Alida Valli
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Alida Valli

24/04/2006

Alida Valli, who died in Rome on Saturday aged 84, achieved brief Hollywood fame after the Second World War as "Valli", before returning to her native Italy and a more distinguished career in films by such directors as Luchino Visconti, Bernardo Bertolucci and Michelangelo Antonioni.

Her aristocratic mien made her particularly suitable for costume parts. High-born ladies suffering through unsuitable love affairs were her forte, and never more so than in Visconti's Senso (1954), in which she plays an Italian countess of the Risorgimento torn between patriotism and infatuation with a shallow Austrian officer (Farley Granger). It ends in tears, betrayal, execution and madness.

Although attractive, she lacked vivacity and true star quality. There was always something dejected about a Valli performance, which perhaps explains her failure to capitalise on Hollywood's interest in the late Forties. David O Selznick, who signed her to a contract, wanted a new Garbo, but Alida Valli did not have the charisma to carry it off.

She was, however, ideally cast as the stateless Anna in the Carol Reed/Graham Greene film The Third Man (1949). Hopelessly attached to the memory of her supposedly dead lover, Harry Lime, she goes through the motions of living but is dead inside. It was her finest performance in English, and the one by which film buffs still remember her.

As she aged, her face grew gaunt and staring, opening up a lucrative new career in the field of horror. A key film here was Georges Franju's Les Yeux sans visage (1960), made in France, in which she plays a mad surgeon's partner in crime. She lures young girls to a lonely sanatorium, where he removes their faces to graft on to his daughter's deformed features.

It set a pattern for the future, which was to include two appearances in films by the master of horror, Dario Argento. In Suspiria (1977) she and the Hollywood veteran Joan Bennett played witches running a coven; and in the same director's Inferno (1980) she plunged to her death engulfed in flames.

She was born Alida Maria Laura von Altenburger on May 3 1921 at Pula, Italy, the daughter of a journalist of Austrian descent and of an Italian mother. The family moved to Como, where Alida attended a local school until the age of 15. Afterwards she went to Rome to study acting at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the motion picture academy set up by Mussolini.

After a year's study she was given a one-reel test which was so promising that she was offered a contract with the production company Italcine. Her earliest work is now mostly forgotten - part of the so-called "white telephone" era, a derogatory term applied to the vapid comedies then typical of Italian cinema. Among the better ones were Mille Lire al Mese (1939), which she made for Max Neufeld, and T'amerò sempre (1943), directed by Mario Camerini.

She also appeared in several acclaimed costume dramas, assuming the title role in Manon Lescaut (1939), opposite Vittorio De Sica as des Grieux, and scoring a personal triumph in Mario Soldati's 1941 version of the classic Italian novel by Antonio Fogazzaro, Piccolo Mondo Antico. One film of the period, Ore Nove - Lezione di Chimica (1941), about a schoolgirl with a crush on her teacher, was exhumed after she went to Hollywood and released to puzzled international audiences.

The most ambitious film she made during the war was Noi Vivi (1942), based on the novel We the Living by Ayn Rand, which the director Goffredo Alessandrini simply lifted without the author's approval. In wartime any question of royalties or legal action was academic. The story is set in Soviet Russia, with Alida Valli draped in a shawl to lend it an authentic foreign flavour. A sprawling saga intended to expose the horrors of Communism, it ran for more than three hours and was released in two parts, winning a prize at the Venice Film Festival.

As the war turned against Mussolini, Alessandrini was accused of having "intentionally made an anti-totalitarian propaganda film against the Fascist regime". Five months after the initial release it was withdrawn and consigned to the vaults, where it remained for more than 45 years.

For Alida Valli, memories of the film were marred by personal grief. During production she discovered that her lover, a fighter pilot, had been killed in action. He was the son of a rich textile manufacturer from Como, but his family did not approve of his associating with an actress, and had forced him into an arranged marriage. His was one of two planes shot down by British fighters in a skirmish over Africa; only one pilot parachuted to safety, and it was more than a year before Alida Valli learned that her lover had not survived. Rather than make propaganda films for the Fascists, she went into hiding. Her mother was shot.

