On the American Film Institute’s list of Greatest Screen Legends there remains only one female actor alive to this day – Sophia Loren – and her image and films were ubiquitous in the just-concluded AFI FEST 2014, held as always in the bustling heart of Hollywood. One could not escape the ravishing Miss Loren wherever one turned during the eight-day festival, her image appearing on posters, program guides, billboards, and tickets. Additionally an infectious clip of Loren dancing and singing ‘You Want to be Americano’ from 1960’s It Happened in Naples began each and every AFI screening, to help prime audiences for Sophia’s gala tribute to be held at festival’s end. In bella Sophia’s case, too much was never enough, and the week-long anticipation of the glamorous screen icon’s arrival (surely one of the most alluring to ever grace the silver screen) helped elevate the festival into something more than just a platform for upcoming Oscar hopefuls. And yet, at that tribute inside the cavernous Dolby theater, I can’t help but feel that Sophia’s big moment was once again trumped (slyly, deliciously, and from beyond the grave) by that most unheralded of ’50s screen sirens, the ultimate party crasher, Miss Jayne Mansfield. But more on that later …
This year’s edition of AFI Fest – L.A.’s longest-running international film festival – began beneath sweltering 90-degree blue skies, which seems ages ago now as the country currently struggles under a blanket of cold. In part due to the ongoing sponsorship of Audi (whose latest display model had to be maneuvered around by those traipsing the red carpet), crowds availing themselves of the free AFI Fest screening tickets have ballooned. Needing a larger auditorium to help accommodate the increased numbers, AFI for the first time has secured the Dolby theater, home of the Academy Awards, for the bulk of its premieres and galas.
Kicking off the opening night with its World Premiere screening in this venue was J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, and I’m sure the filmmakers hope they’ll be returning here next February 22nd to pick up a few of the Academy’s golden trophies. Introducing his New York City/Sidney Lumet-influenced drama, director Chandor joked, “The last time I was in this room I was sitting right there … and I lost to Woody Allen. I hope it goes a little better tonight.”
The screening was well received, though I’d be surprised if the film gains enough traction to propel it to Oscar gold. It’s a solemn affair which takes itself far more seriously than the thin plot-line warrants. Set in 1981 (the hairstyles never let you forget), the film centers on a businessman trying to secure financing to expand his heating oil business. Not particularly the stuff of Greek drama, A Most Violent Year is filmed and acted as if it were the latest Godfather installment, from its cinematography on down to the lead performance by Oscar Isaac.
While some have already compared Isaac’s work here to Al Pacino’s in The Godfather films, to me that’s because he appears to have studied and cribbed the bulk of it from Pacino’s iconic interpretation of Michael Corleone. It’s a decent performance, yet a pale shadow of Pacino’s seminal role, and it doesn’t help that the stakes for his character cannot compare to the operatic ones in Coppola’s films. Cinematographer Bradford Young is no Gordon Willis yet, and films almost every interior scene in the same white back-lit style, leaving the foregrounded actors in a murky shadow state, eyes rarely even visible. Dreary work here, but Young more than compensates with his evocative work in Selma, shooting in a beautifully desaturated palate that perfectly captures that film’s era. (See my take on Selma’s AFI debut here .)
Jessica Chastain, who’s having another stellar year (Interstellar, actually) like her breakthrough one in 2011, acts up a storm in the role of Isaac’s mob-connected wife. She definitely breathes much-needed life into the film (before she mostly disappears in the second half), and who knows – her hairdo, accent, and Lady Macbeth-like machinations may indeed be enough to bring her back to the Dolby next February.
A Most Violent Year’s subplot involving one of the oil truck drivers (Elyes Gabel, in what I thought was the film’s best performance) seems completely unnecessary, while the always reliable Albert Brooks has little to work with as Isaac’s lawyer, making his straightened hair the most interesting aspect of his performance. David Oyelowo (who most certainly will be returning to the Dolby in three months) is serviceable at best in the role of City Prosecutor, which ironically may help to spotlight the heights he achieves as Dr. Martin Luther King in Ava DuVernay’s Selma.
