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I think the most amusing aspect of this turning point in my life,
of this transformation from a dramatic author
to a comic film actor-
was, in fact, the meeting with Fellini
that brought about this change in my life.
The meeting took place under the Galleria Colonna
almost exactly half a century ago, in 1949,
two years before The White Sheik was released.
Back then, under the Galleria Colonna there was a café called the Caffè Berardo.
It was, in a sense, the headquarters of vaudeville theater.
Vaudeville was poor. No one could afford an actual office.
I would write until late at night then rest a little,
and in the late morning I would go to the Galleria Colonna
to meet a young ingenue named Olga.
Back then, I regret to say, I was driven by a strong *** impulse.
Olga frequented the Galleria Colonna in hopes of finding work.
The poor thing was a chorus dancer.
One morning, when I got there, from far off I saw a heavyset young man
standing next to an actor with a slightly curved spine, Giulio Calì.
In his arms he was holding a large goose.
Perhaps it was to trade for something else,
or maybe he needed it as a prop in some show.
And this young man started waving to me from afar.
Our conversation was entirely silent, like a dialogue between mimes.
I can't tell it. I can only reproduce it. He went like this:
Then he mouths: "I want to talk to you."
And I answered, in the middle of all that chaos:
"If you want to talk to me, you come over here.
Why should I go over there?"
So he came over and said: "You're Leopoldo Trieste, aren't you?
You can write. Why do you waste your time here every morning?"
With the temper I had back then, I was about to tell him to go to hell.
But I liked the young man.
He was very likeable.
I said to him: "My life has been one big mistake.
I've been the victim of a typically southern misconception."
I'm Calabrese, and in Calabria people have a certain belief.
They believe that women are attracted to educated men.
Thanks to this misguided belief, I became a scholar of Latin, Greek,
linguistics, ethnology, and history of religions.
I spoke ancient Greek. I could read Aeschylus like you read the paper.
Then I realized that not only are women not attracted to educated men,
but they mistrust them, are annoyed by them, and feel uneasy around them.
They develop inferiority complexes.
In Fellini's mind, Ivan Cavalli was a lot like Leopoldo.
His characters were often reshaped to fit the actor chosen for the part.
And as Leopoldo was the kind of man who never had a hair out of place,
with his little hat on his head and his tight little jackets,
Fellini adapted the character to fit Leopoldo Trieste.
About a year later, I got a call.
"Leopoldo, do you remember-"
He had told me that his name was Federico Fellini,
that he was at the Galleria Colonna
because he was working on a film with a friend, Alberto Lattuada,
which was Luci del varietà, which I didn't see when it came out.
He said: "Listen, Leopoldo, I'm ready to move on
from screenwriting and assistant directing to actually directing.
I'm making a film called The White Sheik.
Since I remembered that you have certain problems of an *** nature,
I'm offering you a chance to solve them once and for all.
You see, if you become an actor
and you have a person who ties your shoelaces,
another who combs your hair, and another who fixes your tie,
perhaps an assistant director who whispers in your ear:
'At the bar next door there is a young lady, an extra,
who would like to talk to you.' You'd be all set - if you say yes."
"What do you mean, say yes?" "Just do an audition."
"An audition? You're crazy!
I don't want an audition. I don't want to be an actor."
And he said: "First of all, you would be auditioning for the producer.
The producer wants to cast someone like Totò, or Peppino de Filippo -"
"Peppino de Filippo! You mean you want me to be a comic actor?"
I actually got mad at him. "I'm a dramatist!
You've got me all wrong! Leave me alone."
"Listen, Leopoldo, you belong to the race of clowns."
I remember his exact words. "You're a clown.
You were destined from birth for the stage.
You could write, you could direct theater,
you could be a stage actor, a film actor.
Anything that has to do with the theater is a part of you.
So please don't turn your back on this opportunity.
Just this once, make this film."
What he had said to me
about actors getting all the women,
which I already knew, of course, was a temptation.
But I said I didn't want to do an audition.
So he said, "Let's try something.
I'll stand behind the Arriflex,
and you'll stand in front of it.
I'll ask you a simple question, and you'll answer it.
If we like it, we'll show it to Rovere, the producer."
The question was: "If you were to write a poem dedicated to your woman,
what would it be? A madrigal?"
He wanted to sound intellectual. I guess he thought it sounded chic.
So I said: "Perhaps a sonnet," and he said: "Try composing one."
