During the early 1960s, the Italian actresses whose names were on audiences’ lips outside Italy were Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren. They’d broken into Hollywood and in doing so left a gap back home. Into that gap stepped Claudia Cardinale with glorious aplomb.
In 1963, her breakthrough year, she starred in two of the iconic films of the era: Federico Fellini’s 8½ and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard. It wasn’t long before Hollywood beckoned. After all, Claudia had all the necessary qualifications. As The Guardian observed in its 11 September 2011 edition:
A generation of postwar cinephiles rhapsodised over her earthy voluptuousness, her hourglass figure, her “bedroom eyes”, her cascading brunette tresses. She was the embodiment of postwar European glamour and was packaged as such, on screen and off. It’s almost like she had sexiness thrust upon her.
But there’s more to Claudia Cardinale than meets the eye…
Claudia Cardinale’s teenage turbulence
Her father, a railway worker, is a Sicilian emigrant to Tunisia. Her mother is French (or, according to some accounts, born in Tunisia to Sicilian emigrants). They make their home in Tunis and that’s where Claudia is born in 1938. She grows up with her three siblings, with French her first language (Tunisia is a French protectorate) but also a smattering of Tunisian Arabic and Sicilian (a different and distinct language from Italian).
Her first appearance on film is in the 1956 movie Anneaux d’or. Alongside her classmates all dressed in white, she stands on the shore watching a group of young men on a boat waving enthusiastically at them. She follows this up in 1957 with a minor role opposite Omar Sharif in Goha, a French-Tunisian movie nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival. She also starts at university with a view to becoming a primary school teacher but fate intervenes. She remembers:
I was in the crowd at the Most Beautiful Italian Girl in Tunisia contest, watching all the girls onstage. Suddenly a man took me up there and put the ribbon on me! The prize was a trip to the Venice Film Festival. At the time the bikini was not common in Italy, and I arrived in a bikini with a djellaba robe on top. All the paparazzi were photographing me. I was with my mother, very young – we couldn’t understand what was happening! It was all because I had a bikini on. Then they asked me to do cinema and I said no. When I got on the plane home, there was a picture of me in the newspaper, and the headline was ‘The Girl Who Refuses Cinema’.
She does, however, accept a place at the Centro Sperimentale Cinematografico, Italy’s national film school in Rome. But it doesn’t work out. She’s there for little more than a month before, feeling homesick, struggling with the language and disenchanted with the Method approach to acting, she calls it a day. She makes her way back to Tunis, where something truly shocking happens:
One day as I was walking home from school in Tunis a man in a car grabbed me and raped me and I became pregnant. After that my mother and my sister stayed close to me. I gave birth in London, because in those days it would have been a scandal. We pretended that my son was my little brother. I didn’t want to become an actress; I did it so I could be independent.
Meanwhile, for the Italian cinema world, out of sight has not meant out of mind. Stories continue to appear in magazines about the girl who rejected stardom to be with her family. Offers continue to roll in. Finally, depressed and at her wits’ end, she signs a long-term contract with Vides Films, a production company set up by Franco Cristaldi. It is he who sends her to London to keep her pregnancy away from the prying eyes of the Italian press. Her son Patrick is then placed in the care of nuns in Italy. When he gets to four and a half, he’s transferred to Tunis to be looked after by Claudia’s parents. The story is that he’s Claudia’s little brother.
The Vides contract turns out to be a double-edged sword. It gets Claudia out of her predicament and will be the making of her professionally, but financially it will prove to be a disaster, she later tells Variety.
Well, Cristaldi was the best producer in Europe and thanks to him I made lots of great movies. But the problem was that I was paid a monthly salary; I wasn’t paid per movie. I was just an employee, like an office worker. So when that contract ended I didn’t have a dime in the bank.
Cristaldi’s interest in Claudia turns out to be not just professional. He also becomes romantically involved, just as Carlo Ponti did with Sophia Loren. The couple get married in Las Vegas in 1966, but that’s in the future.
Claudia’s early films
With her son taken care of, Claudia returns to Italy so that Cristaldi can get her career up and running. She faces an immediate challenge: her Italian is little more than rudimentary and she speaks it with a French accent. What’s more, her slightly husky voice is regarded as not ideal by directors. So in most of her early films, Claudia’s voice is dubbed.
