Sophia Loren – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

This book is one you don’t devour. You take your time, stirring, simmering and seasoning as if you are making a pot of soup or stew. Sophia is a Virgo, which is most of my astrological chart, except the first dominant three. I sensed a grounded woman almost immediately. A person who has taken her time and made the right choices; which led her down a path that would make her a very happy woman. As a Leo, who has made all the wrong choices, very impatiently and innocently, when you have done these things, only then can you truly appreciate someone who is smarter than you. Patience really is a virtue.

While reading the pages of her book, I immersed myself in everything Sophia. I began to look up films on YouTube, but then as luck would have it, Film Struck dedicated a week to Sophia and I had many of the Italian films right at my fingertips. Thankfully, they devoted most of her footage to the old stock from Europe rather than the cheesy “We need an Italian” American movies. I was rather embarrassed to look at a trailer for Houseboat and see that she was darkened with make-up, since no one, in 1958, was capable of accepting she was Italian without it. Odd, since at that time we had a huge Italian population in America.

As she writes in her book, she is more adept at filming in her own country, when she is portraying herself, her mother, her grandmother, and her neighbors. This is clear because she is more natural, less scripted, in her normal color, unafraid to look worn and “ugly,” and not making us think the entire time “Oh look it is Sophia Loren,” like you do when you watch an American actress on film. I think I like her in films more, when she is in a worn out dress, her hair is a mess, she is in her (what seems like) signature slip on sandals and she is fighting for whatever she is passionate about. This type of role is more of an emotional investment than a film where she is just being a pretty woman. Although in “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” it is interesting seeing her portray three different types of women in various personalities. It is almost as if you are getting a person with Dissociative Identity Disorder.

I know I always bash my own country when it comes to cinema but being a foreign film fanatic there is such a huge difference. The answer came for me when I read her book. You are not getting a “tell-all” fraught with sexual harassment stories. There is no political agenda or a feminist bitch-fest which is riddled with “What’s wrong with men,” tales. Instead, you find that she is a professional and holds in high esteem her fellow actors that she worked with. When they were on the set, they had cooking contests or pulled pranks on each other. In her case, her mother came to the set with her while she was starting out. The only time this ceased was when she was meeting her future husband for the first time, producer Carlo Ponti.

When I watched interviews with her, she was very careful in the way she answered questions. Very diplomatic, intelligent enough to remain appearing innocent, though you knew she saw the journalists attempt to get her to “dish the dirt,” using her English as her second language as a tool to stall and prepare.

Naturally, I followed some of Marcello’s interviews as well, as he and Sophia were in some very important movies together. I was embarrassed when David Letterman tried desperately to turn him into a player (which he is) and make him seem dirty to Americans. It is a different lifestyle, a player in Europe vs. a player in America. The Europeans have more tact which results in their escapades being very classy and fashionable. Not that I agree with it or condone this, but it is their business. Here we are more focused (in the last couple of decades) on trashing what used to be alluring, exotic, and only for the mature.

When you see Foreign films, you do get a sense of professionals coming together to make dramatic stories come to life. Even when they are quirky and abstract, such as Frederico Fellini or Pier Paolo Pasolini, it comes together like a typical novel turned into a film, only with the long bits chopped out and the most important scenes smashed together through facial expressions. Serious actors who are trained by great directors and who can relax into the role are able to do these things.

Today, in American films, you have the nouveau riche who started out working hard but are now just entitled adults who can only sell overacted pieces. You get the sense that they are all having one big orgy, especially when they spend an interview flirting with each other and behaving like children. The films are not deep and cerebral, they seem geared toward children. Adults playing action heros are no longer spellbinding as “Superman” once was, or the first “Batman.” Now, everyone is doing it so it is cliché.  I am more interested in the craft, being transported into another place and time, people who appear so much in character that you don’t recognize them. In interviews, I want to see grown-ups behaving like professionals. It feels embarrassing to watch because I know they are going to dread these interviews when they become older and are “has beens” desperate for all the money they spent.

When I watch Sophia Loren in her movies, I think how Penelope Cruz has taken after her in her ability to portray women in despair and not utilize her good looks (this is what the modeling world is for). I think of a good friend that I grew up with, who is Hungarian and who naturally has that sense of being European that I am completely incapable of creating somatically; no matter how hard I try. Those nuances which catch you off guard: a tilt of the lips, a shift in the eyebrow, the movement of the hips, for example that can’t be caught on camera through a third or fourth (and so on) generation.