The AFI Fest continues to be the last best festival hope for filmmakers seeking exposure in the run-up to January’s Academy Awards nominations, with the studio’s most hopeful (hyped?) films screening at either the Dolby or Egyptian theaters (skipping the magnificent Chinese) this go-round. P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (as well as DuVernay’s Selma) debuted at the historic Egyptian theater (site of the very first Hollywood premiere ninety years ago) with both Eastwood and Anderson there to introduce. The vast Dolby theater staked a claim on premieres for Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman, Bennett Miller’s long-coming Foxcatcher, Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, and Rupert Wyatt’s The Gambler, while Xavier Dolan sadly had to settle for a Chinese multiplex screening of his latest and possibly best film, Mommy.
The prestigous opening night slot went to The Gambler, an unnecessary remake of the gritty 1974 James Caan vehicle, and yet another in a line of recent moody L.A. neo-noirs. Nicely lensed by Greig Fraser, the story tells of a college professor (Mark Wahlberg, in a bit of a stretch) whose high-stakes gambling addiction brings him to the brink of disaster. It’s hard to muster much sympathy for a character willing to frivolously gamble away piles of other people’s money, and the poker-faced Wahlberg does little to flesh out his character’s seemingly unfathomable death wish. Talented Brie Larson is utterly wasted in the thin role of his student/girlfriend, but at least the great Jessica Lange bites into her handful of scenes as Wahlberg’s mother with unrestrained gusto.
When Lange’s not on scene it’s left to the ever-reliable, underrated John Goodman to buoy the audience’s interest. Because of his down home everyguy persona, Goodman never gets the credit he deserves – like the greatest actors he makes his work look effortless, and rarely goes into the emoting-all-over-the-place mode which tends to garner award recognition. In the role of a mob kingpin here, he supplies The Gambler’s best scene, an amped-up ‘fuck you’ encounter with Wahlberg inside a misty steambath. I’d love him to pick up a Supporting Actor nomination for one of his best performances (if only to see how they’d manage showing a clip from that great scene), but it’s more likely that the Academy will again overlook this consistently dependable and interesting actor.
Speaking of overlooked, dependable actors, it seems inevitable that Julianne Moore will finally make it to the Dolby stage to pick up her long-overdue Best Actress Oscar. After decades of nuanced, stellar work it appears that the planets have finally aligned for Moore in her Still Alice title role of a Columbia University professor coping with early-onset Alzheimer’s. While at times the film veers close to Lifetime movie-of-the-week territory, the actors (particularly Moore and Kristen Stewart as her daughter) give fully rounded, committed performances throughout. Both Kristen and Julianne walked the red carpet, but unfortunately had the bad luck to follow Sophia Loren and entourage, and paled inevitably in comparison. Moore has always been a genius at screen subtlety (perhaps one of the reasons she’s gone Oscarless for so long), and in Still Alice reaches deep to embody the pain and heartbreak of one whose memories slip slowly, irrevocably away. Now that Jeff Bridges (another taken-for-granted, dependable acting veteran) finally has his own Academy Award, it would be wonderful if his two Big Lebowski co-stars could join him and receive their just desserts.
When one gets past the big studio roll-outs of their prestige Oscar-needy films, the AFI Fest provides a fantastic array of international films culled from previous festivals the world over. With a bit of due diligence, noting of previous film festival coverage (look to ICS), and conversations with other festival-goers in the seemingly endless lines, one can usually fashion a fairly comprehensive and worthwhile viewing schedule. It’s not a foolproof system, and occasionally one can get burned. As I mentioned to the usher collecting Audience Award ballots after the interminable screening of Austria’s Goodnight Mommy, “Well I guess every film festival has to have its worst film.” (Belated apologies, as I realize you had nothing to do with programming this unfortunate film.) I’m reluctant to give this any mention at all as even that may engender curiosity, but believe me, Goodnight Mommy is a complete waste of any sensitive cinephile’s time and deserves to sink into obscurity as quickly as possible. An anti-humanist film if ever there was one, the one-note story concerns a pair of young Austrian twins slowly and horrendously torturing their grieving mother. Why a film like this would get financed, much less exhibited at festivals, is beyond me. Leaving the theater feeling in need of a shower, I soon even found myself questioning the overall Austrian psyche. Seeking answers, I almost wanted to somehow blame Michael Haneke, as this vile film melds the more sadistic aspects of his Funny Games and The White Ribbon (minus any psychological insight) while wallowing interminably in its artsy shock value. I’ll never get those 100 minutes back, and could kick myself for choosing this over Chuck Workman’s documentary Magician on the life and works of Orson Welles. What could I have been thinking?