I didn’t speak a word of Italian. In my first movies everyone was shouting and I couldn’t understand anything. Then I had a small part in a Visconti film [Rocco e i suoi fratelli, 1960], in a very violent fight scene. Visconti took a megaphone and said, ‘Don’t kill my la Cardinale!’ I realised, my God, he’s noticed me!
Still, that’s a side issue for Cristaldi; he has big plans for her. Europe’s leading sex symbol of the moment is Brigitte Bardot – BB as she’s known to her fans. Claudia is to be Italy’s riposte. In a memorable one-liner, Bardot observes: “After ‘BB’ comes ‘CC’, no?” It could have turned into a fierce rivalry, but Claudia’s not in the mood to be competitive:
I was a fan of Brigitte Bardot. Who could not be? When I was young she was my idol. I loved her elegance and her natural power. She was unique.
The two sex symbols eventually slug it out in a hammy cat fight in a scene in Les Pétroleuses (The Legend of Frenchie King, 1971), a French spoof Western.
Back in 1958, Claudia’s first movie turns out to be something of an international hit – I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street), a black comedy about an inept gang of thieves. She plays Carmelina, the young sister of one of the gang members, kept under lock and key lest she lose her virginity before she gets married. This is one of the films in which Claudia’s voice is dubbed, a topic on which director Mario Monicelli’s comments are revealing:
First of all because in Italy we often shoot with actors who are not professional. For example the guy who plays the Sicilian, the jealous brother Ferribotte, was not an actor. He was a dishwasher in a restaurant I would frequent. The guy who plays Capannelle, the sporty guy, wasn’t an actor either. I think he was a bricklayer. Of course Cardinale wasn’t an actress then either. But this way of shooting films was quite common in Italy, to use actors taken from the street.
Cristaldi proves to be an astute manager and lands his protégé roles in a series of well regarded movies including Un maledetto imbroglio (The Facts of a Murder, 1958), Il bell’Antonio (Handsome Antonio, 1960) and La ragazza con la valigia (Girl with a Suitcase, 1961). LIFE magazine (29 September 1961 issue) reports that La ragazza “provides the first starring role for Claudia Cardinale, who at 22 is not yet much of an actress – but much of a delicious dish.” It fails to notice that Claudia takes acting seriously and though marketed as a sex symbol, doesn’t drink or smoke or have romances with her leading men: “I never made sexy things in my films. It is so stupid all this sex talk.” Well, yes and no…
A year of contrasts and achievement
1963 is the year that Claudia Cardinale stakes her claim for a place in the movie pantheon. That year she works simultaneously with Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini, and what a contrast they prove to be:
Visconti, precise, meticulous as if we were in the theatre, spoke to me in French and wanted me brunette with long hair. Fellini, messy and without a script, spoke to me in Italian and wanted me blonde.
Luchino Visconti’s fabulous historical epic, Il gattopardo (The Leopard) tells the story of a fading aristocratic way of life. It is set at the beginning of the 1860s when Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily portends the unification and modernisation of Italy. Claudia, at her most radiant, stars alongside Burt Lancaster (cast against type and dubbed into Italian and absolutely magnificent) and Alain Delon. She says:
I was lucky to have spent so much time with Visconti. We were always together, I was always at his house, we went away together, we watched the San Remo festival together. … Before filming started we did all the rehearsals, with all the cast, around a table. It all had to be perfect. … But that dress, my God! Everything was antique. When I finished the movie, I had blood all round my waist. Visconti said, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
The film combines superb acting with sumptuous period sets and stunning photography and concludes with a wonderful 45-minute ball scene that apparently takes two weeks to put together. It goes on to win the 1963 Palme d’Or at Cannes as well as achieving commercial success in Europe. Unfortunately the version released in the US is horribly hacked about, poorly dubbed and transferred to an inferior print that dulls its colours. No wonder it sinks without trace. So, if you’re going to watch The Leopard, and you should, make sure you have the restored uncut version.
The intellectual rigour of Il gattopardo is in stark contrast to Otto e mezzo’s (8½) visually expressed emotions.
In Otto e mezzo, Marcello Mastroianni is Guido Anselmi, a fêted film director, all set to make another box-office hit except for one thing – he doesn’t have a plot. Guido is, to all intents and purposes, Fellini himself and the film, morphing between reality and fantasy, is told from the director’s perspective. Claudia Cardinale plays herself, who also happens to be Guido’s ideal woman – in his imagination, that is. Real life’s another matter. Ms Cardinale has fond memories of Fellini:
He was a very funny man. He would pick me up in the car to take me to the set. … He would go down on his knees for me, he adored me, he got angry if he didn’t think I was eating enough. He used to say to me: “You belong to Africa, to the Earth. That’s why you’re my muse.”
