One of the most amusing bits of celluloid I’ve seen all year was an enthusiastic confession by Quentin Tarantino, in a documentary about Cannes Film Festival president Gilles Jacob, that his earliest erotic stirrings were prompted, at the age of six or so, by the sight of Claudia Cardinale in a love scene in—“Circus World!” Despite the presence of both Cardinale and Rita Hayworth in that affably silly 1964 John Wayne Cinerama extravaganza, I’m quite sure neither producer Samuel Bronston nor director Henry Hathaway intended “Circus World” as an erotic picture. But if it worked for Quentin, it only proves how extra-powerful were Cardinale’s charms, in that they could assert themselves even under such homogenized, wholesome circumstances.
But random anecdotal evidence suggests that, among men of a certain age, Cardinale enjoys special status as, variously, a primal inspiration, a breathtaking vision and an earthy turn-on. We know Federico Fellini felt that way, having exalted her as the film director Marcello’s artistic muse in “8 1/2.” It was therefore interesting to hear Cardinale admit over the weekend that, since Marcello Mastroianni felt a love for her she did not reciprocate, she had trouble looking him in the eye in the several films in which they costarred.
In gregarious high spirits at her tribute appearances over the weekend at Telluride and with looks that any 71-year-old grandmother would die for, the ’60s icon enjoyably provided a few tidbits about her personal and professional life. But just as she is proud that, despite innumerable requests, she never did any nudity in her more than 100 movies, she clearly has a solid wall beyond which prying inquisitors are not allowed; her great leading men, with whom she always paired up so strongly–Lancaster, Wayne, Belmondo, Marvin, Fonda, Delon, Robards, Gassman, Niven, et al.–were uniformly “fantastic,” although she made a point of saying that she had a policy never to have a romance with an actor.
On that score, however, she did express one qualified regret. No sooner had she arrived in the mid-60s on her first visit to Hollywood, where she would eventually make just a handful of films, than she had a knock on her hotel room door. When she opened it, she beheld Marlon Brando, who obviously had finely tuned radar concerning the arrival in town of hot new imports. He was enormously charming, funny and, she said, “the most beautiful” creature on the planet along with Brigitte Bardot. “But…I didn’t,” she said, adding that, “as soon as he left, I thought, ‘I’m very stupid.'” The first film she had ever seen, in Tunisia, she remembered, had been “On the Waterfront.”
Despite having seen most of the important films of her more than 50-year career, I didn’t know much about her early life. Most surprisingly, Italian was her fourth language, one she didn’t even begin to learn until she was a teenager. She was born in Tunisia to third-generation Sicilian immigrants, went to French schools, spoke Sicilian dialect with her family and learned Arabic on the street. After having appeared in a couple of locally made films, including one starring Omar Sharif, at 17 she was voted “Most Beautiful Italian Girl in Tunis” and was taken to Italy, where, at the Venice Film Festival, she saw “White Nights” by Luchino Visconti, who would become her maestro and close friend (“He only ever spoke to me in French,” she mentioned in passing, “and he called me Claudine.”)
Signed by Vides, a major Italian studio at the time, she was dubbed by others in her early films due to her imperfect Italian and husky voice, but she was a shooting star from the outset by virtue of “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” Visconti’s “Rocco and His Brothers,” “Bell’Antonio” and the big local hit “Girl With a Suitcase.” The latter, directed by Valerio Zurlini in 1961, was shown in its entirety at the tributes but does not hold up well; while Cardinale is quite good as a spurned nightclub singer lusted after by the teenage brother (Jacques Perrin) of her errant boyfriend, it’s an arid, almost stultifying affair with little of the boisterous energy of the era’s best popular Italian fare.
No question that 1963 was a peak year, as Cardinale co-starred in two of the most celebrated Italian films of all time, “8 1/2” and Visconti’s “The Leopard,” with Blake Edwards’ “The Pink Panther” tossed in for good measure. Visconti and Fellini, she said, “were completely the opposite. With Visconti, it was like theater, you always had to be silent between takes. With Fellini, it was all improvised. He needed lots of activity on the set, with people on the telephone, talking, singing. If it was quiet, he couldn’t create.” The clips shown from those films were stunning, of course, but I had forgotten how fine she is in “Panther,” in which, parrying with seasoned light comedy pro David Niven, she willingly and humorously melts under the influence of champagne from “virgin queen” to giddy accomplice in good times. In real life, Niven charmed her by saying, “After spaghetti, you are the best invention of the Italians.”
Cardinale never ceases to be asked about Sergio Leone, and it was spine-tingling on the first night of the festival, walking down from a mountainside dinner under brilliantly bright stars, to hear the moaning harmonica of “Once Upon a Time in the West” wafting up through the night. As I approached the main street, the music continued to build until I could see that the climactic showdown between Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda was about to take place on the giant outdoor screen set up in Elks Park. Of course I watched the rest of the film, the final scene of which has Cardinale (once again dubbed by another) bid farewell by Robards’ wise old coot and then take water out to the many men toiling outside her place, as the music soars even more.
Ennio Morricone famously wrote his scores to Leone’s films prior to the shooting, and Cardinale said she accompanied the director almost everyday to Morricone’s home to hear the composer play his ideas on the piano until both he and Leone were happy. She then loved it when the music was played on the sets and locations when scenes were about to be shot, the only such instance she’s known in her career. She much admired Robards (later her co-star in Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” before the actor left the legendarily traumatic shoot) but said that Bronson “was totally introverted. He was always in a corner, never speaking to me or anyone.” With Fonda, there was little chance for much intimacy: “On the day when we shooting our love scene, his wife was sitting there right by the camera.”
Cardinale evidently had no problem with the adversities of “Fitzcarraldo,” saying, “I love crazy people. Normal is boring.” Herzog, who premiered the film in Telluride in 1982, returned the compliment, escorting her arm-in-arm, along with the Cannes Film Festival’s Thierry Fremaux, down the street Saturday evening and into the jewel-box Sheridan Opera House, where the director thanked her for being “such a great comrade on ‘Fitzcarraldo.'”
Back in May in Cannes, I happened to be sitting not far from Cardinale and Alain Delon as a packed house at the Debussy watched the glorious new restoration of “The Leopard.” The ovation at the end was tumultuous and, as the two stars prepared to get up to head to the stage, Cardinale smiled and was composed but Delon was copiously crying; not only that, but the front of the white shirt under his tuxedo was soaking wet. When I had a moment to speak with Cardinale alone this weekend, I recalled this to her and asked what her old friend was feeling as he watched the two of them, at the mutual peaks of their extraordinary beauty, on the screen 47 years later. At the mention of it, she instantly took my hand, squeezed it very tight and said, “This is the way Alain held me all through the screening. All the way through, he was crying and he kept saying, ‘We’re the only ones left, we’re the only ones left.'”