It was supposed to be a poem that my character would have written.
So I began: "She is graceful, sweet and teeny..."
Let's hear the poem you composed for your fiancée.
The one that goes: "She is graceful, sweet and teeny"?
- Yes. - It's an ode.
"She is graceful, sweet and teeny,
and everyone calls her-"
Here's your fettucine!
While I was talking, I felt connected to Fellini, as if by a string.
Those intense eyes were an inspiration that drew the words from my mouth.
So the words came easily. They just flowed from my mind.
Then, all of a sudden, I could no longer see Fellini's eyes.
"Where did he go?" I thought. He wasrt standing behind the camera.
I suddenly realized that he was on the ground!
He had collapsed on the ground in a pool of tears.
He said, "That's enough. I'm taking this to Rovere."
How did I meet Fellini and how was I chosen
for the role of Wanda in The White Sheik?
It came about by chance.
I went to see a play with my friend Paolo di Valmarana.
He said, "Let's go see this play with Giulietta Masina."
They were performing I Quattro Rusteghi by Goldoni.
I immediately realized Fellini was watching me
with a certain curiosity.
He was studying me.
He asked me, "You were in De Sica's Miracle in Milan, werert you?"
I said yes.
We continued talking and he asked me some other questions
while we watched the play,
just like that.
A little while later they called me to come in and audition.
Fellini called me.
So we started talking, and he says,
"I've got a good part for you if it works out."
So they put me in the wife's costume with the little hat and all,
and we went to Titanus, which is unfortunately no longer there,
the Titanus facilities, which were very beautiful.
Now there are buildings there and such,
because unfortunately all things come to an end.
I did an audition that seemed to go on forever
because I had the part already, practically speaking.
Alberto Sordi auditioned with me for the role of the White Sheik,
and Aroldo Tieri as well, also for the same role,
because at this point he was ready to cast the male roles.
For the role of the husband, Ivan Cavalli,
I auditioned with Leopoldo Trieste,
who was subsequently chosen,
and with Peppino De Filippo.
Production was scheduled to begin in the summer.
Then, due to the usual delays, we ended up starting in the fall.
It wasrt my turn yet.
So Fellini called and asked me to visit him on the set
so as to become familiar with the process.
He was very nice. He sent a car to take me to Fregene,
because the car that took the actors left very early in the morning.
When I got there,
I realized right away that this man worked at a rapid pace.
He was very quick to decide where to place the camera.
He was very sure of himself. He hardly ever had to move it.
I asked him, "Do you prepare ahead of time?"
He said, "It's impossible to prepare when making a film.
Even if I imagine what the location is going to be like,
inevitably it's different.
The clouds will be different. There might be a tree I wasrt expecting.
You have to adapt to the situation.
But once you've decided, you mustrt waste any time.
Usually your first intuition turns out to be right."
He was extremely frightened,
but like the good actor he always was, he hid it well.
Not completely, because we could tell that he was nervous.
He was frightened because, based on what he told me,
his past experience as screenwriter and assistant director to Rossellini
had been rather marginal.
He wasrt a true assistant director, as I was to him, for instance.
He would speak to Rossellini, he would keep an eye on things,
but more often than not, he didn't really work on Rossellini's films.
Fellini made split-second decisions about where to put the camera
and was extraordinary in the way he used the camera.
All this thanks to an amazing memory, which allowed him to do the editing.
He didn't even need a continuity supervisor to keep track of the shots,
because he kept it all in his head.
The first day of filming was very dramatic.
There we were, all in costume,
Alberto Sordi dressed all like a sheik, with a big cape,
with veils and all that.
So we set out to film at Fiumicino, right near-
At the mouth of the Tiber.
There was a strong current.
The two characters were in this little boat,
tied to a larger boat or ship,
which held Fellini and the cameras and crew.
At a certain point the sea got quite rough
with the current from the river and all.
At a certain point these two boats
were moving too much,
and our little boat so much so
that Fellini was afraid he'd lose his lead actors.
So we had to stop because it was impossible to film.
One day, while we were working, the crew-
There was Sordi and myself,
one of us on either side.
To show the movement of the waves, and that the boat was rocking,
one crew member would call out, "Push on that side. Pull on that side."
And the other would say the opposite.
At a certain point we werert in sync,
and the two actors were thrown into the water.
We were soaked like two little chicks.
We came out all - You have no idea.
The White Sheik was thoroughly drenched, and so was I.