He made me feel the centre of the Earth, the most beautiful, the most important. I truly miss him, his sweetness, tenderness, his thin voice even. Acting for him was like an event, there was no script, the set was noisy, it was chaotic, anarchy reigned, yet he was able to isolate himself and get on with the job. You thought you were doing everything spontaneously, any which way you pleased, but at the end of the day you’d done exactly what he had in mind. … With Federico, it was all improvisation.
Otto e mezzo goes on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and is now considered to be one of the greatest and most influential films of all time. As for Claudia, in 1963, she appears on the covers of over 250 European magazines and fan letters pour through her (agent’s) letterbox at the rate of over a thousand a month, including hundreds of marriage proposals. In spite of which, she remains modest about her talent and aware that the careers of movie stars are inherently precarious.
Once upon a time in Hollywood
It would be surprising had the Hollywood studios not wanted to get in on the action. This puts Claudia (or more likely Cristaldi) in the driving seat when it comes to negotiating contracts:
My main advantage was that I didn’t ask to go to Hollywood, they called me. In those days whenever a new star caught their attention, the Hollywood studios had to have him or her, they tried to monopolise all the stars. They tied you down with a contract and in a way destroyed your career. I tried to defend myself. For instance I refused an exclusive contract with Universal and only signed one contract at a time and managed to survive.
Her debut is in Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther (1963), a slapstick comedy starring David Niven as a jewel thief and Peter Sellers as an inept detective. Claudia is an exotic princess. Other movies she makes during her stint in Hollywood showcase her versatility. They include Circus World (1964, a drama), Blindfold (1965, a romantic comedy) and The Professionals (1966, a Western).
But Claudia, no fool and increasingly independent-minded, recognises the dangers as well as the advantages that working in Hollywood entails. Her thinking is spelled out in an article in the 8 July 1966 issue of LIFE magazine headlined Claudia Cardinale, a wary beauty, is afraid Hollywood will ruin her:
Claudia Cardinale has a problem. … Her problem is, now that she has finally agreed to work in Hollywood, she is afraid she will be over-glamorized and exploited as Sophia [Loren] was. Her first Hollywood movie, the recent Blindfold, confirms Claudia’s worst fears. And she has two more coming up soon. Between Hollywood chores, she rushes away to make films in Italy, Spain, Brazil, anywhere but Hollywood. It is a strenuous way to conduct a career, but Claudia, who has won several top acting awards, is trying to grow into a better actress. She gets paid less in Europe. “If you have to give up the money, give it up, she insists. I do not want to become a cliché.”
After a few years, she does indeed move back permanently to Europe. More significant than any of her Hollywood movies is the spaghetti western in which she subsequently stars: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Although it proves popular with neither critics nor audiences on its release, it will become a cult classic. And once again, Claudia Cardinale offers insights into what it’s like working, in this case, with director Sergio Leone and co-stars Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda:
I was the only woman in that movie! The thing is … I love music. And that was the first time I worked on a film where the music was composed [by Ennio Morricone] before the cameras started rolling. So before shooting my scenes, Sergio would play the music … which really helped me get into the part. … On set, Charlie Bronson never talked to anybody. And Henry Fonda, we started shooting that love scene in the hammock and he told me he’d never done a love scene before. … It was difficult. His wife was sitting next to the camera, staring at me the whole time.
Independence and a new direction
Claudia Cardinale married Franco Cristaldi in 1966 but she leaves him to marry film director Pasquale Squitieri in 1975. At the same time she terminates her contract with Vides Films. Unsurprisingly, this impacts her professional as well as her personal life:
Well, it was a shock. Meeting Pasquale I interrupted a system that was built with and around me. Cristaldi was a very important producer and nobody wanted to go against him, nobody wanted to oppose him. So I don’t know if it was he who wanted it or if it was an involuntary consequence, but certainly both Pasquale and I found obstacles in the work. And this is a certain fact.
The good news is that Claudia’s career is no longer being managed by someone else. She can do as she chooses – not that she’s been exactly passive up to now. Still:
For more than 15 years, I was considered and treated like an object or a project to be manufactured and merchandised. For much of my adult life, I was someone else’s creation – they decided what movies I should play in, what clothes to wear, how to have my hair done and even what friends to see. It was as if I were something operated by remote control.
