Sixty years ago, Claudia Cardinale delivered what arguably ranks among the greatest back-to-back performances in movie history when she starred in two masterpieces of Italian cinema, Federico Fellini’s 8½ and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard. The films premiered within months of each other in 1963, with Fellini winning an Academy Award for best foreign-language film and Visconti winning the Palme d’Or. But perhaps even more impressive is that Cardinale, who was just 25 at the time, shot both films concurrently, toggling not just between two sets but between two auteurs and their entirely different visions for her.
In 8½, Cardinale played an angelic muse to a spiritually and creatively broken-down movie director (Marcello Mastroianni) in a film that articulated the search for meaning in a postwar world; in The Leopard, she portrayed the future daughter-in-law of a proud nobleman (Burt Lancaster) in a sweeping tale of Italy’s lost, aristocratic past.
For Cardinale, the shooting schedule didn’t only require her to keep the details of her two wildly different characters straight; it meant regularly remaking herself to satisfy the vision of each ambitious director. “I had very long dark hair,” Cardinale has said of the experience. “Fellini wanted me to be blonde and Luchino Visconti like I am, dark. I had to change the color every two weeks.”
Those two films seared Cardinale into the consciousness of American audiences and made her part of a beautiful wave of young European actresses, such as Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren, who managed to break into Hollywood. Cardinale would go on to star in such films as The Pink Panther (the original, alongside David Niven); Once upon a Time in the West, Sergio Leone’s wild, sprawling coda to his so-called spaghetti-Western trilogy; and Werner Herzog’s study in obsession and madness, Fitzcarraldo.
Yet, for all her success and endurance—the 84-year-old Italian actress has made more than 150 features across nearly seven decades—Cardinale’s life has not been without drama. While she is, along with Loren, seen as the epitome of the Italian film goddess, she came to acting by accident.
“Fellini wanted me to be blonde and Luchino Visconti like I am, dark. I had to change the color every two weeks.”
Born in Tunisia to French and Italian immigrant parents, she grew up speaking not Italian but her mother’s native French, and wanted to become a teacher. But when she won a contest in 1957 to find “the most beautiful Italian girl in Tunisia,” she earned a trip to the Venice Film Festival, where she was invited to study at an acting school in Rome.
Once she arrived, Cardinale found herself unable to master Italian, so she dropped out and fled back to Tunisia. It was there, while she was walking home one day, aged 17, that a man in a car grabbed and raped her, impregnating her. She gave birth to the child (for many years, Cardinale said the boy was her brother) and later, determined to find success, decided to try acting again. She soon was cast in a small role opposite Mastroianni and Vittorio Gassman in Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), which would be her Italian debut—and an international hit.
The success of the movie got Cardinale roles in what would become other landmarks of postwar Italian cinema, thanks in large part to her performances—Jacques Baratier’s Goha (1958), starring opposite Omar Sharif; Rocco and His Brothers (1961), Visconti’s neo-realist masterpiece where Cardinale appears with a young Alain Delon; and Valerio Zurlini’s Girl with a Suitcase (1961), where she breaks your heart as a showgirl who becomes the object of desire of a young boy.
Most of these films have been out of circulation for decades. Now, in collaboration with the Cinecittà film studio in Rome, all of them, and many others that showcase the emotional range and intelligence Cardinale brought to her performances, have been restored and are being shown as part of a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
It’s a rare chance to see Cardinale on the big screen and fall under her spell, just like Mastroianni did in 8½when he first caught a glimpse of the young actress, seemingly floating out of the ether.
“Claudia Cardinale,” featuring 23 of the actress’s films, including Federico Fellini’s 8½ and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, is on at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, through February 21
Michael Hainey is a Writer at Large for Air Mail