Marcello Mastroianni

updated 12/07/1987 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/07/1987 01:00AM

I DON'T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT THE AMERICAN PUBLIC!"

Marcello Mastroianni, the most affable of actors, is having a gale-force Mediterranean tantrum. His face crimsons, his eyes bulge, his big voice bounces off the walls like a cannon-ball. "America means nothing to me! Niente!" he storms. "My career is here, in Italy! I'm not some kid actor with four cents to his name. I'm an established star. For 39 years I've been answering the same stupid questions. Enough! I have work to do. No more talk! Finito!"

Not quite finito. Tantrum past, Mastroianni graciously continues a three-day series of interviews. All the same, it's startling to hear such transatlantic rancor from a savvy pro whose latest movie, Dark Eyes, should give him a shot at the Oscar he has long deserved—and in calmer moments has admitted he would love to win. Yet it's even more startling to see what remains of "Bello Marcello," the supple charmer who caught the world's eye in La Dolce Vita, 8½ and Divorce, Italian Style, as he moves through his 63rd year.

Onscreen, pancaked with kaolin, Mastroianni still looks squeezably smooth. But here in the raw light of a provincial theater lobby on what is admittedly not one of his better days, he is nobody's dreamboat. His cheeks are soggy balloons grizzled with stubble, his eyes are angry little sunsets, his even teeth and blimpy fingers are nicotine-tinted a rich Rembrandt brown, and when he coughs he sounds like a dying Fiat. Yet when he smiles his face glows with a vitality that makes him magnetic again. And in the massive head and heavy features there is elemental dignity and power—at 5'10", 170 lbs., Mastroianni is not a big man, but his presence fills any space he enters with a large and admirable aura of lion.

His anger now is somehow admirable—even reasonable. Urged by Nikita Mikhalkov, who directed Dark Eyes, he has agreed to star in Pianola Meccanica, a play scheduled to open soon in Rome. Since he has barely begun to learn his lines, it's panic time. What's more, Mastroianni has plausible cause to dislike the U.S. An American actress, Faye Dunaway, left a slash in his heart that has never quite healed. Except for 1985's Macaroni, in which he co-starred with Jack Lemmon, American moviemakers have offered him only junk parts for almost three decades. And up to now, though film buffs have sung his praises, most Americans remember him chiefly as a storm center of tattle and trivia. He's that slick-haired Latin lover who chased Sophia Loren through 10 entertaining movies. And he's the real-life Romeo who, while his wife looked the other way, played the fox with some very fancy chickens—among them Anouk Aimée, Ursula Andress, Claudia Cardinale, Lauren Hutton, Catherine Deneuve and La Dunaway. "I feel as if America, like Faye," Mastroianni once said sadly, "has betrayed me."

Europe has been his terra firma. A career of berserk creativity—in 39 years Mastroianni has appeared in 116 movies—enthrones him as the king of cinema on that continent. Great directors have acclaimed him "a monster of skill" (Vittorio de Sica) and "the actor I prefer above all others" (Federico Fellini). Reviewers acknowledge his mastery of many styles. He has played a Sicilian wife-murderer, a superannuated Casanova, a movie director in creative menopause, a depressed homosexual—even a pregnant husband. Best of all he plays overcivilized anti-heroes, prisoners of anomie, empty vessels drifting rudderless with the tide of the times. There seems to be no firm limit to his talents. And now, stretching them yet another notch, he has given us in the aging ineffectual of Dark Eyes a comic-ironic tour de force.

Based on several tales by Chekhov, Dark Eyes tells the story of a kept husband who falls in love with a mysterious stranger and makes one last desperate lunge for life. Mastroianni plays (in Mikhalkov's phrase) "with a charm that tugs at your sleeve." Yet all the while he is treading ever so softly the dark organ tones of irony that murmur gloomily beneath the fun. At Cannes, he was honored as Best Actor—for the third time.

The stage—I love it! Film is bad for actors—we go soft. I do plays to clean myself. Inside and out. It's like a cure."

Mastroianni wheezes as he climbs two flights of stairs in the musty old theater in Viterbo, a medieval town north of Rome. "Don't want to be late," he explains. "Don't want star privileges, capito?" At the top he pauses. "Never seen a Russian rehearsal?" He rolls his eyes. "Just wait!"

The rehearsal hall is a whitewashed box as big as a tennis court. Twenty people, mainly actors, stand chatting in clusters. Mastroianni lights a cigarette and, script in hand, starts pacing and mumbling lines. He looks hunched, burdened. Cigarette follows cigarette. The air around him turns blue.

