Fellini, the American

Ivan Carozzi

From Disneyland to pop art, the great director had an unspoken bond with the United States. Author Ivan Carozzi investigates on the 60th anniversary to the Oscar to 8 ½.

On a February evening, a glass of wine in my hand, I found myself in good company. The conversation shifted to a very amiable, courteous, inimitable gentleman who has left us from quite some time now: Federico Fellini. The inspiration came precisely from the article you’ve just started reading and which I had worked on all afternoon.

I began telling to the person seated across from me that the article aimed to start from an episode: Federico Fellini’s visit to Disneyland on the occasion of the Oscar he was awarded in 1957. Disneyland had been open for just a couple of years. Along with his wife Giulietta Masina, Anthony Quinn, and the producer Dino De Laurentiis, Fellini flew to Los Angeles on March 27th. On April 5th, they took a return flight to Italy. I wanted to sketch out a hypothesis and try to understand if there were any traces of an ‘American’ influence in Fellini’s work, perhaps starting from the sensations and impressions recorded on that trip.

The person sitting at the other end of the table put down their glass, pondered for a moment, then focused on a memory: “But of course, there is an American influence. Think of the huge billboard in Boccaccio ’70. Don’t you remember? Have you seen that film? Do you recall the huge advertising billboard, the one with Anita Ekberg lying down, with half of her chest exposed, advertising a brand of milk? Isn’t that billboard, with its exaggerated gigantism, a true piece of pop art? Isn’t it America in its purest form?” Of course, I thought, it is indeed so. It’s America in its purest form.

The billboard in Fellini’s Le tentazioni del Dottor Antonio from Boccaccio 70 (1962) represents the influence of American consumerist culture and echoes pop art.

Boccaccio ’70, an omnibus film Fellini took part in, was released in 1962. Coincidentally, in that very year an important exhibition was inaugurated at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, the International Exhibition Of The New Realists, where the works of some future masters of pop art, such as James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Charles Oldenburg, and Roy Lichtenstein, were presented. Fellini’s advertising billboard fit perfectly into the zeitgeist that had inspired the emergence of a new aesthetic and a new American sensibility on the other side of the world. My investigation could be considered concluded: not only had America nurtured Fellini’s imagination, but it can be argued that Fellini, in its titanic and metropolitan version of the billboard, had grasped, understood, and made his own all the symbolic and fantastic potential of the pop advertising language. At the very same time, a group of American artists discovered the seduction of mass-produced objects, packaging, commercial logos, and so on.

In 1987, during a long TV interview, Federico Fellini reflected on his relationship with the United States and the American imaginary. At that time, he was 67 years old. The tone of his voice had become softer, more confidential, and more melancholic than usual. With a hint of regret, Fellini spoke about America and the suggestions that arose from its streets and cities: “The endless and continuous seductions of a country like America… seems like a set made just for me, circus-like, science-fiction-like…very seductive from a figurative point of view.” Although he had never shot a film there, Fellini’s receptive and multifaceted psyche was often attracted to America, despite the many proposals received.

Fellini had won his first Oscar with the film La strada in 1957. The ceremony, hosted by Jerry Lewis, was held in the art deco hall of the RKO Pantages Theatre. Stars like Yul Brinner, Cary Grant, and Anna Magnani were present at the event. During a party, Giulietta Masina had crossed paths with Clark Gable. With the innocence defining Gelsomina, the character she portrayed in La strada, Giulietta had asked the Gone with the Wind actor for an autograph. Clark Gable, the great romantic seducer, the star who uttered the famous and impertinent line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” replied, “Tonight it’s my turn to ask for your autograph.”

Federico Fellini, Giulietta Masina, Sandra Milo photographed during their Disneyland visit on the occasion of the 1964 Academy Awards. 

During the week in Los Angeles, Fellini was courted by some producers. Offers ranging from 150,000 to 200,000 dollars had come in. De Laurentiis had discussed this with the press: there had been meetings, yes, but Fellini had no desire to make himself available and start working immediately, at least not right away, since “Fellini,” De Laurentiis said, “likes to study and work on the subjects and live in the environment described.” In the 1987 TV interview, perhaps, Fellini had indeed recalled the days spent in California. His imperfect knowledge of the language had always made him feel insecure, he confessed to the journalist. Then, he added that once he had said, to an American producer who approached him, that a film based on an American story, perhaps by Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, could indeed be made, but on the condition of recreating America in his comfort zone of Cinecittà.

Fellini would stage this dilemma in his penultimate film, Intervista, released in 1987, a loose adaptation of Franz Kafka’s AmerikaIntervista, which employs the device of the film within a film, is actually yet another autobiography of Fellini. America surfaces here and there in Cinecittà’s Studio 5, while the Marmore waterfalls, in the province of Terni, are used to evoke the much more famous Niagara falls.

In one scene, Fellini sits behind a desk in an office. In front of him are his collaborators, bustling around the room. Some flip through photographs of actors scattered on a table, and others, lounging on a sofa, are deep into the pages of l’Unità, the newspaper of PCI [Italian Communist Party]. Fellini tries to persuade them: “A few scenic elements are enough to give the atmosphere of an American street.” 

