Of all Italy’s iconic actresses, Anna Magnani truly stands a world apart. The likes of Sophia Loren and Monica Vitti may have embodied Italy’s glamour and beauty, but there was no-one who captured the spirit, passion and bold approach of the Italian attitude like Magnani. Referred to by film historians as ‘the volcanic earth mother of all Italian cinema’, Anna Magnani was incredibly talented, utterly captivating and driven by a unique fire and thirst for challenging herself - a screen legend in every sense.
Realism and Emotion
Born into relative poverty in Rome in 1908, Magnani attended a French convent school in the city before studying at Rome’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the age of 17. She took to performance naturally and instinctively, spending her time gaining a reputation as an outstanding theatre actress and singing in nightclubs and music halls, where she was lovingly referred to as the ‘Italian Edith Piaf’.
Magnani’s first ventures into film acing came in 1933 when she was discovered by Italian filmmaker Goffredo Alessandrini – who she would go on to be briefly married to – and she found her first major film roles in The Blind Woman of Sorrento and Teresa Venerdi.
However it wasn’t until almost 20 years into her acting career that she gained international renown for her role in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City. The film was the wider world’s first introduction to Magnani’s distinctive acting style, which was built on emotional authenticity and realism rather than the glamour and typical beauty that was showcased by many other popular actresses. The film’s harrowing death scene, in which Magnani is shot while protecting her husband, remains one of cinema’s most emotional and devastating moments.
The Fire Of A Volcano
As passionate and fiery as Magnani was on-screen, she was even more tempestuous in real life. Throughout her career she was known to argue with directors, insult other actors and push boundaries wherever she could, and nothing highlighted her temperament as much as her relationship with Roberto Rossellini.
The pair fell in love while working on Rome, Open City, and they went on to make more successful films together, but their relationship was far from peaceful. Magnani and Rossellini would argue often, and when it was revealed that Rossellini was in fact married with children while courting Magnani she responded in the most dramatic fashion she could – by emptying a pot of hot pasta over his head and ending the relationship. Rossellini then fought back by casting Ingrid Bergman as the lead role in Stromboli, a film that he had originally prepared especially for Magnani.
This sparked a war that would divide film fans across Italy and enforce Magnani’s reputation as an actress who wasn’t afraid to fight; she hit back at Rossellini by taking on the lead role in Volcano, a film that had been deliberately created to invite comparison to Stromboli.
The Rose Tattoo
The controversy following Volcano only served to embolden Magnani’s career, and she went on to shine in films such as Visconti’s Bellissima before creating what is widely known as her masterpiece in The Rose Tattoo. Based on the play by Tennessee Williams, it was Magnani's first English speaking role in a mainstream Hollywood movie, and one that saw her winning the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Showcasing Magnani’s authentic, piercing and realistic acting style, the film won acclaim from fans and critics alike. Time Magazine called her ‘the most explosive emotional actress of her generation’, and the role cemented her status as one of the greatest screen actresses of all time. It was a compelling example of Magnani’s incredible skill and raw emotion – something that was best described by film historian John DiLeo when he wrote that ‘whenever Magnani laughs or cries (which is often), it's as if you've never seen anyone laugh or cry before: has laughter ever been so burstingly joyful or tears so shatteringly sad?’
A Screen Legend
After the success of The Rose Tattoo Magnani continued to have a varied and successful acting career, working again with Tennessee Williams and Pier Paolo Pasolini before her final film, Federico Fellini’s Roma.
Anna Magnani is remembered as a woman who prized emotional authenticity, honesty and courage above all else, both in her acting career and in her personal life. She was passionate, bold and at times difficult to work with, with a famous temper and an admirable fighting spirit – all traits that helped to make her one of Italy’s most captivating, talented and respected actresses. Unconventionally beautiful and thrillingly explosive, Anna Magnani truly was the fiery queen of Italian cinema.