Monday, May 03, 2010

Actress Files: Anna Magnani

Anna Magnani, Wild Is the Wind
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1957 Best Actress Oscar to Joanne Woodward for The Three Faces of Eve)

Why I Waited: A DVD would be nice, but then, this one never even appeared on VHS. Anyone know what the hold-up is? I recently saw Magnani's legendary work in Rome, Open City, and after that, I could no longer hold off.

The Performance: George Cukor's film Wild Is the Wind includes a running gag wherein Anna Magnani's Gioia, upon arriving to America to marry her sister's widower, keeps fumbling vowels and idiomatic expressions. Gino (Anthony Quinn), the husband, eventually makes her sit down with a huge record player that he has stocked with some mid-century prototype for Hooked on Phonics, which Gioia enjoys about as much as Jane Wyman relished her TV in All that Heaven Allows. She avoids the contraption as long as possible, focused instead on trying to goad Gino into taking her with him when he heads out to lasso some horses. In this particular scene, as so often, Magnani's vocal deliveries are as exaggerated as her physical gestures are oblique and unpredictable. She sort of lazily prods Anthony Quinn with her foot to get his attention while she implores him in her Italian-accented English, thus managing to express Gioia's desperation and her boredom at the same time, without breaking a sweat. Thwarted nonetheless, and left alone in the living room, she relents to the hulking LP player, which emits the voice of a chirpily flat, utterly deracinated American woman, the mechanized antonym of Anna Magnani. "What Time Can It Be? It's Probably Almost One," spouts the record, oddly wide of the idiomatic mark itself, and Gioia begrudgingly mumbles these sentences with her hand over her mouth. "He's Probably Eating Now," continues the clipped voice, hitting every word like a teletype transmission, and Magnani now looks comically befuddled: who is she talking about? what is this nonsense? "Have You Seen The Apples On The Tree?" asks the record-player, and Magnani just shrugs off the whole exercise, with a low sigh about how this task "make-a me ca-razy." She circles, teases, and tosses off this prop like Brando noodling with Eva Marie Saint's glove. She rewrites the joke and owns the scene, and she hasn't even risen out of second or third gear.

Earlier in the 50s, Magnani had famously recused herself from playing Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo on Broadway, even though the infatuated playwright had written the piece for her. Her English, she said, was nowhere near good enough. Even in her Oscared performance of the same role on film, four years later, you can see that Magnani is flummoxed, maybe a bit perturbed by this tongue that marks such a sensuous step down from her native Italian, even in the purple hands of Williams. Throughout that turn, and even by the standards of her outsized performances for Rossellini, et al., Magnani goes big with Serafina's emotions and gestures, as though overcompensating for whatever might not be coming through in her words. You can't quite tell if Magnani wanted to speak English any more fluently than she did, or if she was acceding half-wearily to the ardent dreams of others, especially such storied American actressexuals as Williams and Cukor. In accord with their impatience, not hers, this speech-practice scene completely avoids humiliating the actress, and if anything plays as a gently barbed joke against her recruiters, disciples, and Anglophone fans.

Who needs Magnani speaking English anyway? Who watches Rome, Open City and demands to know precisely what she is saying, and precisely how? It isn't just that Magnani's full-bodied presence and commanding, long-nosed, strong-jawed face are so indomitably charismatic. She uses her body, rather than just inhabiting it. Whether by literally poking her costars, or moving up and down a corporeal scale of malaise and exuberance, or throwing in tosses of the head and jabs of the hand at unexpected moments (against the thrust of a line as often as with), she uses her physical presence as a kind of control-and-release valve on the tensions and rhythms of her scenes, and thereby dislodges other actors from settling into their own cadences, or overly practiced recitations. She forces responses and baffles them, too, for her scene partners and her audiences.

No surprise to me, then, that Magnani jives so much more in Wild Is the Wind to her second costar, Method-trained Anthony Franciosa, playing the role of her younger lover, than she does to Quinn. Or, better, she establishes ease and finds different homeopathic grooves with Franciosa's detailed and revealing scene work and with Quinn's florid and temperamental grandiosity, and as a viewer, I simply prefer the former to the latter. In effect, her co-stars emphasize the two tracks that always exist in Magnani's acting, the shrewd psychological delving and the pantomime postures of uncut, medium-rare emotion. Wind's plot is technically an adaptation of the Italian novel Furia but it's a transposition, too, of Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted, with an Italian bride instead of a homegrown one and horses instead of grapes. Despite all these sources, the story is so spare and predictable that I can't see much value in playing it even more broadly. Still, Magnani likes her semaphores, and sifting out her impromptu belly-laughs and breakdowns and bits of physical business is about as easy as U-turning a Mack truck on its way down a hill. One's own appetite for big, bold Mediterranean affectations will determine one's response to Magnani at dozens and dozens of moments in any performance.