A pair of fine Asian films proved to be far more worthwhile experiences (though any film might have been actually). Kim Seong-hoon’s A Hard Day is a rollicking, tense crime drama about a put-upon police detective who tries to cover up a hit-and-run with increasingly frustrating results. (Odd that hit-and-runs were a minor theme of the festival, featuring as important plot devices in both Human Capital and Wild Tales as well.) Intricately plotted (think Internal Affairs), and filmed with style and wit, this edge-of-your-seat thriller keeps ratcheting up the stakes all the way to its bloody, slyly satisfying conclusion. Who knew a misplaced cell phone and a coffin could provide such entertaining suspense?
Takashi Miike, whose vast output over the years has some calling him the hardest-working man in show business (at just 54 years old, he’s already directed nearly 100 works), provides yet another visceral, beautifully shot thriller, Over Your Dead Body. With a structure similar to The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the film moves back and forth between the on-stage drama and the entangled lives of the actors involved. With ravishing cinematography and production design, Miike steadily ratchets up the tense atmospherics in this utterly original mix of genres. He perfectly balances Japanese ghost story traditions with ’70s giallo filmmaking (in a style similar to Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man) to make for a very satisfying and spooky night at the movies.
Due to its clout (and awards season placement), the AFI Fest attracts some of the world’s greatest filmmakers, and one of the festival’s distinct joys is that there is often an opportunity to briefly converse with an artist right after their work has screened. I was fortunate enough to speak with the directors of my three favorite festival films. It’s a rewarding feeling to be able to relate in person one’s appreciation of a filmmaker’s impressive work, and a great opportunity to express encouragement on a novice director’s cinematic odyssey. Young Argentinian filmmaker Damián Szifrón was on hand with his wonderful Cannes competition entry Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes), an outrageous anthology of contemporary stories which all sprout from the everyday frustrations that make modern life so challenging.
It’s easy to understand why Pedro Almodóvar’s El Deseo film company came on board to produce the film, as Szifrón and Almodóvar are kindred spirits who relish upending cinematic tropes with anarchic humor and a distinct love for their troubled characters. One never knows where each of Szifrón’s six tales here is headed, and this unpredictability is one of the film’s many charms. The audience was hooked from the first hilarious segment set onboard a fated airliner, perfectly laying out the film’s tone of struggling to remain in control while situations are escalated up to their breaking point.
“I would say the theme is the pleasure of losing control,” explained Szifrón post-screening. “That’s what connects each one of the stories here. Even in dramatic situations, it’s the moment you say fuck it, I’m done here. Something liberates inside each of them.” People have to repress so much just to get by in modern society, that there’s an infectious joyful freedom when Szifrón’s characters finally have had enough and throw caution to the wind.
Wild Tales culminates with a wedding reception to rival any other put on film, and yet after all that’s gone before, concludes on a sweet note of hope and forgiveness. As ugly and unfair as modern life may be at times, Szifrón remains an optimistic humanist, and like the sublime close-up of Almodóvar muse Carmen Maura at the end of What Have I Done to Deserve This? his wonderful film concludes by holding out a sliver of hope for our troubled lot. It comes as no surprise that Wild Tales has been winning audience awards at almost all of the film festivals it’s been entered in – it’s a fantastic, original piece of work, and I eagerly look forward to Szifrón’s future output.