We had to wait two or three hours to dry off.
A lot of my friends have told me,
paying me a compliment,
"You were really good,
especially in your supporting moments.
You acted exactly as the character should have
even when other things were going on,
when other characters were speaking."
And it's actually true. I realized it myselflater,
when I would watch the film again.
Basically I entered into the character.
Having a leading role,
I had lots of time to get into the character,
so as a result it was really the character herself coming through.
Of course Fellini's direction was very, very important,
because he had a -
He was so sweet
in his way of looking after the actors, being with them, asking them things,
in drawing out what he wanted.
He never forced you.
He allowed each actor to bring out the character on his own.
But in a certain sense it was the character dictating my actions.
He gave me the sense of sweetness that he had with people.
As I said before, he loved his characters.
He caressed them and really loved them.
He felt as if they were his creations.
So he conveyed this sweetness to you,
and I seized hold of it.
I felt like Fellini had this gift
by which he could read the eyes of his actors.
He was so precise.
It was as if he could weigh the actors' feelings on a pharmacist's scale,
because he gave me such precise instructions.
He spoke to my intelligence. He knew I could truly understand him.
He'd say, "Leopoldo, you should always have a little irony-"
I remember he'd say, "Leopoldo, open your eyes wide here."
So I opened them.
As wide as they'll go!"
"But the audience will be disgusted."
"No, it'll be your trademark.
You'll be known for it. Exaggerate. It'll be your trademark.
Other actors are known for other things. You'll be known for this."
He'd say, "Here, furrow your brow.
No, relax your forehead.
Don't furrow it. It has to be completely smooth.
When you're surprised, you have to look like this."
He gave me very technical directions.
"Talk a little louder.
A smidge louder, a smidge louder," as if he were weighing it on a scale.
"That's right. Now it's perfect."
The film was a satire aimed at a type of comic strip magazine
and cheap literature
that was very low-class compared to true culture.
It was immediately after the war,
and there was an explosion of this type of simple literature,
aimed at a much simpler class.
Ladies and housewives everywhere
read these comic strip magazines, without exception.
He was always looking at the world
with a critical, amused eye.
He loved satire.
In fact, that's what his comics were known for.
The popularity of comics at the time
was pervasive in our society, and he was aware of that.
Aside from the fact that the story for the movie
had originally been Antonioni's idea.
I don't know how much of Antonioni's treatment is left.
But he wanted to use his critical eye to talk about our society back then.
Comics permeated our culture
more pervasively than Neorealism,
and they captivated him.
In fact, my character, the character of Wanda,
is a product of this kind ofliterature.
She loses herself in this world of dreams,
this unreal, impossible world,
this world that is completely false in a certain sense.
They would enter a dream world
through these comic books, which, although simply written,
were very stimulating and created a world that didn't exist.
Comics were always very important in his work,
especially because he never broke off his relationship with comics.
By that I mean that his work
was always supported by his drawings, his sketches.
Even his most famous pictures,
like the one for And the Ship Sails On...
whether or not they served the purpose of a storyboard,
were always in the style of the old illustrator of II Travaso-
or rather of Marc'Aurelio.
Hold it... and shoot!
One day we found ourselves
talking about the graphics of the filmed images.
I thought they had a comic book quality to them, which he denied.
But I think he denied it because he didn't want to associate
the idea of comics with his as yet only potential
but already imagined narrative ability as a director.
But I think that the very framing of each shot,
the movements, the costumes,
his treatment of space and distance in his shots -
In his work, although it was all quite stylized, if you remember,
his images are all stylized. A house is a chimney in the distance.
I had lines to say in that scene.
I had memorized them, and Brunella had memorized hers.
I was usually prepared, although I knew that things could always change.
The words were not very important.
That morning Fellini said, "No, let's forget about the lines.
They don't speak to me." He didn't really even say that.
He said, "Let's try this: You look at him" - this to Brunella -
You, crushed by your wife's cries,
collapse on the bed with hunched shoulders,
and you too go..."
So this concert of moans came out.
I think it was a marvelous invention.
Up to that time, films had been very similar to theater.
They were all dialogue. Cinema was born of the theater.
Fellini arrived on the scene like one who sweeps the table clean.
He brought cinema to life. In fact, I realized this.
I like to say I resisted Fellini's advances.
But in actual fact, as a dramatist I was already quite troubled,
because I realized that films had exploded onto the scene
and they allowed you to reduce an entire scene full of dialogue,
that would take great effort to write - scenes had to be a certain length -
to a single close-up.
