This post was originally posted on the blog for the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter.
Grazia Guila Gigante, Emily King, Isabel Davies and Sophie Adams
Whilst studying an Italian film module which focused on the representation of beauty in contemporary cinema, we developed a personal interest in the culture and history behind popular Italian film stars. We relished the opportunity to explore this further through the research and compilation of our exhibition at the Bill Douglas Centre, focusing our research on the glamourous era of the 1950s and 60s. Whilst our module had given us an excellent introduction to Italian contemporary film, researching at The Bill Douglas Centre provided us with a unique opportunity to discover primary sources firsthand. We had access to an extensive selection of extra-textual material, ranging from artists’ sketches to popular magazines of the time, with a vast array of material showcasing both the on-screen and off-screen personas of famous film stars of this era.
In an interview with Barbara Walters Sophia Loren affirms: ‘I’m not Italian, I’m Neapolitan! it’s another thing’. The question of national and regional and class identity is particularly interesting when analysing the ‘maggiorata’ phenomenon from an Italian point of view. The bodies of Sophia Loren and Lollobrigida are not only stereotypically Italian they are ‘napoletani’ and ‘romani’. Sophia Loren and Lollobrigida both played roles that enhanced these regional characteristics, emphasizing not only their physicality but also their accents. Their pin up bodies were regularly placed and shot in agricultural environments, around fields and rivers, as were other Italian female stars of the period. During our research in the Bill Douglas centre we have seen how this was the case, as seen in this iconic image from “Bitter Rice”.
Their social upbringings are also significant; most of the beloved 1950s actresses came from a poorer background, usually rural. Audiences experienced a glamorizing portrayal of the lower classes. A great number of people now saw, with these women, a representation of their values and customs on screen. The depiction of the lower classes interested the Neo-realism movement too, but with a different focus, with contrasting aims. Films starring these beautiful women were usually comedies, comedies that did not have an explicit primary interest in social comment and critique. But it would be wrong to think that Italian actresses of the 1950s engaged only with light comedy roles. In La Ciociara Sophia Loren demonstrates that she was also an established actress.
We also focused on the film industry’s heightened fascination on the female body and its sexualisation. As we have seen in films of this period that we watched as part of our module, there was a very conscious effort from directors and the stars themselves to draw attention to the ever popular ‘maggiorata fisica’ and this in itself drew large audiences. This refers to the exaggerated female shape with voluptuous curves that was the common throughout the film stars of this period. From the fetishistic stockings of Silvana Mangano in ‘Riso Amaro’ to the corseted costumes of Sophia Loren in ‘La Bella Mugnaia’, the female shape started to take a starring role in Italian cinema and this was apparent in most of the sources we found as the media exploited these women’s shapes and rarely printed an image without a hint of Loren or Lollobridgida’s famous busts.
We also explored the cultivation of Loren’s image as a film star and her transition from sex symbol to maternal figure. In the 1950’s and 60’s the notion of paparazzi was still a relatively new phenomenon, and thus the film stars could still control more easily the image of themselves that was portrayed in the mass media.
Looking more closely at Sophia Loren, her exuberance and vitality were positive aspects for which she was admired but she also developed a maternal appeal over the course of her career as we discovered through several interviews with her in magazines of the time. As she already strongly embodied femininity with her overtly feminine physique, being a mother was another form of femininity which she could portray.
The transition of her image from sex symbol to an actress of substance and a maternal figure can be largely attributed to her aforementioned role as Cesira in Two Women or ‘La Ciociara’ in 1960. It was interesting to put the images next to each other in the exhibition and see the juxtaposition between her well put-together beauty of many of the star portraits and the more dishevelled portrayal of her in the film.
This role greatly contributed to the cultivation of a more robust image of Loren which ensured that she would be remembered not just for her beauty but for her skills as an actress too.
Overall, this experience was extremely rewarding as it gave us the chance to build upon our knowledge of the films that we have studied through the use of invaluable artefacts contemporary to the era. The Bill Douglas centre gave us the opportunity to access relevant sources that allowed us to delve deeper into the personal lives of these Italian film stars and their representation in English and American press. This provided us with an alternative viewpoint to that which we had already explored in class, and a more extensive grasp of this dynamic topic, which we felt lent itself excellently to a visual exhibition.