Mikhalkov charges in, arms wide in greeting: a big exuberant rainbow of a man with a bold gray mustache and hazel eyes that twinkle like champagne. He gives Mastroianni a hearty hug, then shouts, "Hokay!" and dashes about the pseudo-stage like a Cossack, interpreting nine roles at once with magical expressiveness—but in Russian, which his aide, Alla Garrubba, translates into Italian. It's a macaronic ramble-scramble but it works.

In the scene about to unfold, Mastroianni plays a man who fiercely reproaches the sweetheart of his youth for marrying a fool. All fall silent, watching the star. What will he do with this moment of high drama? On the screen, where his face is often 15 feet high, he underplays to compensate. Not now. Passion fills him suddenly, like wind filling a sail. His chest, his face swell with power. Like a wild animal he leaps at the young woman and, eyes ablaze, spews out his wrath and anguish in a voice that now scrapes like a razor, now booms inside the body of everyone there like an enormous heart. The scene ends. One by one the other actors begin to breathe again. Mastroianni goes on memorizing lines as if nothing had happened.

Demystifying his achievements gives Mastroianni exquisite pleasure. "In my profession," he often prattles, "life is like a fairy tale. When I arrive at work, everybody gathers around me. 'Your Majesty, how are you? Do you feel well today?' The dressers and hairdressers fuss over me. Also, the producers give me lots of money. Work? It's play. I'm a cop. You're a gangster. And you play with beautiful women too."

American actors, he goes on, "suffer so much. I hear them say, 'I've got to play a madman, so I'm going to live for four months in a madhouse.' Here in Italy we believe that the less you do the better you do. You think about your part from time to time, in a restaurant or on the street. When the scene is shot, you burn the page." Fellini, he says, has never given him a script—except for La Dolce Vita. "It was a sheet of paper on which he had drawn a man with an enormous sexual organ around which were twined sea nymphs."

Fellini, however, scoffs at "the legend that Marcello is lazy. He'll spend hours discussing his role. He conceals his perfection, so we don't resent him." When pressed, Mastroianni admits ambition. "Yes, I've always wanted to improve, to make money, to win applause. If one is famous it brings work—more and better choices." And in pursuing his ambitions, Mastroianni has been languidly shrewd. He supports no costly coterie and works only with people he finds simpatico. "With friends," he explains, "I'm not ashamed to make mistakes. And when I'm free to make mistakes, I make fewer." What's more, by playing against type in absurd or grotesque roles he has eluded sclerosis of the image, the affliction that ossifies careers. "I like to make myself ugly, fat, crude," he says. "I laugh at myself before the public laughs at me. Grow old before the public says I'm old. One has to accept the changes of age and use them."

To age is not necessarily to mature. "Marcello is just an overgrown mother's boy," hoots a journalist who has known him for 20 years. "He has no capacity to decide anything. With directors, he behaves like a little boy with the strong father he never had. He also depends on women—he expects the woman to be the active one. When women get to know him they find him BORING. He doesn't have what it takes to hold a woman. So he's lonely. He's a man in a vacuum and he fills it with trivial friendships, trivial activities. And with work. If he didn't work like a madman he'd be left alone with himself."

Harsh words. Yet Mastroianni, with disarming self-irony, eagerly agrees with most of them. "I'm just a big butterfly," he declares happily. "It's my nature. I fly here, I fly there. I don't look for roles. I let myself be taken by whoever wants me. I say yes to people because it costs me too much effort to argue for my own point of view. I agree to do pictures I know aren't very good. If I look like a jerk, so what?"

And there's another reason for jumping at offers. Though his income is enviably large, Mastroianni is paying off a back-tax bill that has nudged the million-dollar mark. "I spend everything I earn," he admits impishly. "In haste, with delight. One day midnight will sound and the spell will end. Before midnight, I want to enjoy everything." He says "almost total irresponsibility" is "a condition I find ideal for living." Over the years Italy's most celebrated spendthrift has built eight houses in which he spent little time. He has bought any number of costly cars that he rarely drove. And he once owned 37 suits he had never worn.

Mastroianni also likes to brag that he abuses his body and gets away with it. He smokes 70 to 100 cigarettes a day, drinks copiously, eats anything he wants, sleeps little and badly. In self-scathing interviews he has confessed that he hates his looks ("I'm cute"), despises his intellect ("After 10 pages of a book, my eyes close"), and is incorrigibly lazy. Why such self-mockery? "Marcello is nervous up there on that pink cloud of success," says a friend. "So he keeps trying to bring himself down to earth. The truth is, he's a warm, modest, funny man. If anything, too ready to give you his heart. In short, hopelessly Italian and the best dinner partner in the world."