She believes that “Women, after all, are capable of more in life than making love – but it is very difficult to find intelligent parts for women in films.” She continues to be busy but in Cristaldi’s absence, judging by reviews, the quality of the films in which she stars does drop off to an extent.
Her favourite and most acclaimed movie from the 1980s is Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982). Hertzog’s approach to film-making is both uncompromising and notorious in the industry. He disregards storyboards, emphasises improvisation, and puts his cast and crew into situations like those of the characters in the film.
Set in the early 20th century, the plot of Fitzcarraldo revolves around an Irishman who wants to build the largest opera house in the world in the middle of the Amazon jungle. The making of the movie is the subject of a feature-length documentary – Burden of Dreams (1982). Claudia remembers it as a pretty surreal experience:
But the greatest adventure was with Werner Herzog, making Fitzcarraldo in Peru. I don’t know how I survived! We were in the middle of the jungle. Wild animals. You didn’t know what to eat. All the Indians were naked. My costume was this white dress, and they thought I was a goddess, so I had to be on set all the time otherwise the Indians would leave. When we finished, they came to the airport and brought me gifts. I was crying so much! I love Werner Herzog, but for some of the crew, the experience was so powerful they actually went insane. … We worked in extreme conditions, it was unbearably hot, Jason Robards at some point climbed up a tree and demanded a New York steak to come down. Eventually he was replaced by Klaus Kinski.
Claudia plays Kinski’s lover, a successful brothel-keeper who finances his demented project. Vincent Canby of The New York Times points out that although she doesn’t have much time on screen, she sets the movie’s comic tone and manages to turn Kinski into a “genuinely charming screen presence,” something he’s not exactly noted for. Herzog’s diary seems to confirm this. The director observes that Claudia Cardinale is an antidote to her co-star’s megalomania, “a great help because she is such a good sport, a real trouper, and has a special radiance before the camera. In her presence, [Kinski] usually acts like a gentleman.”
Fitzcarraldo wins the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Claudia Cardinale’s ongoing career and reflections
Claudia Cardinale just keeps going. By 2022 she has 128 credits as a movie actress on IMDb. This in spite of embarking on a career in the theatre in 2000, age 62. Reflecting on her choices and her experience, she says:
As a teenager I was wild, a bit crazy, a tomboy, I got into fistfights with boys just to show them girls can be stronger than them. I have always accepted challenges. When I was young, I remember catching the train after it had pulled out, I used to run and jump on even though I was on the platform, perfectly in time for the departure, just to show I could do it. This attitude also helped me on set when I found myself the only woman surrounded by men, I wasn’t intimidated, I felt able to compete with them. My philosophy of life has always been: If you want, you can. You can’t be weak if you want to do this job. … If you’re not strong, you lose your personality. … You play the role in front of the camera but you have to know who you are afterwards. Inner strength is the most important.
One aspect of that is her determination not to get involved with her co-stars. How else could she possibly reject the advances of the likes of Marcello Mastroianni, Alain Delon and Jean Paul Belmondo?
Yes, they courted me, I confess. But I have always wanted to separate the life of an actress from my private one. So I didn’t let myself be seduced. We were friends, we joked, but I didn’t go further also because I knew how much the stories were embroidered on the sets.
But she makes an exception for Rock Hudson:
We were very close. At that time in America if it was known that you were gay you could not work in Hollywood. So we pretended to be a couple. Always arm in arm around town. Rock had lunch and dinner at my place a lot. I stayed close to him to the very end.
He in turn is protective of Claudia, aware of her discomfort in the US.
Claudia’s awards and achievements
Claudia Cardinale has won numerous awards including a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 1993 Venice Film Festival and a Golden Bear for Lifetime Achievement at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival. Between those two in 1999 she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur in France and later, in 2001 and 2002, corresponding honours in Portugal and Italy.
In March 2000 she became UNESCO goodwill ambassador for the defence of women’s rights.
Want to know more about Claudia Cardinale?
The quotes above are from various sources. Sometimes I’ve combined quotes from different sources because they’re on the same topic. In these cases I’ve used an ellipsis (…) to separate them.
The Continental Actress by Kerry Segrave and Linda Martin has a chapter on Claudia Cardinale. Online sources include:
- Claudia Cardinale’s website – official but limited
- Wikipedia – much more detailed, complete with citations
- IMDb – go-to website for Claudia’s filmography
- TCM – worth a visit but not available in all countries.