Once Upon a Time in Rome

What happens when Hollywood actors big (Anthony Quinn) and small (Lee Van Cleef) decamp to Italy for money, fame, or simply more work?
David Cairns

A significant subplot of Quentin Tarantino's ninth feature, Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood, involves the offer of work to fading movie stars from the Italian film business, where a few got lucky and reinvigorated their careers and others merely paid the rent or tarnished their reputations, if any.

This notion is certainly not one of Q.T.'s notorious counter-historical plot turns: Italy had been offering opportunities to Hollywood and European flotsam since the fifties.

In the era of Il Boom, the post-war economic miracle, filmmakers, including actors, were offered a great deal: they could live and work in Italy tax-free for a year. Projects were not only re-written to take advantage of this possibility, they were conceived for it: it's uncertain Roman Holiday would exist without the big tax break incentive.

For actors, there was clearly another consideration, beyond the big, or at least tax-exempt, bucks and the good food and climate: a moderate star, struggling to make an impression in L.A., could attract bigger parts in foreign productions, gaining a kind of exotic allure. Thus John Drew Barrymore, perpetually in the shadow of his father's Great Profile, a juvenile star aging out of his casting niche, pitched up in Rome as the hero of sword and sandal mini-epics and two proto-giallo thrillers, Delitto allo specchi (1964), a.k.a. Death on the Fourposter, and Crimine a Due (1964), a.k.a. A Game of Crime.

It was the era of the peplum, and every weight-lifter in America, it appeared, was slipping into a tunic to play Hercules or Ursus or Maciste, but the Italian studio Cinecittà was alive with genres and sub-genres. It was the scornfully-named "spaghetti western" that showed how television actors and supporting heavies could be reinvented abroad: Clint, of course, but also Lee Van Cleef, working as a house painter when he got the call from Sergio Leone. He'd played the second bad guy from the end in movies like High Noon (1952): small parts in big movies. And he'd played second lead in Roger Corman's drive-in extravaganza It Conquered the World (1956): big parts in little movies. His main distinguishing trait was that he had his nostrils on the sides of his nose instead of underneath, like a person.

Leone must have loved that, as he loved the actor's missing fingertip. But he loved the associations with Hollywood westerns, too: when, in For a Few Dollars More (1965), Van Cleef produces a pocket watch with a picture of a dead loved one in it, prior to taking revenge for her death, he's mirroring what Gregory Peck did to him in The Bravados seven years earlier.

The Hollywood B-list were turning up for art-movie work. And who knows, maybe the ability to snag foreign stars helped change Fellini's aesthetic: how could you have real realism with dubbed Americans leading the cast? By the time of La strada (1954), Anthony Quinn's larger-than-life presence is helping warp reality into the surreal circus that would become familiar in the Maestro's later extravaganzas.

These art-house hits—add Steve Cochran in Antonioni's Il grido (1957) and Richard Harris in Red Desert (1964), Terence Stamp in Pasolini's Theorem (1968), Rod Steiger in Rosi's Hands Over the City (1963), Burt Lancaster in Visconti's The Leopard (1963)—meant that there was an alibi for going Italian: it needn't be regarded as a step down. The right kind of film could actually enhance a performer's prestige, and the wrong kind of film... well, with luck, you might be able to pass that off as the right kind.

James Mason once said that an actor like him might do an Italian western (he did) on the assumption nobody would ever see it, but the wretched thing would probably get picked for the Royal Command Performance.

The whole Hollywood invasion—and the influx of British and French and German stars—was made possible by the unique filmmaking practice of Italy. Everything was dubbed, so all the nationalities could be mixed together and nobody in Italy questioned it. (When Sophia Loren finally spoke with her own voice, it got a nasty laugh from local audiences as her accent was considered too working class.)

Rod Steiger was able to get Leone to record a proper live dialogue track for Duck, You Sucker! (1971), but all the maestro's previous films were re-dubbed (and sometimes re-written) into English. Another American actor, Mickey Knox, who had been driven to Europe by the blacklist, got the job of massaging the English dialogue, artistically manipulating it to match the lip movements while making grammatical sense. (My favorite Knox translation is in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), where an Andersonville guard instructs his POWs to sing louder to drown out the screams of a torture victim. The actor had said "Più forte," which means "Louder," but does not look like it. "More feeling," was Knox's brilliant and darkly hilarious solution.)

Lionel Stander, another blacklistee, turns up in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), one of the weirder cameos, since this most urban of actors is called upon to sing the praises of the quiet country life. Italian genre films, already frankly nuts, got loonier in the sixties and seventies, and could incorporate eccentric casting choices. Bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay (Mr. Jayne Mansfield) largely missed out on the muscleman peplum craze but played psycho-killers in 1965's Bloody Pit of Horror (torturing models in a superhero costume) and the aptly named Delirium (1972), where he played "a respected doctor" who kills in his spare time.

Farley Granger, an early emigrant for Visconti's Senso back in '54, moved to Rome in the early seventies for sleazy gialli like Amuck (1972), The Sensuous Doll (1972), and So Sweet, So Dead (1972), which didn't have quite the same cachet. Eli Wallach followed his turn for Leone by making Don't Turn the Other Cheek (1971), one of those Mexican Revolution flicks, with Franco Nero and Lynne Redgrave. Lynn Redgrave! Andy Warhol popped up as an "English lord" opposite Liz Taylor in Guiseppe Patroni Griffi's The Driver's Seat in 1974.

Sometime in the seventies, Italian cinema stopped being international, and international audiences stopped being willing to overlook dodgy looping. Bertolucci's 1900, in 1976, was probably the grand finale of this phase. Already in The Conformist (1970) Bertolucci had cast Frenchman Jean-Louis Trintignant as an Italian fascist honeymooning in Paris, without confusing anyone. In 1900, made possible by the sensation that was Last Tango in Paris, he cast Robert De Niro and Lancaster as Italian landowners, with Gérard Depardieu and Sterling Hayden as peasants. Any version of the film you see will have somebody dubbed: best go for the Italian, which at least is the language everyone's supposed to be speaking.

The heyday of Italian cinema, when it did more than any other country to break down barriers of language, culture, and genre by co-opting American genres, importing American and other stars, and acting as if linguistic differences simply didn't exist, was a heady period. And it offered actors whose Hollywood careers were on the wane a chance to regroup, rebrand, stay out of television—and have better catering.

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