Monday, December 19, 2016

Dolce Vita Confidential by Shawn Levy

Dolce Vita Confidential
Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome by Shawn Levy
W.W. Norton & Company
9780393247589 - 480 pages
September 2016

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"Rome had always had a way of making even the most egregious aspects of its past look romantic and alluring." - Shawn Levy

1950s Rome was the epicenter of culture: fashion, film, luxury cars, Vespas, race car driving, celebrity and paparazzi. How did a city in ruins after the destruction of WWII transform itself into the epitome of glamour and fame? The answer to this is found in Shawn Levy's book Dolce Vita Confidential. In the book Levy paints the picture of postwar Italy and how luck, good timing and lots of talent transformed how the world saw Italy and how Italy saw itself.

“Italian taste – and, as well, a taste for Italy and things Italian – was spreading rapidly in the biggest market in the world [the USA].” – Shawn Levy

The focus of this book is not solely on films but there is much for the film buff to savor here. The film industry influenced many of the other aspects of the culture. For example, there was a huge increase in sales of Vespas after the release of Roman Holiday (1953). Burgeoning Italian dressmakers and designers like the Fontana Sisters, Pucci and Valentino made everything from wedding dresses, sportswear, and costumes for American film stars. The world of scandal, notoriety and gossip always intersected with the world of film.

Rome's film industry was put on pause during the war. Cinecitta, a local movie studio made 279 films before it was shut down by WWII and after the war it struggled to get back into the business. American filmmakers were coming in droves to Italy to capture the essence of what made the city such a hub of lifestyle, culture, fashion and history. But most of these were parachute projects where they filmed on location in Rome, used their own crews instead of local ones and opted out of utilizing Cinecitta as a home base for shooting interiors. They often flew back home to Hollywood to film the rest. It wasn't until American filmmakers saw the benefits, and tax breaks, of filming solely in Italy that Rome became "Hollywood on the Tiber", a term invented by TIME magazine.

Levy touches upon many of the American films shot on Hollywood on the Tiber including Prince of Foxes (1949), Quo Vadis (1951) The Barefoot Contessa (1954), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Ben-Hur (1959) and brief mentions of some '60s films including Come September (1961), Rome Adventure (1962) and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963). And then there were the many Scandaloni films: “low-budget, Italian-made, sword-and-sandal movies, bowdlerized rehashings of tales from Greek, Roman, and Judeo-Christian history and mythology.”

Then there were the Italian filmmakers of the 1950s. According to Levy, hese directors and producers "created brave new works that explored the human struggles of the moment.” These include Robert Rossellini, Dino De Laurentiis, Frederico Fellini, Carlo Ponti and more. Films discussed include The Bicycle Thief (1948), La Strada (1954) and many more. Levy lingers on the career of Fellini most of all especially his two epic works La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8-1/2 (1963).

To understand La Dolce Vita one must understand the celebrity culture of Rome. It starts with Via Veneto, a street in Rome that became the mecca for the Hollywood elite. It boasted an American embassy, American style restaurants, luxury hotels, shops and boutiques and pretty much everything an American movie star visiting the city would want to have nearby. Via Veneto also became a haunt for photojournalists who worked for the increasingly popular gossip rags and wanted to photograph the Hollywood icons at play. It was the birthplace of the celebrity and paparazzi culture complete with harassment, scandal, grit and glamour. Without Via Veneto there would be no TMZ. Fellini's La Dolce Vita captured this new culture on screen and it's most iconic scene, Anita Ekberg wading through the waters of the Trevi fountain, was based on a real incident with Ekberg who was herself a major celebrity in Rome. La Dolce Vita's effect on Rome was immediate. Via Veneto was no longer a safe place for Hollywood elite and soon became where wanna-be celebrities came seeking any morsels of fame their outrageous antics might garner them. La Dolce Vita as a catchphrase came to represent what moviegoers around the world, especially in the United States, thought life was like in Rome. And while the word paparazzi is never used in the film it was created during the making of and has stuck ever since.

Swedish actress Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita (1960)

“The idea for the film is inseparable from the idea of Anita Ekberg.” – Frederico Fellini on La Dolce Vita

Foreign celebrities like Ekberg, Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman, Linda Christian and Audrey Hepburn infiltrated Rome but a new class of Italian film stars were elbowing their way in for a chance at the spotlight. I was particularly fascinated by competition between two maggioratas ("curvy girls") Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. I'm team Lollo all the way but can appreciate what both brought to the table. Levy says "Gina had become famous and her natural beauty, her rags-to-riches story, and her aura of sexuality paired with moral decency all combined to make her an ideal of young Italian girls who all wanted to follow in her footsteps.” Sophia Loren was her polar opposite. Scandal arose from her complicated relationship to the already married Carlo Ponti and it didn't help that Loren was born out of wedlock. Both scenarios were not looked upon well by a strict Catholic culture. Loren even had to leave Italy for several years when her marriage to Ponti was not recognized by the Italian government. Lollobrigida had her own struggles; she couldn't make films with American producers due to a strange contract the ever controlling Howard Hughes made her sign. (Beat the Devil was a convenient workaround. Although it's an American film it was financed in Europe). Both became giant movie stars but in the end Lollo's heart wasn't in acting and other creative pursuits called her name. Loren went on to have a fantastic career throughout the '60s and '70s where as Lollo gave up acting in movies in the 1970s.

Sophia Loren, Yvonne De Carlo and Gina Lollobrigida. Lollo refused to be in a picture only with Loren but agreed when De Carlo stepped in to make it a trio.

I particularly enjoyed this observation Levy shares about actor Rossano Brazzi that applies to many Italian film stars of the time: “the figure held an attraction/repulsion for American audiences who were fascinated by what they saw as Continental charm and sexual libertinism but preferred to think of it, apparently, at a remove of a few thousand miles rather than on the streets they walked.” Even reluctant sex symbols like Marcello Mastroianni held the thrall of Americans at a safe distance.

Dolce Vita Confidential paints the picture of 1950s Rome in all it's glory and scandal. It's a fun and entertaining read with much information to take in. The book is very readable but it will take you a while to get through it as it's packed with much detail.

Notes: My husband is a big fan of Shawn Levy's Rat Pack Confidential and comes highly recommended by him. If you have a subscription to FilmStruck many of the Italian films mentioned in the book are available on that service.

Thank you to W.W. Norton and Company for sending me this book for review!

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