Fellini’s Oscar-winning film La strada, written by the director himself together with Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano, did not please the militant critics at all because the film took a detour from the neorealist cause. Instead, it bent towards fable and a certain indulgence towards the magical and gypsy world of clowns. In Venice, it had been targeted by a harsh protest, especially coming from a group of Marxist Luchino Visconti fans. One more reason to believe that Fellini, during his days in Los Angeles, observed America with an exclusively personal gaze and with eyes devoid of the typical schematism of the politically-engaged intellectual of the time. Thus, he allowed himself to be fascinated by the more imaginative and mercantile America, that of adverts and neon lights, the playful and science-fiction-like America of amusement parks, the America of streets crossed by large, fabulously-designed cars, the America of platinum-haired divas and cowboys sitting in diners with their amazing Stetson hats with broad brims. After all, Mastroianni in 8 ½  wears  a very exotic headpiece, pretty much a cowboy hat. Similarly, Adriano Celentano, one of the main initiators of rock’n’roll in Italy, performs in La dolce vita.

Little is known about the hours spent by Fellini at Disneyland. The park had opened only two years before, in 1955. Walt Disney himself welcomed Fellini, accompanied by a band playing the music written by Nino Rota for La strada. It is possible that before seeing Walt Disney and the band, Fellini was greeted at the park entrance by a mascot dressed as Tinkerbell, according to the Disneyland ritual for tourists. Then, surely, he would have visited Sleeping Beauty’s castle, admired the iconic space rocket, the teacup ride, and perhaps crossed paths with a group of performers dressed as Native Americans, similar to those that will appear thirty years later in a scene from Intervista. There are two other testimonies of further visits by Fellini to Disneyland. The first is a colour photo taken in 1964 at the amusement park: Fellini, Giulietta Masina, and Sandra Milo.

Sandra Milo, Giulietta Masina and Jackie Rogers pose next to a Mark Twain statue in a restaurant inside the Empire State Building. Tempo, April 1964.

The three were in California for Fellini’s third Oscar, the one awarded to 8 ½. Behind them stood the producer Angelo Rizzoli. The screenwriter Ennio Flaiano was absent, as he had argued with Fellini while flying to New York. In the Big Apple, Fellini, Giulietta Masina, and Sandra Milo had attended the opening of a restaurant on the Empire State Building named after Mark Twain. Masina, Milo, and the model and stylist Jackie Rogers, who had a small part in the film, had their photo taken next to the life-size statue of Twain, portrayed with a pair of moustaches and the hands in the pockets of his jacket. Milo was radiant, Giulietta instead looked melancholic. 

On the Hollywood hills of Los Angeles, they had visited Forest Lawn, an exclusive cemetery – the Disneyland of graveyards –, even boasting background music, replicas of statues by Michelangelo and Canova, and street advertising billboards. Its slogan was: “Even death can be beautiful”. The detail of this stop is not superfluous, considering that at that time Fellini was secretly working on Juliet of the spirits

Further testimony comes from Ciao Federico, a documentary shot on the set of the film Satyricon. At one point, Roman Polanski appears, accompanied by his wife, the actress Sharon Tate, in a go-go girl style mini skirt. Polanski, all eager to please Fellini, acts like the happy sorcerer’s apprentice who has been finally reunited with his master again. “You must come back to Disneyland,” says Polanski. The two had been there together. Then, Polanski remarks that during the visit he was stoned. Fellini answers, commenting that on his returning trip to America he will spend two whole weeks at Disneyland. The statement sounds somewhat insincere. Fellini wants to please Polanski by giving him some of his attention, but at the same time, he’s impatient to get rid of him. He’s way too deep into his work on the set. “So, Roman, I will ring you on Monday morning,” he dismisses Polanski.

Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina enjoy the amusements of Disneyland, 1964.

A slice of America can also be traced into a splendid anecdote that Fellini fabricates on the spot and shares with RAI journalist Carlo Mazzarella. We find ourselves in Cannes in 1960, where Fellini is running for the Palme d’Or with La dolce vita. Apparently, they are staying in neighbouring hotel rooms. Their balconies are right next to each other, and the interview is conducted in this way, with the artist and the journalist conversing from balcony to balcony, facing the sea. 

Mazzarella asks Fellini what he dreamed about the previous night. Fellini says he couldn’t sleep, then, leaning on the railing, he looks down at the street and starts inventing one of his famous stories. “See down there, those three Canadians? They’ve been there for a few hours, they’ve been tailing me for a couple of days now… then last night I met a guy, I think he was a sailor in civilian clothes, who was walking around with a pair of women’s shoes tucked in the back pockets of his pants, and he said to me, ‘Hey, you Fellini…’, in English, ‘I have to tell you that I didn’t like your movie, I don’t share the oddities of your films, I don’t believe life is like that.’ Then, the funniest thing was a lady, whose nose had a piece of gold. I met her this morning, sitting on a Cadillac, and she had a monkey in her arms. She made the driver stop the car. She asked me, ‘Are you Fellini?’, with this sparkling nose, with a metallic voice, ‘why isn’t there a single normal person in your films?’”. Fellini still doesn’t know it, but this chain of strange, American-like appearances will serve as a prelude to his first Palme d’Or.

Opening image: Federico Fellini wears Marcello Mastroianni’s cowboy hat on the set of 8 1/2, next to the actor and Sophia Loren, 1962.