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The Sweet Life With Marcello

For the late Mastroianni, who's being remembered at UCLA, acting was a fountain of youth.

July 04, 1999|KEVIN THOMAS | 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."

*

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.

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