said. “We’re in a fortress-studio telling fairy tales, while outside the inferno is going on. Inside, we’re reciting, ‘Once upon a time’; outside, it’s always a disaster: They’re killing each other, there’s a war, bombings, the Red Brigades. But we’re in a fortress, and I live well in this fortress.”

 Wine, women, pasta, fame, wealth. He’s right. Still, what about those maddening occupational hazards? “Do you know what the paparazzi said about me when I had my head shaved for Ginger & Fred?” Mastroianni asked incredulously. “They said, ‘Finally he has quit wearing his hairpiece.’ So please, let’s forget this Latin lover. Because now they’ll just say he’s an old Latin lover. They’ll never stop.”

This article is typed from the original material.  Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.

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