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Anna Magnani
Magnani Campo de' fiori 2.png
Magnani in The Peddler and the Lady (1943)
Anna Maria Magnani

(1908-03-07)7 March 1908
Died 26 September 1973(1973-09-26) (aged 65)
Rome, Italy
Occupation Actress
Years active 1928–1972
Goffredo Alessandrini
(m. 1935; div. 1950)
Children 1

Anna Maria Magnani (Italian pronunciation: [ˈanna maɲˈɲaːni]; 7 March 1908 – 26 September 1973) was an Italian actress. She was known for her explosive acting and earthy, realistic portrayals of characters.

Born in Rome, she worked her way through Rome's Academy of Dramatic Art by singing at night clubs. During her career, her only child was stricken by polio when he was 18 months old and remained disabled. She was referred to as "La Lupa", the "perennial toast of Rome" and a "living she-wolf symbol" of the cinema. Time described her personality as "fiery", and drama critic Harold Clurman said her acting was "volcanic". In the realm of Italian cinema, she was "passionate, fearless, and exciting," an actress whom film historian Barry Monush calls "the volcanic earth mother of all Italian cinema." Director Roberto Rossellini called her "the greatest acting genius since Eleonora Duse". Playwright Tennessee Williams became an admirer of her acting and wrote The Rose Tattoo (1955) specifically for her to star in, a role for which she received an Academy Award for Best Actress, becoming the first Italian ever - and first non English speaking woman - to win an Oscar.

After meeting director Goffredo Alessandrini, she received her first screen role in The Blind Woman of Sorrento (La cieca di Sorrento, 1934) and later achieved international attention in Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945), which is seen as launching the Italian neorealism movement in cinema. As an actress, she became recognized for her dynamic and forceful portrayals of "earthy lower-class women" in such films as L'Amore (1948), Bellissima (1951), The Rose Tattoo (1955), The Fugitive Kind (1960) and Mamma Roma (1962). As early as 1950, Life had already stated that Magnani was "one of the most impressive actresses since Garbo".

Early years

Acting on stage as Anna Christie, 1939

Magnani's parentage and birthplace are uncertain. Some sources suggest she was born in Rome, others suggest Egypt. Her mother was Marina Magnani. Film director, Franco Zeffirelli, who claimed to know Magnani well, states in his autobiography that she was born in Alexandria, Egypt, to an Italian-Jewish mother and Egyptian father, and that "only later did she become Roman when her grandmother brought her over and raised her in one of the Roman slum districts." Magnani herself stated that her mother was married in Egypt, but returned to Rome before giving birth to her at Porta Pia, and did not know how the rumour of her Egyptian birth got started. She was enrolled in a French convent school in Rome, where she learned to speak French and play the piano. She also developed a passion for acting from watching the nuns stage their Christmas plays. This period of formal education lasted until the age of 14.

She was a "plain, frail child with a forlornness of spirit". Her grandparents compensated by pampering her with food and clothes. Yet while growing up, she is said to have felt more at ease around "more earthly" companions, often befriending the "toughest kid on the block". This trait carried over into her adult life when she proclaimed, "I hate respectability. Give me the life of the streets, of common people."

At age 17, she went on to study at the Eleonora Duse Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in Rome for two years. To support herself, Magnani sang in nightclubs and cabarets; leading to her being dubbed "the Italian Édith Piaf". However, her actor friend Micky Knox writes that she "never studied acting formally" and started her career in Italian music halls singing traditional Roman folk songs. "She was instinctive" he writes. "She had the ability to call up emotions at will, to move an audience, to convince them that life on the stage was as real and natural as life in their own kitchen." Film critic David Thomson wrote that Magnani was considered an "outstanding theatre actress" in productions of Anna Christie and The Petrified Forest.

Acting career

In 1933, Magnani was acting in experimental plays in Rome when she was discovered by Italian filmmaker Goffredo Alessandrini. The couple married the same year. Nunzio Malasomma directed her in her first major film role in The Blind Woman of Sorrento (La Cieca di Sorrento, 1934).Goffredo Alessandrini directed her in Cavalry (Cavalleria, 1936). For director Vittorio De Sica, Magnani starred in Teresa Venerdì (1941). De Sica called this Magnani's "first true film". In it, she plays Loletta Prima, the girlfriend of De Sica’s character, Pietro Vignali. De Sica described Magnani's laugh as "loud, overwhelming, and tragic".

Rome, Open City (1945)

Magnani gained international renown as Pina in Roberto Rossellini's neorealist Rome, Open City (Roma, città aperta, 1945). In a film about Italy's final days under German occupation during World War II, Magnani's character dies fighting to protect her husband, an underground fighter against the Nazis.

L'Amore: The Human Voice and The Miracle (1948)

Other collaborations with Rossellini include L'Amore (1948), a two-part film which includes The Miracle and The Human Voice (Il miracolo, and Una voce umana). In the former, Magnani, playing a peasant outcast who believes the baby she is carrying is Christ, plumbs both the sorrow and the righteousness of being alone in the world. The latter film, based on Jean Cocteau's play about a woman desperately trying to salvage a relationship over the telephone. Magnani's powerful moments of silence segue into cries of despair.