All the same, she's not an unsubtle performer. Cast here as a woman whom the screenplay leaves a bit underwritten (as it does everyone else, and Quinn's character most of all), Magnani nonetheless holds tight to the loneliness of the émigré, the seeker of adventure, the curious student of life, the lover of laughter, the Catholic subscriber to matrimony and rectitude, the casual intimate of animals, the mourner of a sister who is nonetheless alarmed by every vestige of family resemblance, because they underscore her own status a paid proxy rather than a recipient of love. Again, these facets of Gioia are fairly stock archetypes, and Magnani doesn't make any of them more complicated so much as she mixes them together at a breathless, vociferous pace, prompting unexpected collisions, and often playing one card in her hand when you're expecting her to lay down another. Her Gioia is dispassionate and curious when you sometimes expect tears; her states of arousal are limned with self-criticism and violent anger; she is capable of coldness. Magnani gets some good effects, too, out of looking puzzled by her own failures of perception or changes of heart. During a long sequence of witnessing Quinn and Franciosa take down a team of wild horses—a direct pretext for the more famous mustang-roping sequence in The Misfits, for which Wild Is the Wind serves as a kind of paler, less ambitious dry run—Gioia shifts from being thrilled by the animals, the spectacle, and the prowess of her companions to being despondent and outraged at the plight of the beasts, and baffled by how she could have cheered on this enterprise without recognizing its fundamental character.

I don't know if people realize that Magnani thinks on screen, rather than just emoting, exclaiming, bulldozing, and lamenting. I'm as susceptible as the next queen to the robustness of this actor's bellicose wails and apostrophes, even in those lazily written scenes where Gino's preoccupation with his first wife is literalized by a bad habit of calling Gioia by her dead sister's name. But we don't really learn anything about the character or the story in moments like this. Who knows if Magnani was setting the agenda or just obeying orders by marking her performance with these showy eruptions, but they yield more smoke than fire. Much more interesting to me is the single nervous instant when Gioia's liaison with the handsome ranch-hand is sussed out by the middle-aged housemaid, replaced almost instantly with an adult, unintimidated admission that yes, she has done that—she has extended her love, out of libido as well as principle, to people who respond in kind. We've seen this scene 100 times, but rarely with so little intimidation or prevarication on either side. I chuckled at her wordless perplexity that Gino's daughter is getting a university degree in Home Economics, but she doesn't play this reaction for laughs. Allowing that she may be mistaking Angela's meaning, she nonetheless looks stupefied that anyone would study, much less rationalize, the way you make a home, not because the skill comes particularly naturally to Gioia, but because she's an obvious believer in observing, sensing, feeling one's way into relationships and environments. For her these are occasions for intimate rather than abstracted thought. Her surrender to adulterous longings, after deferring them so long, does not follow the hackneyed recipe of being further heightened through their postponement and prohibition. Gioia looks genuinely troubled by her decisions as well as romantically satiated. For her, the affair is not just about bodily or soulful gratification but a way of getting to know a person who intrigues her, which is part of why you believe her candid delivery of lines like "I don't want you to do anything you don't want to do," once her partner starts acting nervous.

Gioia isn't a landmark characterization; Hollywood never got one of those out of Magnani. She is a proudly excessive performer, but that doesn't mean she isn't as wise, thoughtful, and limber as she is muscular and loud. With less workshoppy ostentation than we see in the performance that beat her to that year's Oscar, Magnani shows us at least three faces of Gioia. Neither the performance nor the movie might qualify as deathless art, but when a portrait this rangy and rounded seems like halfway-easy work, you know you're observing an artist.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 30 to Go

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Blogger Sam Brooks said...

I am a diehard fan of Anna Magnani; I think the camera naturally gravitates towards her. Her performance in Rome, Open City is exquisite; for me, it's one of those performances you never forget. The shot where Pina's Run is unforgettable, but even moreso when you've been through that performance.

As for her performance in her other Hollywood stuff, and in particular this, I think it's not her best work, but it's a damn sight better than many other actresses could have done with the part. She fills out the holes that the screenplay leaves in the character with such a plush inner life, that it has to be commended. I can't quite love what she does here, but I certainly admire and respect it.

3:09 AM, May 03, 2010  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

EXCELLENT writeup. Embarrassed, but I've only seen Magnani in this and The Rose Tattoo (an excellent performance in one of my favourite Tennessee plays, but a movie spoiled by Lancaster for me). Now that you voice the parallels to "They Knew What they Wanted" it seems obvious but I always felt it was a bad version of O'Neills "Desire Under the Elms" (I don't like either play). Magnani is a force here. A rewatch is probably in order, but I'm often flummoxed as to why Quinn was nominated for this though. He does nothing for me.

6:52 AM, May 03, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Brook: I absolutely agree that the iconic scene of Magnani running in the street makes a much huger impact when you see it in the context of the film, especially since its structural placement is so much earlier than I had expected it. Sounds like we feel about equally about the Wild performance and maybe about Magnani in general, though I got nothing from The Fugitive Kind, which many people hold up as her best American film.

@A:EE: Desire Under the Elms is another interesting parallel. We seem to have a lot of the same heroes: I love Tennessee Williams and wrote my undergraduate honors thesis about his work. Orpheus Descending is one of my faves of his plays, which is part of why I had such high hopes for Magnani in The Fugitive Kind. (Vanessa Redgrave in the Peter Hall adaptation for TV is the Lady Torrance of record, at least for me.) I also like O'Neill, but not Elms so much. I hadn't thought of it in relation to Wild, but I think it's a really smart link.

11:08 PM, May 08, 2010  

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