My favorite film with she and Marcello would be “Sunflower,” which I had to disagree with her on. She spoke of Marcello playing a character similar to Don Dummi in “Marriage – Italian Style,” and I think she mentioned the character from “Too Bad She is Bad.” Nonetheless, she was speaking of a character as a bad boy. On the contrary, I was so moved by the story and his character which from a psychological perspective, the background scenery in the film; was captured quite well. One sensed that the Russian wife understood this but the Italian wife continued to have disdain for her lover. Of course the Russian wife (a single parent) was simply looking for a husband that she went looking for one day; while walking through wounded soldiers. Whereas the Italian wife was terribly and hopelessly in love; seeking emotional revenge in the end. Like in a Fellini or Pasolini film, there is one character, a surviving Italian soldier stranded in Russia, who gives us that snapshot or foreshadowing of what is to come. Psychologically, Antonio was not a bad boy. He was grateful to his protector and felt as if yesterday, as an Italian, had disappeared or maybe it was a dream.

Many years ago I saw “Two Women,” the one film she won an Academy Award for. I felt that she should when I saw it. I don’t think the Internet was around at the time I viewed the story so I only learned this from the book. Also from reading her story, I understood that she was playing a character in a time period she had once lived through. This took on new meaning for me.

Last night, I re-watched Marcello and Sophia in “A Special Day,” which was a gay film that isn’t trying to be a gay film like those we hear about in America today. Again, it is the nuance of a phone call; a slight mention that one has to pay close attention to.  His character is discreet, careful, cautious and classy. Later he has to be more obvious because Sophia’s character is too innocent and lacks street smarts. The ending is tragic in a quiet way for Marcello’s character, while Sophia’s appears to be saying silently “Well, I guess it is back to business,” in her household. Terribly emotional and hard to fight back the tears that you feel rising up from your chest. The second ending is the landlady, who has played a small yet pivotal role hoping to divide the characters. She stands in front of her building working a double entendre as she speaks to her tenants. It was perfect. I am not sure young people or new people to foreign films about World War II would quite understand the intent of this scene. Watch a few more films and then come back to it, if so.

What I loved about the writing in this book was how grateful Sophia Loren is for her life. She tells you over and over again, in so many ways, that she does not take one single thing for granted. I am not sure she realizes that she did do all the right things (not to say she was perfect), as she never lived a life where you do all the wrong things. Her gratefulness is her modesty. It is all her characters rolled up into one thanking the directors, the producers, the family, the audience for helping them to be portrayed in such an honest way. For telling the stories that wanted to be told and creating a space for the unsung heroines of Italian heritage.

What I saw is that she wanted to be a star but she didn’t sleep her way to the top. She was desperate but not stupid. As I mentioned, her mother was there. She worked very hard to understand her roles, to study acting, to listen to her directors and respect them. She wanted to be a wife and mother and patiently waited for her turn with Carlo. When she had her children, they became a priority for her. She talks of her love for the children and how they changed her life. It is quite clear that we won’t be getting a “Mommie Dearest,” book from Eduardo or Carlo Jr. She talks of how she consciously looked over her boys, and how she and Carlo Sr. recognized the talents each had to offer, early on. One son became a director and the other; an orchestral conductor. Having seen one of Eduardo’s movies “The Human Voice,” featuring his mother, this is not a famous man’s son doing his best. He is a man who stands alone. I feel there will be more great things to come.

It is so much easier to be grateful when you have done all the right things and good things happened to you as a result. I am reminded of that first line in “Anna Karenina” by Leo  Tolstoy. I continued to learn as I read her book and took it in on a philosophical level. At this stage in my life, almost 30 years behind her, I am looking back at life in a very spiritually contemplative way. It was not an accident that her book happened to be at the library one day in the “used books for sale” room. I love going through there to find stories I can keep and I had been meaning to buy Sophia’s book through Amazon for some time now (on my wish list). Like when I was a young girl and the library presented so many magical surprises, now the same occurs for me as an adult only I am helping fund the library at the same time.

