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Italian screen siren Claudia Cardinale turns eighty in style

'Time passes': Claudia Cardinale at the Venice Film Festival last September
AFP

Naples (Italy) (AFP) – She was the irresistible muse of Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini who bewitched audiences across the globe with her sultry gaze: on Sunday, sixties screen siren Claudia Cardinale celebrates her eightieth birthday, on stage and without any nostalgia.

“I really don’t care,” laughs the icon, when asked by AFP about turning the big 80.

“It’s normal, time passes, I’m not nostalgic at all.”

The effervescent actress has opted to age naturally, staunchly denouncing attempts to defy time with cosmetic surgery.

“I hate all that,” she said, shaking her head, her expressive eyes rimmed with thick black eyeliner typical of the Hollywood stars of her era.

Despite her years, Cardinale is bringing in her new decade on the stage, at the Teatro Augusteo in Naples where she will perform “La Strana Coppia”, a female version of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple”.

The play — originally performed by two male actors — is an Italian adaptation by director Pasquale Squitieri, who died in 2017 and was Cardinale’s partner for 26 years.

“It’s a project that Pasquale was very fond of, I am doing it in his memory,” says Cardinale, who with her fierce beauty and hoarse voice, captivated Italy’s greatest filmmakers.

At 20, “I became the heroine of a fairy tale, the symbol of a country whose language I barely spoke,” she wrote in her 2005 autobiography “My Stars.”

Born in La Goulette, near Tunis, on 15 April 1938, to Sicilian parents, Cardinale, could speak only French, Arabic and Sicilian dialect when she was swept up into Italian cinema’s frenzied limelight.

Her voice had to be dubbed in Italian, at least until starring in Fellini’s 1963 Oscar-winning flick “8 1/2”, when the star director insisted she play the role in Dante’s language.

— A reluctant star —

At the age of 16, Cardinale’s life was turned upside down when she won a beauty contest she hadn’t even entered.

Crowned “The most beautiful Italian woman in Tunis,” the prize was a trip to the Venice Film Festival where she immediately turned heads and, albeit reluctantly, turned her back on her plans to become a teacher or an explorer.

“All the directors and producers wanted me to make films, and I said, ‘no, I don’t want to!’ said the actress, a twinkle in her eye.

She admitted that it was her father who eventually convinced her to “give this cinema thing a go.”

Her newfound dolce vita was not without obstacles though and the actress almost gave up her nascent career after falling pregnant from rape.

Her mentor, producer-director Franco Cristaldi, convinced her, however, to secretly give birth in London and entrust the child to her family.

Patrick, would officially be her younger brother until she revealed the truth seven years later.

— Independent woman —

The budding star became muse of Italy’s cinema elite who fought to cast her in their films.

In 1963, aged 25, Cardinale filmed both Visconti’s epic period drama “The Leopard” and Fellini’s surrealist hit “8 1/2” at the same time.

“Visconti, precise, meticulous as if we were in the theatre, spoke to me in French and wanted me brunette with long hair. Fellini, messy and without a script, spoke to me in Italian and wanted me blonde,” she laughs, remembering she had to undergo a drastic makeover every two weeks during filming. 

Embraced by Hollywood, where she refused to settle, Cardinale seduced Americans in Blake Edwards’”The Pink Panther” with Peter Sellers, then Henry Hathaway’s “Circus World” with Rita Hayworth and John Wayne.

The best compliment I ever got was from actor David Niven while filming ‘The Pink Panther’, Cardinale laughs.

He said: “Claudia, along with spaghetti, you’re Italy’s greatest invention.”

Desired by many, the actress’ self-confessed “only love” was the blue-eyed Neapolitan Squitieri, who is father to her daughter Claudia and with whom she worked on a series of feature films.

“I decided he would be mine,” she said.

“He always had a string of women but, one day I decided he was the one for me and after that he abandoned all the others.”

The siren’s decades-long career has seen her star in 175 films and both the Venice and Berlin Film Festivals have paid tribute to her work.

A staunch defender of women’s rights, she was named UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 2000 in recognition of her commitment to the cause of women and girls.

The discreet star, who fled the limelight in Italy to live a “quieter life” in Paris, advises young actresses today to not lose their sense of self.

“You play the role in front of the camera but you have to know who you are afterwards,” she said.

“Inner strength is the most important.” 

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