And I was in a real slump. Let me tell you the whole truth.
I agreed to do The White Sheik
because I realized that film was the darling of the times,
and no longer the theater.
I did not have a very long career.
By my own choice, I quit quite early.
But 50 years have passed since we made The White Sheik.
Fifty years - that's a lifetime, half a century.
From the vantage point of time,
it's incredible how an important film like this-
Only now is the importance of The White Sheik truly recognized.
Because in the beginning the movie had a hard time of it.
There were two or three people who saved it, justified it,
even exalted it a little, but they were only a handful.
One was Cosulich, who defended it because he saw something in it,
a spark that was already discernible,
but it was hard because Fellini's film was subversive
vis-à-vis films of the past and the recent past -
I'm referring to Neorealism -
To take Neorealism and turn it on its head
was definitely an act of courage.
But there were sparks.
Others who saw them were, for instance, Tullio Kezich, then very young.
I remember a very telling episode, which reveals the state of mind
both of Fellini and of those who had seen the film in Venice.
Because we took it to Venice, if I'm not mistaken. Yes, we did.
After the screening, Fellini was extremely depressed.
Late one night, about 12:30, when some people were partying
but the critics, perhaps, were in bed,
Federico took me to the hotel where Tullio Kezich was staying.
We invaded this tiny hotel room where Tullio was already asleep,
so he entertained us from his bed.
I remember Tullio's face, with his lively eyes.
He said to me: "I want you to meet a smart boy."
I couldn't really agree or disagree, but I could tell he was bright.
And Tullio said to Federico: "Don't worry.
You'll be criticized. The audience wasrt too thrilled about the film,
but you have something new to bring to the table.
You have your own vision of the world."
I remember it as if it happened yesterday.
Tullio Kezich comforted Federico, who was really depressed.
The White Sheik was shown in Venice,
where it was heavily edited.
So it didn't make a lot of money, because it had such a tough time of it.
It was misunderstood. The producer went bankrupt.
I didn't make a strong impact, so it didn't launch me as an actress,
and that hurt me quite a bit.
It didn't come out until six months after Venice.
It was a difficult film.
Apart from that, tastes had changed.
More curvaceous women were in vogue.
A different, more commercial sort of film.
So that was it. I made a few other movies
and did a little theater, and that was it.
I decided that was it and I would stop.
I dedicated myself to a more contemplative life.
Now I'm very happy living in the country.
I think that Fellini's greatness was due in part
to his independence from all schools of thought.
Rossellini, too, invented a new style of filmmaking,
together with Visconti and others - Neorealism -which was independent.
But Fellini departed from the language of Neorealism as well.
He sought to establish his independence
not necessarily by choice but because he was naturally free.
Because he felt the need -
He would tell me that he didn't want to feel regimented.
I want you to bear this word in mind. I think people should know this.
This was the term, the concept he used.
He would always say: "I don't want to be regimented."
Once I remember he was expecting a visit from Ionesco. He was uneasy.
"We'll talk about the theater, and I don't know much about it.
Poldino, why don't you come, too?"
I remember that Ionesco thought I was an obscure little writer.
"I have a friend. He's a dramatist."
"Really?" he said. "Has his work been shown in theaters yet?"
I was very young and looked even younger. I was about 30.
"Yes, it has." "Where?"
"At the Piccolo Teatro in Milan. Also at the Deutsche Theater in Berlin."
I was at the University of Berlin and the Schauspielhaus in Zurich
with a play that was appreciated by Max Fritz and Durenmatt.
Fellini was glad that these people enjoyed talking to me.
This happened many times. I was the designated scapegoat
whenever he had to meet an intellectual who made him feel ill at ease.
His relationship with Bergman, for instance, deserves to be mentioned.
He'd say, "Poldo, this guy is calling me from Sweden
and saying he's coming to bathe in the Mediterranean sun.
He wants to be near me. When he's near me, he feels -
Whereas I, the minute I hear his voice, I get a headache.
I see a skull before my eyes."
In fact he drew a caricature of him.
In this sketch he puts Bergman next to me.
I said, "You're putting me next to the likes of Bergman?"
"You're at the same level,"he said.
He looks like a skull, and I'm a happy, smiling figure sitting next to him.
It was his way of defending himself
from these tragic figures.
He liked me, though, because he said that I was able
to sublimate my dark view of life into a joy of living.