Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Female writers, performers, and film scholars discuss the legacy of Anna Magnani and the fine art of “giving no fucks”
Whether playing an impoverished stage mom hellbent on landing her daughter a gig in a commercial (Bellissima), a streetwalker turned hard-bitten convict (...And The Wild Women), or the hot-tempered star of a commedia dell’arte troupe touring Latin America in the 19th century (The Golden Coach), Anna Magnani incinerates the screen. The actress, nicknamed “La Lupa” (the She-Wolf) for her fierce, visceral acting style, is the current recipient of a career-length retrospective ongoing at TIFF Bell Lightbox until March 11. Last week, TIFF brought four fellow she-wolves together for a screening of Magnani’s breakthrough film Rome, Open City to discuss what makes a great female performance.
Jan Caruana is a prolific Toronto improviser and comedy writer, who is particularly excellent at Bad Dog Theatre.
Jocelyn Geddie is a film scholar, television scriptwriter and comedy writer/performer.
Theresa Scandiffio is the Director of Adult Learning at TIFF and resident Magnani superfan.
Chandler Levack is a filmmaker and is an editor/writer at TIFF.
TS: Magnani’s role in Rome, Open City was the one that got her on the international map: it sets the tone for her future roles as this earthy, fiery woman. Italian neorealism has often been talked about as non-professional actors in a real-life setting, but Magnani was a trained actor: she started off in vaudeville, in comedy, she could sing and dance. This movie has a more naturalistic style, but it’s important to remember that she was performing.
CL: I thought she had so much more allowance to be a real person than the other women in the movie. She's a fully fleshed-out character.
JG: She occupies such an interesting role in the film, as someone who exists in counterpoint to the other women — not only because she's such a luminous and extraordinary actress, but because of that incredible introduction. It sets her up as an incredibly real and grounding force in the film.
JC: “Grounded” is a great word for her. She’s also very earthy — she’s pregnant and unmarried, which, at the time, was hugely stigmatized. In comparison, the other women in the film are merely pawns. Magnani’s character takes on such an active role, not only in her cause [the Resistance], but in her life. I was shocked when she died.
TS: Throughout Magnani's career, she played women who are fiery, forceful, in your face. One of the most memorable things we see her do in Rome, Open City is telling people off: she's telling the German soldiers to go to hell, she's standing up for herself, and, by extension, for her people and her country. The thing is that her performance in that film was so powerful, and was written about so much, that it became how people understood her, as both an actor and a person. At one point [in her career] she even said, "I need to break through this stereotype of just being this loud, working-class character."
The funny thing is that she actually was getting opportunities to explore a wider range of roles, and show all these emotional registers that weren't necessarily afforded to actresses back then: Tennessee Williams was writing parts specifically for her, to give her the space to really own it. But then, when critics saw her in these parts, they still interpreted it as, “oh no, this emotional woman!”
JC: I do mostly improv and sketch comedy, and what’s interesting is that in those types of shows, you can be whoever you want. You can be a six-year-old kid, or an 80-year-old black man… I'm neither of those things, but because I'm on an empty stage I have a lot of freedom to play a lot of different characters.
The thing that always came up, especially earlier in my career, was people commenting on the way I look. Like, "Oh, isn't it so funny that a bigger woman can be agile and physical, or play a young girl who is spritely and light?" That's not necessarily something specific to women, but I think many women can relate.
CL: I think it is something specific to women. It makes me think about when I started doing theatre as a kid. The best parts in the play were always the female lead who’s the love interest, and for me, because of the way I looked, it was immediately, "Okay, you're gonna get character roles — you’re gonna be the witch."
JC: When I was in high school, I had a drama teacher who said, "You would make a terrific teacher, because you won't go out in the world and work." I'm very stubborn, so that made me go, "What? Forget you!" I think most of my working life has been based on spite.
JG: Spite is such a great way to put it. As a woman working in the arts, you constantly have one eye on how you're being viewed externally. So much of working in comedy is about confounding those expectations that are based on your appearance. Anna Magnani, who is such a magnetic, incredible actress, felt a growing dissatisfaction with the way she was being limited and curtailed over the course of her career, to the extent that she eventually expressed a discontent with movies as an art form in general.
TS: Magnani was able to break free in part because of her collaborators. Look at the filmmakers she worked with: Rossellini, Fellini, Visconti, Renoir, George Cukor, Sidney Lumet. All these directors were scrambling to work with this woman who didn’t at all adhere to what a female heroine was supposed to act or look like. Every movie is the equivalent of Magnani kicking the door open. You have her role in The Passionate Thief where she's playing a Cinecittà actress who is exploding in her extras scenes. There’s hundreds in the crowd and she's the one yelling louder than everyone else. In Wild is the Wind, she's playing a very different character who’s a little more green, quieter. Slowly, the fire builds and she speaks up. Then there’s her role in The Rose Tattoo, which was her first English language film, she won an Academy Award for it. I'm interested in hearing about these kinds of contradictions, where people are boxed in [by people’s perceptions], have huge success, break free — but then 50 years later, those same stereotypes are still being trotted out.
JC: This isn't exactly analogous … but I focus mainly on comedy, and it’s very rarely that I get to audition for something that’s dramatic. People don't knock on my door and say, "We're doing a remount of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and we want you to play Maggie!" People love boxing others in because it makes it easier to define you.
JG: Not that we should view actors as a commodities, but in a certain sense that is what it turns into.
TS: Are there people in Toronto who are actively looking for female performers as collaborators?
JC: I had the honour to do one very small part on Baroness von Sketch Show. Maybe it’s because they're all improvisers, but you can see them collaborating with each other, the director, and the camerapeople. They were very supportive of any new idea or new line that you could bring to the table. A lot of people are like, “Please do the lines as written” and be done, right? That was an amazingly collaborative set.
