The Sweet Life With Marcello

Kevin Thomas is a Times film writer and reviewer

Marcello Mastroianni did not disappoint. He was every bit the witty, affable charmer in real life you hoped he would be from those countless films--between 120 and 170 is the closest guess--that made him the European international star for more than 30 years. In that time, Mastroianni, who died in Paris at 73 in December 1996, arguably made more outstanding films than any other actor in the world.

Mastroianni will always be best remembered as Federico Fellini's alter ego in such classics as "La Dolce Vita" (1960), playing an increasingly world-weary Roman gossip columnist, and "8 1/2" (1963), in which he was a Fellini-like film director in the grip of a creative crisis. Beginning his career in the theater, receiving his big break when director Luchino Visconti cast him as Stanley Kowalski in his stage production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," Mastroianni had been in films since 1947 and had appeared in more than 50 when "La Dolce Vita" brought him international acclaim.

"Fellini's my best friend, I love him," Mastroianni told me in 1993 during his last visit to Hollywood. Of Mastroianni, Fellini remarked, not long before his death that year: "Mastroianni's talent was not as unstudied, as natural, as he sometimes made it seem."

On that 1993 trip to California, Mastroianni did not look at all well. A chain-smoker (to the end) with a smoker's cough, he was pale, a little stooped, a little paunchy. Yet his charisma, his magnetism remained, as did his deep, mellow voice. With a gesture, he could summon up an entire image of the warmth and grace so characteristic of Italy. To spend some time in his company was to become aware of how much of his own bemused personality he had invested in an exceptionally wide range of characters.

Among Mastroianni's best-remembered roles are the Sicilian husband trying to do away with his wife in "Divorce--Italian Style"; as the husband to Jeanne Moreau's wife attempting to rekindle their love in Michelangelo Antonioni's "La Notte"; and all those romantic comedy teamings with Sophia Loren for Vittorio De Sica. These pictures will be among the 21 selected by his longtime companion, Anna Maria Tato, for "The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: The Films of Marcello Mastroianni," which the UCLA Film and Television Archive will present at the James Bridges Theater in UCLA's Melnitz Hall, Friday through Aug. 15.

Mastroianni was as handsome as he was personable, and radiating passivity rather than aggression, he devastated women both off screen and on. (On the set of "Used People," Sylvia Sidney told him, "I like you. If I were two or three years younger"--Sidney was about 82 at the time--"I catch you!")

He stayed married to former actress Flora Clarabella, with whom he had a daughter, for 48 years--though they formally separated in 1970. But he had, among many others, a highly publicized romance with actress Catherine Deneuve, with whom he had a daughter, actress Chiara Mastroianni.

"We're good friends," said Mastroianni of his relationship with his wife. "We know each other, and we can accept each other's limits." (Deneuve and Chiara were at his bedside when he died; Flora and the mayor of Rome marked his passing at the unfurling of black curtains hiding a turned-off Fountain of Trevi, where Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg went wading in "La Dolce Vita," as the score from "8 1/2" was played.)

As for the Latin lover image, Mastroianni told a journalist in 1987 that, "My legs are skinny, my face has no power or resolve." Comparing himself with other leading men like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart or Paul Newman, he said, "They knew where they were going--or at least, we presumed they knew. I haven't any idea. If they were heroes, then I'm a non-hero."

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In one of his earliest international successes, Mastroianni had the title role in Mario Monicelli's "The Organizer" (1963), an unprepossessing professor of law who nonetheless displayed a will of iron in his attempt to incite textile workers to strike at a Turin factory in the 1880s.

In the 1993 interview, Mastroianni seemed especially proud of the film. "It's like a documentary filmed at the end of the 1880s, that's how great it is."

He was equally delighted whenever an American could tell him that he or she had actually seen Mauro Bolognini's "Il Bell' Antonio" (1960), in which he played a Sicilian Casanova who is nevertheless rendered impotent by the sheer purity of his beautiful wife, played by Claudia Cardinale. Another of his early favorites was Valerio Zurlini's exquisite, contemplative "Family Diary" (Cronaca Familiare) (1962), in which he plays the elder of two impoverished brothers, separated when the younger is taken in by a rich family and reunited only in adulthood.

Throughout his career, Mastroianni avoided typecasting. In contrast to the robust Vittorio De Sica comedies he made with Loren, Ettore Scola's 1977 "A Special Day" cast him as a suicidal homosexual who has an unexpected romantic interlude with Loren's housewife at the height of Mussolini's homophobic regime.

And who better than Mastroianni to play a contemporary Italian nobleman who, after being thrown from a horse, has lived in a medieval castle thinking himself the 11th century Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire? The film is Marco Bellochio's splendid 1984 loose adaptation of Pirandello's "Henry IV." For John Boorman's venturesome "Leo the Last" (1970), Mastroianni was a monarch exiled to London, where he unexpectedly develops solidarity with the working class.

The '80s featured Mastroianni in such milestone films as "Ginger and Fred" (1986), a Fellini film in which he was teamed triumphantly with the director's wife, Giulietta Masina, for the first time. Nikita Mikhalkov's "Dark Eyes" won him a 1987 best actor prize at Cannes for this adaptation of a group of Chekhov tales that Time called "a virtual anthology of Mastroianni males."

These are just the films that are known quantities in Tato's imaginative selection for the UCLA series. About a third of the films chosen--spanning much of Mastroianni's career--are unknown in America because of the vagaries of the distribution of foreign films in America (a situation that's only getting worse).

Mastroianni made so many worthy films for such a wide variety of directors that Tato had to have had a tough time making her selections. She could just as easily have included Mario Monicelli's 1958 comedy classic "Big Deal on Madonna Street"; the two films he made for the demanding Theo Angelopoulos, "The Beekeeper" and "The Suspended Step of the Stork," which re-teamed him with Moreau; or Maria Luisa Bemberg's "I Don't Want to Talk About It," an Isak Dinesen-like fable of unexpected love and its equally unpredictable consequences.

During our conversation in 1993 I felt that Mastroianni had come to believe that as long as he could continue acting he could go on living. And, in fact, in one of his obituaries, he was quoted as saying, "I work all the time. It gives me the illusion that I am younger and will not die."

He worked until two months before his death, touring in a play, "The Last Moons," about heartbreak and old age. Manoel De Olivera's "Voyage to the Beginning of the World" served as a fitting screen valedictory, with Mastroianni playing an aging director shooting on location in his native Portugal and inspired to travel to his father's birthplace.

"The thing is to act. What happens afterward is of no consequence," Mastroianni told me. "In the cinema, if they don't like you, there's always the next film. If a film is a failure, they don't put you in prison. An actor in the beginning--as a young man, as a boy--is trying to express himself. He lacks courage, so he assumes the skin of another. An actor is like a canvas without paint: He needs the colors of somebody else.

"Ah, acting . . . it's exhibitionism. An actor is like a child: He wants everybody to be interested in him. A child is accustomed to be loved and not to have to give back. If you want to be loved, really loved, don't ask an actor!"

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"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: The Films of Marcello Mastroianni," James Bridges Theater, Melnitz Hall, UCLA. Begins Friday; ends Aug. 15. (310) 206-FILM.

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