Vino rosso!" Mastroianni bellows at the waiter. "Rrrraaaaagghh! I could drink the Tiber!" It's 10 p.m. and, beat to the socks after a seven-hour rehearsal, Mastroianni, Mikhalkov and Alla Garrubba have hot-footed it to a tiny trattoria. Even before the wine arrives Mastroianni is ordering a late-night snack that would give a python the gout. He begins with a huge tureen of pastina in brodo, follows up with a fat risotto, continues with a steaming mound of tripe, passes on to a plump pear and winds up with a jumbo-size plate of caramel custard, washed down with espresso. Between brodo and espresso, he knocks back four large glasses of wine plus four double shots of toe-curling grappa—and smokes half a dozen cigarettes.

And yes, he is a delightful dinner companion. With Mikhalkov he makes small talk about the director's dacha near Moscow, the 27 winds of Italy and the genius of Sugar Ray Robinson. As the wine goes down the talk turns raunchy. Mastroianni slyly recalls a visitor to Milan who waxed lyrical about the pleasures of "dunking," unaware that in Milanese slang the word means something you don't do in a restaurant.

Through the window beside his table he sees a teenage girl looking in and smiling shyly. He colors. "Look at that girl," he says softly. "She's lovely." Then he sighs. "Those days are gone forever. She doesn't know it, but I do."

Women have always clutched at Mastroianni. Until her death eight years ago, at 84, his mother pampered and scolded him obsessively. She had arteriosclerosis and went deaf. Her husband, a village carpenter, had diabetes and went I blind. "They liked movies," Mastroianni recalls. "He would ask her what they were doing on the screen and she would ask him what they were saying." The family was grimly poor. They had no bathtub until Mastroianni was 18. Smiling through a wince, he remembers: "My father resoled my shoes with scraps of aluminum, and when I walked I sounded like a horse."

During WW II, Mastroianni ducked the draft by joining a unit that drew military maps. Later, in Rome, he clerked for a British movie company and took up amateur theatricals. Spotted by a scout for director Luchino Visconti, who sparked the neorealist revolution in Italian theater, he was invited to join the great man's troupe—Italy's finest. "I entered the theater," says Mastroianni, "through a golden door."

Love added a fillip to success. In 1950, Mastroianni married a young actress named Flora Carabella, now 60. Eye-catching, strong-willed and theaterwise, she gave his career a vigorous push and bore him a daughter, Barbara. But the mother's boy in Mastroianni couldn't find all he wanted in his clearheaded, independent wife. "I need to know that a woman obeys only me," he explains. "The idea that she might desire someone else makes me half-impotent. When a woman is stronger than I am, I get discouraged. When a woman has a violent charge of sex, I get depressed. Guess who I liked more than any woman? Marilyn Monroe. I never knew her but it was evident that she couldn't make it all alone, and this made me want to protect her, to possess this little blond cloud." He also wish-dreamed about a sex life "lived in total liberty, without brakes."

The search for a little blond cloud of lust obsessed Mastroianni for three decades. While maintaining the facade of his marriage, he secretly romped through affairs with co-star after co-star, and in the intervals hit on targets of opportunity. Once on a Lufthansa flight, for instance, he spotted a trig stewardess, and for the next eight days he flew with her all over Germany, paying full fare but getting special service on the ground. Such studly depredations fortified Mastroianni's movie image as a sizzling Latin lover—and to his distress the image stuck.

"I am not in fact a seducer," he protests. "I have been more seduced—and abandoned." Furthermore: "Once they call you a great lover, you're in trouble. Women expect an Oscar performance in bed." A friend agrees that "Marcello has never been a chaser. You see, he really believes in love. All his loves have been true loves."

None so true, so scorching, so disastrous as his passion for Faye Dunaway. They met in 1968, when they filmed A Place for Lovers. "We were in an empty town," he remembers, "and I was bored." But what was lit as a firecracker turned out to be dynamite. "She had the hands of an old woman," he once recalled. "Full of veins, of marks. A squashed nose, broken at the bridge, incredible! But her face was pale and luminous. With mystery in it, a madness in her eye. And she loved me, how she loved me!"

Faye wanted to marry and have children. So did Mastroianni. Fellini urged him, even his teenage daughter urged him to take the leap. But Mastroianni couldn't bear to hurt his wife. Faye waited three years. Then she went to Spain to make a movie and met actor Harris Yulin. She called Mastroianni and told him it was over. Stunned, he flew to Madrid, where they staged a shouting match in a hotel lobby. "You can stretch a rubber band just so far," Faye told him, "and then it snaps." And that's the way it ended.