As I came to the end of her book, she mentioned that her husband had been the producer of “Dr. Zhivago,” when discussing an homage that she and her sons put together in memory of him. Suddenly, he became much more than Sophia Loren’s husband and producer of many of her films. I had no idea that he was responsible for such a beloved masterpiece. This was a nice surprise. Their love story was not quite one that I came to really understand and relate to, as I have never been married for 56 years or a long time relationship period. I have never been able to understand women who are with men twenty to thirty years their senior either, as I was never quite mature enough to undertake such a flirtation. Perhaps other women, like my Hungarian friend will cling to this like an old soul.

I was able to relate to her male counterparts that came to nothing more than friendship, soul mates or a missed out on love that probably would have come to nothing anyway. Having watched a great deal of her films as I read the book and viewing photos of she and her family online, I came to respect this very professional woman whom I once saw, only, as another sexy actress. I hope you will re-visit her work as well and see how it impacts your life.

Maria Callas

My first time to hear the name Maria Callas was in a movie about her life. This was called “Callas Forever,” (2002) starring Fanny Ardant and Jeremy Irons. I was intrigued with the personality and captivated by her voice (which was dubbed in). At this point she was long passed (1977 in Paris, France) and there was no chance of seeing her in concert. I began to immerse myself in everything I could find about her. Documentary, video clips of her singing, and I read Arianna Huffington’s book “Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend,” which also came out in 2002. The funny thing is; I don’t really like opera. When I was reading Ms. Huffington’s book, I kept wondering what an aria was. Somehow I missed the part where she had explained that this is what you call an operatic solo.

I have since attended a couple of operas and I have tried listening to other sopranos but I just don’t get the same feelings as I do when I listen to Ms. Callas. It is hard to explain. It seems to be that I am in love with the person, not the genre and the passionate way she projects herself. I get the same feelings when I listen to a gypsy violin, especially when it is played to sound like a bird singing. This is when the violin is transformed to become another entity as if it is shapeshifting. I like other instruments (except the flute) and I appreciate other violinists but not quite as much as a gypsy violin player.

Her story is rather romantic. Father leaves, mother pushing her daughter to sing from the age of three, her great love marries Jacqueline Kennedy. What is also sad is the bracelet that Aristotle Onassis gave to I believe four women, including Ms. Callas and Kennedy, which all said the same thing and looked the same as well. This did not make me think too highly of him as a partner. At the end of Ms. Callas’s life, she died alone. Perhaps her life could become an opera on its own. 

My favorite fairy tale moment (though it is said to be true), in Ms. Huffington’s book was a time when Ms. Callas had been practicing on the terrace of her mother’s home. Suddenly a man’s voice could be heard, with an equally gifted sound, singing from behind a hedge or was it a tree in the distance. Evidently she never did meet this person but the singing took place a few times and with a particular song which I do not recall.

When I was a young girl, my best friend used to play classical music records at the highest volume so that they could permeate our environment and I was forced to immerse myself in a genre that, at that time, I did not appreciate. Most kids our age were doing this with head banging music, which neither of us liked. Now, I find myself doing this with Ms. Callas’s music. If it is not loud one cannot hear it upstairs while on the computer.

One documentary that I saw, Maria Callas: The Callas Conversations, had interviews with various journalists. In order to sing opera, one has to become something of a linguist and she spoke quite a few languages besides her native Greek dialect. One can learn so much about the art of speaking a language by watching Ms. Callas talk. When she was speaking to a British journalist in English, she was in a very conservative room and she was more subdued or composed in her body language. A lot like my grandma used to say “Sit up straight, legs crossed, hands folded in the lap like a lady.” She even spoke with a British accent (and an American one with another interview on YouTube here in the US). When she was speaking to an French journalist, the room had a more dramatic look to it and suddenly her command of this language was accentuated with hand gestures and a stronger voice. This is quite a talent to envy. 

From what I understand, she was a difficult woman to deal with. At the same time, one can imagine that because her life was a never ending drama, it must have been hard to leave the stage. Today, we talk about famous women being divas. All the same, when I hear this, I wonder how appropriate it is for the person, or shall I say are they just doing it on purpose. There are also famous women who aren’t divas, including great singers. When we make a word out to be a given, it loses its luster. It is taken advantage of.

