This week in cinema history, 59 years ago, Italian screen legend Sophia Loren got her first big acting break as an Ethiopian slave in the titular role of director Clemente Fracassi’s film adaptation of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Aida.
The film tells the story of Ethiopian princess Aida, who is kidnapped into slavery in Egypt. Aida becomes romantically involved with Egyptian army officer Radames (Luciano della Marra), further complicating her plight, as she is enslaved to the Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris (Lois Maxwell), who also loves Radames.
Fracassi’s Aida is especially notable for its use of dark make-up on the face and body of Loren, and the thick braided wig she wore; an apparent attempt at adding authenticity to her portrayal of a black African princess. This, of course, was a common practice of that time. In addition to black characters, the roles of Native American, Hispanic, and Asian characters were often portrayed by white actors.
With regard to Fracassi’s Aida, the case could possibly be made that one would have been hard-pressed to find a black actress in 1959, who was fluent in Italian, to fill the role. But like I said, we’re talking 1959, so that may not have been an option for a black actress anyway.
Fast-forward to the year 2000, where we saw dark-skinned black actress Heather Headley step into the lead role of Broadway production Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, and walk away with the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Yet when the possibility of adapting the 2000 stage production to the big-screen became a near reality in 2007, singer Beyonce Knowles was reportedly the top contender for the lead role.
That project never came to be, but perhaps the idea of a contemporary screen adaptation can be revisited.
Who would you cast as Aida in 2012?