On the rebound, Mastroianni landed in the arms of Catherine Deneuve, his co-star in 1972's It Only Happens to Others. They were together for three years, and after they had a daughter, Chiara, out of wedlock, he thought they would be together forever. But one day Catherine, like Faye, said it was over. "I've been told," he says ruefully, "that I arrive by the door and leave by the window." Both endings were "brutal, unexpected." The fault? "Mostly mine. For a time you succeed in subtly dictating your game. Then one day they told me, 'You appear sweet and gentle. Instead, you're a monstrous egotist. You play according to your own rules.' And it's mostly true." But not entirely? "They wanted to change me. They scolded me, exacting from me clarity and solidity. I would like to be less loved but more respected. Taken for what I am."

Mastroianni may never get over Faye. "She was the woman I loved the most. I'll always be sorry to have lost her. I was whole with her for the first time in my life." After the breakup with Catherine, says a friend, "Marcello went through a period of heavy drinking." But he found a new balance in the early 1980s, when he met Anna Maria Tatò, now in her mid-30s. "She's a movie director and a solid person." In time Mastroianni repaired his friendship with Deneuve—their love for Chiara brought them together again.

My daughters," Mastroianni says with quiet intensity, "are the most important thing in my life. For a father, daughters are like generous lovers. Who never criticize. Who give him only love. I've always felt that my daughters accepted me as I am, with all my limits. Because they know that I love them more than anything in the world."

In the case of Barbara, now 35 and a designer, some think that assessment may be wishful—in the past, she and her father have often been at odds. But Chiara is the light of his life. Dark-eyed and slender, she has her father's large, expressive mouth and fluent charm. Though she is now 15, he still calls her "la piccola" (the little one). "Something very positive," he says, "comes to life between a father and a daughter when there is a great difference in age. One gives more. Like a grandparent. Watching her grow keeps me young."

Chiara lives in Paris with her mother, but Mastroianni often visits her there and on holidays she visits him. In Rome she stays with Flora, who adores her. Indeed, when Chiara was little and her mother's career was demanding, Flora implored Catherine to let her raise the child. "If I had known," Mastroianni was heard to say, "I would have had other children with the women I loved. I would like a house full of children."

It's 1:45 a.m. Bleary-eyed, haggard, snugged in smoke, Mastroianni is sitting in the lobby of a small hotel near Viterbo and sipping in spurts at a large glass of nasty black Italian bitters. Around him a dozen actors cluster as he merrily elaborates a scheme to relieve Rome's horrendous traffic problems. "Simple. Build a twelve-lane highway along the bed of the Tiber. Put a roof over the highway and let the river run on top of the highway. Ecco!" His audience roars with delight.

Mastroianni beams. He is in his element. Night after night, back in Rome, he sits up till all hours in his favorite restaurant with "a conspiracy of idlers"—among them comedian Paolo Panelli, lawyer Giovanna Cau and a rotating contingent of directors: Ettore Scola, Mario Monicelli, Marco Ferreri and Fellini. "We eat, we drink, we laugh at stupid stories. Beh! We pass the time of life together."

And when Mastroianni goes home, where does he go? Sometimes to Flora, usually to Anna Maria. The arrangement suits Flora just fine. "Jealousy," she has noted, "has long been banished from my life. I respect the freedom of others and I expect them to respect mine. If my husband has needed a period of wandering, must I hinder him? I have always cultivated my own interests and my own friends." For many years Flora's closest friend was Luis Suarez, a Spanish actor who is more than a decade younger than she. Yet she says it never crossed her mind to divorce and remarry. "Marcello and I," she says calmly, "will grow old together."

The arrangement suits Mastroianni too. He speaks with admiration of his wife: "I consider my marriage a great success. My wife is my great friend—and I am hers." He speaks with feeling of Anna Maria: "All my life I've had to do with delicious dolls made of flesh, devoid of heart and feelings. Now I am with a real woman." Nevertheless, he is often depressed. "I intend to keep on trying," he recently told a friend, "but things aren't so good down there as they used to be." And he mused not long ago: "I was a hero, the most representative man of my generation. Times have changed. Because I haven't changed much, I feel obsolete."

Mastroianni says he is not afraid of death. "Age is what I fear. I find it bestial that, at the end of life, an individual should become irritable, repetitive, no use to anyone. No use to himself. The bodies of old people stink, and this is horrible. I consider this phase of life an unjust sentence. Monstrous. Death could be a liberation."

Work is the wind that drives such clouds away, and Mastroianni thinks about work constantly, excitedly, whimsically. "You know who I'd like to play? Tarzan. I mean it! Who says Tarzan has to look like Johnny Weissmuller? Someday that ape-man has to get old, no? Can't you see me, at 75, naked? No muscles, no teeth, hardly any hair. Beating my chest and roaring feebly as I hobble through the jungle in pursuit of some gorgeous young thing. Think about it. Tarzan as a dirty old man. It could be a blockbuster, no? And finally, FINALLY, I would win an Oscar!"

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