If you haven’t had a chance to immerse yourself in the aria’s of Ms. Callas, make it a point to do so. She had a lot of critics, just as most famous people do and so it might not be to your liking. If you are not a fan of opera, you might find yourself opening up to a new sound in your home.

Isabelle Huppert – She’s Not Smug

I’ve just finished watching the 2016 film “Things to Come,” and before this I had seen the movie “Elle,” a few months ago. Both were made (or released) in the same year, starring Isabelle Huppert. She has always seemed to me to be a very smug actress and yet I feel drawn to her. I find her characters deeply moving. No matter that she always seems to portray the perfect psychopath, it feels as if she is on the verge of an aneurism. Most Americans would call her characters intellectual snobs. Partly because she is not funny, unlike Woody Allen who can make a discussion in philosophy seem like a night at a comedy club.  Also because she is a woman and while we try to pretend we are modern here, we just can’t handle the honesty portrayed by characters in French movies in general. We pretend to observe and honor freedom of speech in our constitution but only if people say what is popular for the times. In truth, there is no room for a good debate in America which is probably why the traditional “salons” of Paris never existed here. Once we made very good and intelligently written movies, now we have opted for special effects and pop culture actors who speak in slang because a cerebral film would not be considered a “date night” film.

It is interesting though because when I see Isabelle on screen, I think smug. When I went to look up images of her for this article, I saw something quite different. Real life photos and still movie shots don’t really show a smug woman at all unlike Kristen Scott Thomas, who I find extremely annoying to watch on screen. Ms. Scott-Thomas seems incapable of enjoying the company of women and seems like the kind of woman who would never be married but you would always find her with a betrothed man.  Isabelle’s photos instead show a woman in constant thought. Whether this be wondering what to make for supper or hoping the photo shoot will end so she can pick up her cat at the vets; I could not say. In my imagination she is thinking about the conversation she had last night at a dinner party.

And yet this woman, who appears very strong and powerful on screen, is a very petite woman. I had never actually realized this before but in “Things to Come,” it seemed more obvious. She also sports a ponytail and very casual clothing worn in a very chic and stylish way. French women can carry off the cute girl look of someone in their 20’s because they don’t seem fixated on plastic surgery and often seem so young anyway. The irony of French films is that what you see is not what you get. In this film she was not quite her typical character though. She portrayed a married housewife albeit a professor at a university, but one who still came home to cook and clean while the husband sat in a traditional male role, even though they were equals in academia. I suppose though as she cannot sit still for one minute, he probably gave up and observed a male stereotype or in our generation, expected it. I say she wasn’t typical because there were no bizarre moments where her character does something that one might think but never do.

It was actually very difficult for me to see her in Elle. A character played by Isabelle Huppert being raped? This is not possible. So it makes absolute sense that the part she plays isn’t really about being raped, it is about opening up to an untapped perversion. I imagine most Americans probably saw it as France’s version of Thelma and Louise. I silently laughed at the end because I supposed this would be the case. Perhaps I am too harsh but since most people don’t allow introspection when it comes to art, and it would be anti-feminist to dare to say a rape scene was actually foreplay for what was to come. When you watch the movie like an Isabelle Huppert fan, you can’t possibly take the rape seriously. To me it was not much different than the butter scene in “Last Tango in Paris,” except they did play the Elle scene up a bit to give it a flare for the dramatic; probably to compete for an American audience. The film won a Golden Globe, as did Ms. Huppert and she was nominated for an Oscar.

As I mentioned previously Isabelle Huppert’s characters just can’t sit still. There is constant motion, not like a dance but someone with Severe Anxiety who needs to calm their mind. After watching the film, “Things to Come” this evening, I found myself jumping up to wash dishes I had earlier hoped to leave for tomorrow. Before I did this, I vacuumed the living room floor. Her energy can be very addicting.

My favorite film, released in 2000, was “Merci Pour Le Chocolat.” I have seen this twice because it is somewhat humorous to me. Film Noir often has an element of grotesque; a point in which you want to turn your head. With Merci, it was reminiscent of a Hitchcock type film, such as “Rear Window,” so it is important to see every moment. The Gothic house that looks like it lives in a graveyard and the piano playing which seems to unlock a deep wound in the soul of her husband. He is more like a victim of the Narcissist: helpless, passive, inane, the piano is almost like the strings for a puppet. Actually he plays the piano almost like a patient at a psychiatric ward (a scene from many movies where they are in one).