Volcano (1950)

After The Miracle, Rossellini promised to direct Magnani in a film he was preparing, which he told her would be "the crowning vehicle of her career". However, when the screenplay was completed, he instead gave the role for Stromboli to Ingrid Bergman, later Rossellini's lover. This permanently ended Magnani's personal and professional association with Rossellini.

As a result, Magnani took on the starring role of Volcano (1950), which was said to have been produced to invite a comparison. Both films were shot in similar locales of Aeolian Islands, only 40 kilometres apart; both actresses played independent-minded roles in a neorealist fashion; and both films were shot simultaneously. Life wrote "in an atmosphere crackling with rivalry... Reporters were accredited, like war correspondents, to one or the other of the embattled camps...Partisanship infected the Via Veneto (boulevard in Rome), where Magnaniacs and Bergmaniacs clashed frequently." However, Magnani still considered Rossellini the "greatest director she ever acted for".

Bellissima (1951)

With director Luchino Visconti on the terrace of Palazzo Altieri, where Magnani lived in the 1950s

In Luchino Visconti's Bellissima (1951), she plays Maddalena, a blustery, obstinate stage mother who drags her daughter to Cinecittà for the 'Prettiest Girl in Rome' contest, with dreams that her plain daughter will be a star. Her emotions in the film went from those of rage and humiliation to maternal love.

The Golden Coach (1952)

Magnani then went on to star as Camille (stage name: Columbine) in Jean Renoir's film The Golden Coach (Le Carrosse d'or, 1952). She played a woman torn with desire for three men - a soldier, a bullfighter, and a viceroy. Renoir called her "the greatest actress I have ever worked with".

The Rose Tattoo (1955)

She played the widowed mother of a teenaged daughter in Daniel Mann's 1955 film, The Rose Tattoo, based on the play by Tennessee Williams. It co-starred Burt Lancaster, and was Magnani's first English-speaking role in a mainstream Hollywood movie, winning her the Academy Award for Best Actress. Lancaster, who played the role of a truck driver, said, "if she had not found acting as an outlet for her enormous vitality, she would have become a great criminal".

Tennessee Williams wrote the screenplay and based the character of Serafina on Magnani as Williams was a great admirer of her acting abilities, and he even stipulated that the movie "must star what Time described as "the most explosive emotional actress of her generation, Anna Magnani."

It was originally staged on Broadway with Maureen Stapleton, as Magnani's English was too limited at the time for her to star. Magnani won other Best Actress awards for her role, including the BAFTA Film Award, Golden Globes Award, National Board of Review, USA, and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. When her name was announced as the Oscar winner, an American journalist called her in Rome to tell her the news; his challenge was convincing her he wasn't joking.

The Fugitive Kind (1960)

Magnani worked with Tennessee Williams again for the 1960 film The Fugitive Kind (originally titled Orpheus Descending) directed by Sidney Lumet, in which she played Lady Torrance and starred with Marlon Brando. The original screenplay Orpheus Descending was another play inspired by Magnani, although she similarly did not feature in the Broadway play. In the film, she played a woman "hardened by life's cruelties and a grief that will not fade." It also co-starred a young Joanne Woodward in one of her early roles.

The Wild, Wild Women (Nella Citta' L'Inferno, 1958) paired Magnani with Giulietta Masina in a women-in-prison film.

The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969)

Anna Magnani-signed
Autographed photo, 1969

In one of her last film roles, The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969), she co-starred with Anthony Quinn, and they played husband and wife in what Life called "perhaps the most memorable fight since Jimmy Cagney smashed Mae Clarke in the face with a half a grapefruit."

Fellini's Roma (1972)

She later played herself (within a dramatic context) in Federico Fellini's Roma (1972). Towards the end of her career, Magnani was quoted as having said, "The day has gone when I deluded myself that making movies was art. Movies today are made up of…intellectuals who always make out that they’re teaching something".

Acting style

According to film critic Robin Wood, Magnani's "persona as a great actress is built, not on transformation, but on emotional authenticity... [she] doesn't portray characters but expresses 'genuine' emotions." Her style does not display the more obvious attributes of the female star, with neither her face or physical makeup being considered "beautiful", wrote Wood. However, she possesses a "remarkably expressive face," and for American audiences, at least, she represents "what Hollywood had consistently failed to produce: 'reality'". She was the atypical star, the "nonglamorous human being", as her genuine style of acting became a "rejection of glamour".

Her most distinguished work in Hollywood is in Wild Is the Wind, according to Wood. Directed by George Cukor, "the American cinema's greatest director of actresses," he was able to draw out the "individual essence" of Magnani's "sensitive and inward performance."

Personal life

During Benito Mussolini's rule, Magnani was known to make rude jokes about the Italian Fascist Party.

WithSon Life-50
Visiting her polio-stricken son Luca at a sanatorium, c. 1947

She married Goffredo Alessandrini, her first film director, in 1935, two years after he discovered her on stage. After they married, she retired from full-time acting to "devote herself exclusively to her husband", although she continued to play smaller film parts. They separated in 1942.