JG: Jill Soloway talked about that approach: the cast of Transparent discussed how different that experience was. There's a certain explosive energy when things feel more real, more grounded. You're not just saying a particular set of lines, you have a real stake in what's being delivered.
CL: Speaking as someone who is just starting to direct and work with actors, maybe those constraints come out of a director’s fear or insecurity. Because if you give an actor free rein to really collaborate, they might do something that's different than what you thought it would be. It might even challenge the idea of the film you think you're making. When you treat your actor as an equal, they ultimately become the author of your film. That idea can be really scary if you feel like you need to be in control.
TS: Magnani was intrinsically capable of seeing what needed to be filled in, while pushing the boundaries. Those directors who were secure and saw what kind of artistry she was trying to do celebrated that it came with her unapologetically giving no fucks. When you're able to have a shared vision, you feel safe to explore yourself. You can push and you'll know that someone is there to catch you, not to hold you back.
CL: Aside from Magnani, can you think of a female performer that you saw at a young age where you felt like you recognized yourself for the first time?
JC: Oh boy, that's a really good question. There's always the old standbys where you reach back to your childhood. Like watching re-runs on Saturday Night Live and seeing Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin or Catherine O'Hara on SCTV, The Carol Burnett Show. I don't know if I specifically looked at those shows and went, "I could do that!" But I remember thinking, "That would be so fun."
TS: For me growing up, it was Lily Tomlin. When I first started seeing her, Magnani, and Giulietta Masina, I thought, "those are people in my family."
JG: Among the many weird women that I've admired over the course of my career, from comedians like Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders to actresses like Sissy Spacek and Anna Magnani[,] they all have this ability to occupy space. It's so ballsy to not just play a moment, but exist and be that presence that really opens you up to an audience.
TS: They're taking up space, but people aren't repulsed. They're wooed.
JC: They have this orbit and you wish to be pulled into it. They're like a planet.
CL: When I saw Me and You and Everyone We Know by Miranda July and Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture, I had this epiphany that you could not only be the writer, but the director, the star. Those women said, “You have to look at me, it's my story, and I'm the one telling it.” It was really inspiring to know that women who looked and thought like me could express their worldview, especially cinematically.
JG: We’re used to seeing women show up and provide lines to someone else, contribute to someone else's story. That term "a strong female character" is so overused that it means absolutely nothing. I think what they really mean is someone who exists as a human being with multiple goals and a multifaceted approach to people, places, and life.
CL: We came of age during a horrible time for female actresses. There were all those ’90s teen movies, Jennifer Love Hewitt… so many women with visible thongs! I think there are more women who are creating content behind the camera. And they’re not all white women, which is good.
TS: Talking about intersectional identity, we have to thoughtfully push past that… Because it’s not enough that it’s women [behind the camera, it’s a question of] who's represented, whose stories are being told. Who's funding it? Who's in control?
JC: You hear about how comedy is a boys’ club, and it absolutely is. But in 15 years that I've been improvising, I was very lucky to grow up with very strong women and very supportive men. I remember when I was in my 20s, I took a class full of 40-year-old guys who said [in an improv performance] "Here's this leather outfit I got you." I was just like, “I'm gonna strive to be so good that nobody could bully me onstage.” When somebody tries, again, it's that spiteful nature in me that goes, "You think this is gonna happen?" Then I just wanna demolish you. I think you have to give yourself permission to say, "I have one hundred fucks and none of them of yours." You have to literally, physically take up space and be so on top of things that no one can put one over on you.
JG: I've seen you be put into situations [on stage] that you've flipped on their head in the next line. Whoever has put you into that situation has now found themselves on the receiving end; it's a fascinating thing to watch. It’s about giving yourself that latitude to insist your perspective be heard.
CL: That reminds me of this story in Tina Fey’s book Bossypants. Amy Poehler was new to Saturday Night Live, she was doing something loud and disgusting in rehearsal, and Jimmy Fallon said, "Stop that! It’s not cute! I don't like it." Poehler responded, "I don’t fucking care if you like it." When I was at the [Canadian Film Centre], I would get notes on my script like, "Your female lead is unlikeable." We're still realizing that women in movies can be afforded the same allowances to be selfish, make mistakes, screw up. We've always given those freedoms to male anti-heroes because we can separate who that [actor] is from the character they play.
JC: You want to be with people that you trust enough to catch you. But it's almost more than that, you want to be with people that you trust enough to raise you up. The best shows I've done, I don't remember what happened, because you're so in the moment that the second you walk offstage you go, “Whoa, was that a weird dream?"
CL: Watching [Open City] today, the thing that impressed me the most was Magnani’s physicality. The first time you see her, she has that incredible, slumped-over walk. There's no vanity to her performance, it just feels effortless. I guess that's part of the tradition of neorealism, when you cast for the authenticity of the person. But in that moment, it felt like Magnani made the choice not to make a choice.
TS: Here’s a quote from Sergio Amidi, the screenwriter of Rome, Open City: “Neorealism wasn't about being unprofessional. It was about creating a new language, something Magnani contributed to through her acting."
JG: I think that feeling was a combination of very subtle acting choices Magnani was making in a film language that's different. Because the shot scale is wider and the length is longer. The feeling it communicates to the viewer is precisely calibrated, but what emerges is this totally different film personality, a feeling of connection to an actor who doesn't feel like one.
CL: Final question: how do you think a female performer like Magnani, or a great female performance in general, changes the way we think about women?
JC: Well, we're all standing on the shoulders of giants. I couldn't do what I do, on the small scale that I do it, without the people both locally and globally who came before me. With every great female performer, it brings us one step closer to the next one.