“When I die, when people think of me, they must know Magnani never lied to them. They must be sure that Magnani never betrayed them, and that Magnani never betrayed herself.”—Anna Magnani
Today, seventy years since Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City introduced Anna Magnani to international audiences, her performances remain as radical and arresting as when her films were first released. Bringing a unique combination of exuberance, empathy, and intelligence to the parts she played, Magnani transcended the stereotypical female roles that were, and for the most part still are, the norm. As her agent and friend Gene Lerner said, “If there is a motion-picture star in film history who should be looked upon as epitome of the struggle of women for identity and dignity, it unquestionably would be Magnani.” She played wives and lovers, widows and workers, actresses and mothers, imbuing each of her characters with exceptional authenticity. A hilarious comedian, she infused her dramatic roles with wit and humor and lent a gravitas to her comedy. Magnani routinely portrayed strong, passionate women, and she possessed the rare ability to convey the vulnerability at the core of these powerful characters.
Magnani began her career performing in nightclubs and cabarets as a teen, paying her way through acting school in Rome, before embarking on dramatic roles in the theater and ultimately onscreen. While Magnani continued to appear on the stage throughout her career, her work in cinema with some of the greatest directors of her time—including Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Jean Renoir, George Cukor, and Pier Paolo Pasolini—has become her lasting legacy. In the 1940s she was the female embodiment of Italian neorealism in films such as Rome Open City, Alberto Lattuada’s The Bandit, Luigi Zampa’s Angelina, and Visconti’s Bellisima. The uncompromising veracity of her performances continued in the 1950s and sixties in such stylistically varied films as Jean Renoir’s magical marriage of cinema andcommedia dell’arte The Golden Coach and Mario Monicelli’s raucous Roman comedy The Passionate Thief.
The 1950s also brought Magnani to Hollywood, where she continued to represent the soul and strength of Italian womanhood with roles depicting immigrants making their way in a new world. Magnani’s friend Tennessee Williams wrote The Rose Tattoo for her, and the actress won an Academy Award for her performance in the film adaptation. She was nominated for a second Oscar for George Cukor’s Wild Is the Wind before returning to Williams’s material in Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind. For Magnani, acting was a lifelong passion, and she continued working until her death from cancer at age sixty-five. This series exemplifies the range of her brilliance, from her roles in rarely screened gems to iconic classics.
Kate MacKay, Associate Film Curator