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Italian Cinema's Maestro of Charm

March 23, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marcello Mastroianni does not disappoint. He is every bit the witty, affable charmer you would hope him to be from the countless films that have made him an international star for more than 30 years. From the world-weary journalist of "La Dolce Vita" (1960) to the romantic and determined widower of "Used People" to Fellini's "Intervista," a memoir film in which Mastroianni plays himself, he continues to be seen on the screen, year after year, despite the increasing vagaries of foreign film distribution.

"I like very much to act !" said Mastroianni, sitting in a luxury hotel suite in West Hollywood. "That is my food! Cinema doesn't excite me to watch. I would rather eat with my friends, sit around with them, say stupid things, over a nice meal.

"The thing is to act. What happens afterward is of no consequence. 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!"

Then what about his relationship with his wife of 43 years, former actress Flora Clarabella?

"We're good friends--that's another kind of love," Mastroianni said. "We know each other, and we can accept each other's limits."

Now 68, Mastroianni, a chain-smoker, is a little stooped, a little paunchy. There are some lines in his face, some gray in his hair. His charisma, his magnetism, are timeless, as is his deep, mellow voice; with a gesture he can summon up an entire image of the warmth and grace so characteristic of Italy, its people and places. To spend some time in his company is to become aware of how much of his own bemused personality--empty canvas remark notwithstanding--he has invested into a very wide range of roles.

He will always be associated with Federico Fellini, serving as his alter ego not only in "La Dolce Vita" but also "8 1/2," as the director in crisis. And besides "Intervista," he appears in "Ginger and Fred," teamed with Fellini's wife, Giulietta Masina, as an aging pair of ballroom dancers. (The Nuart will celebrate the 30th anniversary of "8 1/2" with a new 35mm print, screening for one week, starting Friday.)

Among his best-remembered roles are the Sicilian husband trying to do away with his wife in "Divorce--Italian Style," his Casanova in Ettore Scola's "La Nuit de Varennes" and all those romantic comedy teamings with Sophia Loren for Vittorio De Sica.

When interviewed recently, he had not yet seen "Used People."

"I don't go to dailies," said Mastroianni who speaks without an interpreter. "An actor is like an animal: If he likes himself on the screen that can be dangerous--and if he doesn't like himself, he will try to change his performance, and that can be dangerous too. . . .

" 'Used People' is my first American film. Shirley (MacLaine) is like a clone--I mean clown ! She likes to laugh. The first time I was in Hollywood it was with Joe Levine, right after '8 1/2.' I didn't speak a word of English, but I said I would like to see a film being made. It was 'Irma La Douce.' It was the first time I met Shirley and Jack Lemmon--so kind that man, such a gentleman. We make this film together in Naples, 'Macaroni.' It was difficult for him, all these people shouting 'Jack Lemmon,' but he adapted so well. I admire him as a man even more than as an actor.

"Ah, so many wonderful actresses in 'Used People.' I liked to hear Sylvia Sidney's stories about Hollywood from the time it was a dream of mine. She would say, 'I like you. If I were two or three years younger'--she must be 83--'I catch you!' "

Mastroianni's acting career has a Hollywood twist of its own. He got his big break when Luchino Visconti cast him as Stanley Kowalski in his production of "A Streetcar Named Desire." At the time, Mastroianni, who had studied to be an architect, was in a small acting company in Rome appearing in a production in which Giulietta Masina, who already had made a few films and was married to Federico Fellini, had taken a role.

"Because of her, an impresario came to see the play, and afterward in the dressing room he asked me, 'Would you like to be a professional actor in Visconti's company?' He was the most distinguished director in the Italian theater at the time. Very important, luck. An encounter can change your life, like in the old-style Hollywood movies. I had other friends, perhaps better than I, who didn't have this chance.

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