She attended the Eleanora Duse Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and was an outstanding theatre actress, in Atuia Christie and The Petrified Forest, and had a big career in variety as well.
She did a lot of films in the thirties in small roles: La Cieca di Sorrento (34, Nunzio Malasomma); Tempo Massimo (34, Mario Mattoli); a singer in Cavalleria (36, Alessandrini); Trenta Secondi d’Amore (36, Mario Bonnard); La Principessa Tarakanova (38, Fedor Ozep and Mario Soldati); Una Lampada alia Finestra (40, Gino Talamo); La Fuggitiva (41, Piero Ballerini); and her first good part, as a singer again, in Teresa Venerdi (41, Vittorio De Sica); Finalmente Soli (42, Giacomo Gentilomo); La Fortuna Viene del Cielo (42, Akos Rathonyi); L'Avventura di Annabella (43, Leo Menardi); La Vita e Bella (43, Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia); placing lower class with Aldo Fabrizi in Campo de' Fiori (43, Bonnard) and L'Ul- tima Carrozzella (43, Mattoli); II Fiore Sotto Gli Occlii (44, Guido Brignone); and Quartette Pazzo (45, Ginlio Salvini).
So many of those films exploited her as singer and as a rather broad variety favorite. Everything changed with her small but riveting performance in Rome, Open City (45. Roberto Rossellini), the passionate death scene, and the film’s reception overseas. She was given a new range of parts, and at her age she was too wise and insecure to take them with less than a wolfs appetite. In addition, she and Rossellini were famous lovers.
She did Abbaso la Miscria! (46, Gennaro Righelli); Un Uomo Ritorna (46, Max Neufeld); II Banditto (46, Alberto Lattuada); in a modern Tosca, with Tito Gobbi, Davanti a lui Tremava tntta Roma (46, Carmine Gallone); Abbasso la Ricchezza! (47, Righelli); L'Onorevole Angelina (47, Luigi Zampa); Lo Sconosciuto di San Marino (48, Michael Waszinsky); with Eduardo De Filippo in Assunta Spina (48, Mattoli).
Rossellini then showcased her in the two parts of L’Amore (48), first as the woman on the telephone to her lover in Cocteau’s La Voix Flumaine, and then as the shepherdess, seduced by a vagrant (Federico Fellini), whom she takes for a saint. This is acting in the grand manner, half-realism, half-opera—neither role has a hint of the humor that was so strong in Magnani. But, still, she was extraordinary in L’Amore.
As Rossellini exchanged her for Ingrid Bergman, Magnani was a figure in a real melodrama, her woundedness vindicated. She made Molti Sogni per la Strada (48, Mario Camerini) and Vulcano (50, William Dieterle), a blatant response to Stromboli, and a disaster. She w'as way over the top in Bellissima (51, Luchino Visconti), playing a woman trying to get her daughter into pictures. Then, after Camicie Rosse (52, Alessandrini), as Garibaldi’s mistress, but tying to rehabilitate her former husband, she made her greatest picture, and one of the finest studies of acting—The Golden Coach (52. Jean Renoir). She also played herself in the episodic Siamo Donne (53, Visconti).
The Rose Tattoo had been written for Magnani by Tennessee Williams-—he adored her and her courage in living beyond convention. The movie (55, Daniel Mann), for which she won the Oscar, feels like a set piece, and Magnani is not as tenderly supported by the production as she was by The Golden Coach. So we feel the force of the acting too much. In American films, Magnani could never find an ordinary context.
She was a nun in Suor Latizia (56, Camerini); with Anthony Quinn and so many sheep it feels as if someone is tying to get to sleep in Wild Is the Wind (58, George Cukor); Nella Citta I'Infemo (58, Renato Castellani), in prison with Giulietta Masina; in her best American film, opposite Brando, The Fugitive Kind (60, Sidney Lumet); Risate di Gioia (60, Mario Monicelli); Mamma Roma (62, Pier Paolo Pasolini); Le Magot de Josefa (64, Claude Autant-Lara); Made in Italy (65, Nanni Loy); with Quinn again in The Secret of Santa Vittoria (69 Stanley Kramer); and then a series for Italian TV, directed by Alfredo Giannetti—1943: Un Incontro (71); L’Automobile (71); La Sciantosa (71); Correra I’Anno di Grazia (72)—before a brief final appearance in Roma (72, Fellini).
Her face was so ecstatically wounded, so sure of men's frailty, yet so driven to try again, it was hard to believe that Magnani had ever been young or demure. (She was nearly forty already in the films she is famous for.) Yet there are photographs of her from the 1930s, striving to look like a young Joan Crawford and with that striking sauce ot Latin and Arabic looks.
Her husband, film director Goffredo Alessandrini (they were married in 1934) told her to stick to the stage.