If you get a chance, watch a few of her films and see what you think. Just don’t expect Geena Davis or Susan Sarandon. Ms. Huppert is in a rich, strongly written, well-acted, league of her own – pun intended.

Frida Kahlo – Legendary Artist

Art should be regarded as a spiritual experience for when you find a piece that you like, it is speaking to your soul. When I first met a Frida Kahlo, I was in a university class that had to do with Women in Art (I don’t recall the specific title).  Our professor showed us a piece of her work and I asked the teacher if she had been in some type of an accident and explained what I saw in the photo of the painting. She told us a little about the history of Frida Kahlo and I felt stung. Until that moment, my experience was usually to look at paintings in a museum and admire them. While I had been to many art museums and had my favorites, I had never been this moved by art.

Since then, I have begun to look at art differently. I have begun to focus on the picture and think about the symbols, the way they are arranged, and what the artist might have felt. I have also seen the movie of Frida by Selma Hayek, read the biography by Hayden Herrera, had a friend copy a painting by Frida so that I could have my own genuine recreation and I have had friends give me books and old magazine articles that are about the artist and her paintings. When you research someone to this depth, you become one with the artist.

Frida Kahlo painted portraits and recreated interpretations of her life on canvas the way we journal in a diary now. The intensity of her work began after she was in a “bus” accident in Mexico at the age of 18. To explain, a bus in the 1920’s in Mexico was similar to a hay wagon with benches nailed along the sides.  This old fashioned mechanism collided with a streetcar which threw her and others from the bus and caused her to have many almost fatal injuries. She spent much of her life in body casts, laid out on a bed. She also underwent many surgeries for this over the years before she died at 47. Frida was a survivor and from her bed she began to paint, not for the first time but in a new way.

The first opportunity she was able to get out of her bed, it was the same time that Diego Rivera, a well-known Mexican painter, was working on a mural nearby her home. They met and eventually married. Señor Rivera  was known for his philandering but she knew this and asked, not for his fidelity but for his loyalty. He accepted. Their marriage was full of liaisons; hers with both men and women. They lived in two homes joined by a bridge so that each had their own space. Unfortunately, it was here where Señor Rivera went a bit too far with his affairs and slept with her sister Cristina. Between this and her on-going setbacks to give birth to their child, which her doctors had explained would be impossible; their marriage began to go downhill. They continued to remain together though, until her end.

Both Señora Kahlo and Señor Rivera, were very passionate about communism as well. This was incorporated in their art work depicting laborers in Mexico. Their beliefs were controversial, even then but they fought continuously to try and bring this philosophy to their country.

It is quite doubtful that Señora Kahlo and I would have been friends had we met during that time. When you are captivated by a piece of work, it is not about likes or dislikes of personal opinions.  Art stands alone, though it captures that person’s beliefs and feelings, what you gain from this is not always going to be the same. I was intrigued by her work as a woman, as a survivor, her bravery, her determination and will. All of these qualities I saw on the canvas and all of these adjectives she would probably have brushed aside indignantly. People like this do not want accolades for anything except their work, not their essence of being.

What I became fascinated with, when I learned about Señora Kahlo’s history, was her homage to ancestry through her clothing. While she was both Hungarian and Mexican, she only knew of her Spanish cultural ways. Her father’s Hungarian parents immigrated to Germany before sending their son to Mexico as a young man. While in Mexico, he married her mother and never returned to his homeland. She only had an idea of what her grandparents looked like. The way Señora Kahlo dressed herself was not indicative of the times in Mexico and so when she travelled with her husband, it was often seen as odd or eccentric. Now it is how one would recognize her through photos, though her work is quite obvious once you have had the opportunity to view a few pieces. As a woman she made a statement. Quite literally she was a work to behold. A piece of art always in progress.

While travelling in Mexico, I noticed that far too many shopkeepers hold vigil to her in their windows; along with homage to their religious symbols as well. Even in America, many Mexican restaurateurs will display her reproductions around their diners. Frida Kahlo is a legend. If you have not had the chance to explore her work, I invite you to research the name and see where it leads you.