She made no films for two years, in the meantime marrying the composer Oscar de Mejo, who later accompanied her to Hollywood and wrote the song "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth". [not true!]

She returned to the screen in 1945 with La Vita ricomincia, a barnstorming melodrama about a returned PoW who discovers that his wife has murdered the man to whom she had surrendered to save her baby's life.

More successful was Eugenia Grandet (1946), an adaptation of Balzac's novel in which she played the title role and which caught the eye of the Hollywood mogul David O Selznick. He put her under contract, casting her in The Paradine Case (1948) as a woman accused of murder and defended by a lawyer (Gregory Peck) who falls in love with his client. Although directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it was a ponderous court-room drama that pleased neither critics nor public.

The films in which Selznick lent her to another studio, RKO, were even less auspicious. In Miracle of the Bells (1948), she played a Polish burlesque queen who becomes a Hollywood star, but the story is told in flashback from her funeral. Audiences found it difficult to care about a character who was dead before the film had begun.

In The White Tower (1950) she was implausibly cast as a mountaineer desperate to beat Lloyd Bridges's Nazi to the top of an Alpine peak; and in Walk Softly Stranger (1950) she was confined to a wheelchair. Were it not for The Third Man, it would be hard to imagine a Hollywood career more comprehensively sabotaged. She set the final seal on it herself by declining to attend an audition for the film Five Fingers, on the ground that she loathed flying and would therefore arrive too late.

Returning to Italy, she floundered in the early Fifties with a series of ill-chosen roles in such films as Siamo Donne, The Lovers of Toledo and The Stranger's Hand, an Anglo-Italian melodrama with Trevor Howard from a story by Graham Greene, in which she played a hotel receptionist. All three were made in 1953. It was a low point in her career, from which Luchino Visconti rescued her with the lead role in Senso, for which she won the best actress award at the Venice Film Festival in 1954.

Between 1954 and 1957 she made no films, her career temporarily overshadowed by a sex-and-drugs scandal involving the death of a young girl named Wilma Montesi, found dead on a beach near Rome. The prime suspect was Pietro Piccioni, the son of a former foreign minister. Alida Valli was called upon to support his alibi that, at the time of the girl's death, he was 200 miles south in Amalfi suffering from tonsilitis and a high temperature. She confirmed that she and Piccioni had been staying there in a villa as guests of Carlo Ponti.

When she resumed her career, it was increasingly in character parts in films by leading international directors. One of her finest performances was in Henri Colpi's Une aussi longue absence (1961) as a saloon-keeper who suspects that the tramp who patronises her bar is the husband she lost in the war.

For Michelangelo Antonioni she made Il Grido in 1957, playing a working-class woman; for René Clément she appeared in The Sea Wall in 1958; and for Claude Chabrol she was Gertrude in Ophélia (1962), an up-dated version of Hamlet. Also memorable was her haughty old lady with the priceless literary letters in Aspern (1982), an adaptation by Eduardo de Gregorio of The Aspern Papers.

From 1970 she formed a productive working association with Bernardo Bertolucci, for whom she starred in The Spider's Strategem, originally made for television from a story by Jorge Luis Borges, and played in smaller parts in 1900 (1976) and La Luna (1979). She also appeared in his brother Giuseppe's 1985 film Segreti Segreti.

In addition to her film work, Alida Valli enjoyed a long career on the Italian stage, beginning in 1955 with William Archibald's The Innocents. She also starred in Ibsen's Rosmersholm; Pirandello's Henry IV; John Osborne's Epitaph for George Dillon; and Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. Her television work included The Browning Version and O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra.

Alida Valli separated from her husband, Oscar de Mejo, in 1952, after eight years of marriage. They had two sons.

Source:

  • http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/04/24/db2401.xml&page=1


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Created: Monday, April 24 , 2006. Last Updated: Saturday, August 08, 2015
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