Laura Antonelli: She was the sultry star of Italian sex comedies
Her career was derailed when she was arrested on drugs charges
Her maid found her dead following a stroke, alone in her apartment at the gates of Rome, after a life of both scorching success and torment. Laura Antonelli was 73, and had spent much time alone and unhappy, tangled in problems of a decidedly unglamorous nature. In the 1970s she had been one of the brightest and most divine figures of Italian sex comedies, her name forever associated with Salvatore Samperi’s film Malizia (Malicious, 1973).
It was with Malizia that Antonelli entered the upper echelons of the Italian film industry, but it was the beginning of a gradual decline. She played a subservient maid, supinely cleaning book shelves while the whole nation peered underneath her skirt. The film was a huge box-office success and continues to enjoy cult status, in part thanks to the cinematography by Vittorio Storaro (an Oscar-winner for his work on Apocalypse Now), which captured her spellbinding beauty. The film brought her a David di Donatello, the Italian equivalent of an Oscar.
She was born Laura Antonaz in 1941 in Pola, then an Italian town in the north-east of the country which after the Second World War became part of Yugoslavia. She moved to Rome to become a physical education teacher but soon became involved in television, in Carosello, an advertising programme and landmark in Italian consumer culture. Her first roles for the big screen followed.
In 1966 Mario Bava directed her in The Spy Came from the Semi-Cold, a sci-fi Bond parody starring the comedy double act Ciccio & Franco, and the same year she made the divorce comedy Scusi, Lei č Favorevole o Contrario? (Pardon, Are You For or Against?).
In 1971 she played the beautiful wife of a frustrated musician who makes a career out of her statuesque body in Pasquale Festa Campanile’s Il Merlo Maschio (“The Male Blackbird”, released in Britain as The Naked Cello), and throughout the 1970s she worked with of some of the most popular Italian directors of the time: with Dino Risi in 1973’s Sessomatto (How Funny Can Sex Be? in Britain), in which she and Giancarlo Giannini played different couples in sketches based on the question in the film’s title, and Luigi Comencini in Mio Dio, come sono caduta in basso (Till Marriage Do Us Part, 1974). She also graced arthouse films, including playing the tormented heroine in Luchino Visconti’s last film, The Innocent (1976).
On the set of Rappeneau’s Les Mariés de l’An Deux (1971, released in the UK as The Scoundrel), she met the French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, with whom she had a troubled affair that lasted around nine years.
In the 1980s, in a film industry even more sexist than it is today, as new, younger starlets emerged and older ones faded, Antonelli managed to stay afloat, acting mainly in less dignified comedies often made by respectable directors forced to make ends meet after the advent of video had changed Italian cinema forever.
An abrupt turn in her career came in 1991, when police found 36 grams of cocaine in her villa. She was tried and sentenced to three and a half years’ house arrest. She was absolved 10 years later when prosecutors established that the cocaine had been for personal use. She would never recover from an experience which ushered in the darkest and loneliest phase of her life.
She made a comeback in Malizia 2000, an attempt to revamp the cult film that had made her name. After an injection of collagen went wrong, her immaculate features were disfigured for good. She announced her retirement, and when her fellow actor Lino Banfi tried to help her out, having found out that she was living on a meagre pension, she wrote him a letter in which she asked to be forgotten.
And forgotten she was, living a life of anonymity and solitude. In his latest book, the veteran film critic Tatti Sanguineti recalls an episode in which she turned down a tempting offer from a powerful American producer. To his proposal she replied, in her native dialect: “I don’t like it, I’m not interested.”