Magnani had a love affair with actor Massimo Serato, by whom she had her only child, a son named Luca, who was born on 29 October 1942 in Rome, after her separation from Alessandrini. At the age of 18 months, Luca contracted polio and subsequently lost the use of his legs due to paralysis. As a result, Magnani spent most of her early earnings for specialists and hospitals. After once seeing a legless war veteran drag himself along the sidewalk, she said, "I realize now that it's worse when they grow up", and resolved to earn enough to "shield him forever from want".

In 1945, she fell in love with director Roberto Rossellini while working on Roma, Città Aperta aka Rome, Open City (1945). "I thought at last I had found the ideal man... [He] had lost a son of his own and I felt we understood each other. Above all, we had the same artistic conceptions." Rossellini had become violent, volatile and possessive, and they argued constantly about films or out of jealousy. As artists, however, they complemented each other well while working on neorealist films. The two finally split apart when Rossellini fell in love with and married Ingrid Bergman.

Magnani was mystically inclined and consulted astrologers, as well as believing in numerology. She also claimed to be clairvoyant. She ate and drank very little and could subsist for long periods on nothing more than black coffee. However, these habits often affected her sleep.


On 26 September 1973, Magnani died at the age of 65 in Rome from pancreatic cancer. Huge crowds gathered for the funeral. She was provisionally laid to rest in the family mausoleum of Roberto Rossellini; but then subsequently interred in the Cimitero Comunale of San Felice Circeo in southern Lazio.

Filmography and awards

Year Title Role Notes
1928 Scampolo
1934 La cieca di Sorrento (The Blind Woman of Sorrento) Anna, la sua amante
1934 Tempo massimo Emilia
1935 Quei due (Those Two)
1936 Cavalleria (Cavalry) Fanny
1936 Trenta secondi d'amore (Thirty Seconds of Love)
1938 La principessa Tarakanova (Princess Tarakanova) Marietta, la cameriera
1940 Una lampada all finestra Ivana, l'amante di Max
1941 Teresa Venerdì Maddalena Tentini/Loretta Prima
1941 La fuggitiva Wanda Reni
1942 La fortuna viene dal cielo Zizì
1942 Finalmente soli Ninetta alias "Lulù"
1943 L'ultima carrozzella (The Last Wagon) Mary Dunchetti, la canzonettista
1943 Gli assi della risata segment "Il mio pallone"
1943 Campo de' fiori (The Peddler and the Lady) Elide
1943 La vita è bella Virginia
1943 L'avventura di Annabella (Annabella's Adventure) La mondana
1944 Il fiore sotto gli occhi Maria Comasco, l'attrice
1945 Abbasso la miseria! (Down with Misery) Nannina Straselli
1945 Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City) Pina
  • National Board of Review Award for Best Actress
  • Nastro d'Argento for Best Supporting Actress
1945 Quartetto pazzo Elena
1946 Abbasso la ricchezza! (Peddlin' in Society) Gioconda Perfetti
1946 Il bandito (The Bandit) Lidia
1946 Avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma (Before Him All Rome Trembled) Ada
1946 Lo sconosciuto di San Marino (Unknown Men of San Marino) Liana
1946 Un uomo ritorna Adele
1947 L'onorevole Angelina Angelina Bianchi
  • Nastro d'Argento for Best Actress
  • Volpi Cup
1948 Assunta Spina Assunta Spina
1948 L'amore Woman, TheThe Woman*/Nanni**
  • * in segment "Una voce umana"/** in segment "Il miracolo"
  • Nastro d'Argento for Best Actress
1948 Molti sogni per le strade Linda
1950 Volcano Maddalena Natoli
1951 Bellissima Maddalena Cecconi Nastro d'Argento for Best Actress
1952 Camicie rosse (Red Shirts) Anita Garibaldi
1953 Le Carrosse d'or (The Golden Coach) Camilla
1955 The Rose Tattoo Serafina Delle Rose
1955 Carosello del varietà (Carousel of Variety)
1957 Wild Is the Wind Gioia
1957 Suor Letizia Sister Letizia
  • Nastro d'Argento for Best Actress
1957 Nella città l'inferno Egle
  • David di Donatello for Best Actress
  • Grolla d'Oro Best Actress
  • Sant Jordi Award for Best Performance in a Foreign Film
  • Nominated — Nastro d'Argento for Best Actress
1960 The Fugitive Kind Lady Torrance
1960 The Passionate Thief Gioia Fabbricotti
1962 Mamma Roma Mamma Roma
1966 Made in Italy Adelina
  • In segment "La famiglia"
  • Nominated — Nastro d'Argento for Best Supporting Actress
1969 The Secret of Santa Vittoria Rosa Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1971 Tre donne La sciantosa - Flora Bertucciolli; 1943: Un incontro - Jolanda Morigi; L'automobile - Anna Mastronardi 3-part TV miniseries
1971 Correva l'anno di grazia 1870 (1870) Teresa Parenti Italian Golden Globe Award for Best Actress
1972 Roma Herself

Video clips

with Marlon Brando

with Anthony Quinn with Marcello Mastroianni

See also

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