There’s no sense of optimism to be found in the pair of incredible Russian films which turn a cold and caustic eye on modern life under Vladimir Putin and the futility of battling the entrenched corrupt officials who serve under him. The Fool is an almost Christ-like parable of a lowly civil engineer who discovers that 800 poverty-stricken residents of a crumbling apartment block are in imminent danger of being killed due to the building’s shoddy construction. His attempt to force the town’s corrupt bureaucrats into action is ultimately a fool’s errand, and the film masterfully exposes the uselessness of attempting to walk a righteous, moral path under the current Russian system. It’s a harsh, brutal, and eye-opening condemnation – one that should at the very least make viewers more appreciative of their own put-upon lives. I suppose the one small bit of hope the film delivers is in the fact that it was co-produced by the Russian Ministry of Culture, and then allowed to enter film festivals around the world. Whether that’s an indication of true artistic freedom in Russia or just a public relations gambit to counter negative Pussy Riot fallout, time will tell. But as long as multi-talented Russian filmmakers like Yuriy Bykov (director, screenwriter, composer, editor) are allowed to continue creating accusatory art such as The Fool, one can’t help but be cautiously optimistic.
Working in a similar vein but at an even deeper artistic level than Bykov, Andrey Zvyagintsev (one of the world’s great directors whose limited output includes The Return and Elena) has created yet another masterpiece in the haunting Leviathan. An incredibly beautiful film shot in a starkly barren coastal area within Russia’s Arctic Circle (location is of utmost importance in Zvyagintsev’s works), the film again focuses on the struggle against deeply entrenched bureaucratic corruption and the human cost involved in this seemingly hopeless battle. Anesthetized with copious amounts of vodka to stave off deep-seated despair, the characters here (vividly portrayed by a uniformly excellent cast) seem resigned to their fate, their individual actions seemingly so inconsequential when placed against the vast landscape as well as the crushing, dehumanizing State. When the lead character attempts to rise up and battle for his family home, the tragic results are shattering.
There’s a hopelessness and deep-seated nihilism at play in both of these Russian films, and yet Zvyagintsev also allows some humor (using past Soviet leaders’ portraits for drunken target practice, for instance) to seep into his revelatory film. Great matters of conscience and morality are at stake here, and Leviathan never lets us forget how small and insignificant we humans can seem in the larger picture. A troubled boy sits near a bleached whale skeleton littering the shoreline, one of many striking tableaux that elegantly visualize the director’s themes. Zvyagintsev is a master filmmaker in every way, and admits that his inspirations and creations do not come very often (every four years in this case). As I’ve come to learn with David Lynch, when the results are as awe-inspiring as his sporadic films have proven to be, I have no problem at all being patient.
Peter Strickland is another not particularly prolific filmmaker (Berberian Sound Studio and Katalin Varga his only other features), but is a rare cinematic talent who’s created the hauntingly beautiful love story The Duke of Burgundy, in my opinion the best and most original film of the entire AFI Festival. A story completely devoid of men (yet overflowing with butterflies), the film focuses closely on the routines and kinks of two fascinating women as they play out their intricately imaginative master/slave relationship. Set in a non-specific era and Middle European locale (in a way similar to Pinocchio’s), Strickland brilliantly uses repetition to explore the couple’s ever mutating role-playing, ultimately painting a moving portrait of deep love and dependence. Underneath the lush surface of Strickland’s enveloping film, lies a curious and repetitive, almost mundane relationship where casual bickering can eventually lead to a memory of a loss.
From the beautifully fevered opening credits onward we know we are in the hands of a cinematic master, and immediately enter into the director’s strangely decadent world. (There’s even a credit for Perfume, inspired, Strickland said, by Audrey Hepburn’s Paris When It Sizzles.) “I just thought that was wonderful because it’s somewhat all about the senses,” Strickland explained. “Okay, there’s John Waters and Polyester, but we couldn’t quite use Odorama for this film.” The Duke of Burgundy’s layered sound design and breathtaking cinematography are peerless, and the score by Cat’s Eyes is one of the most amazing I’ve heard in quite some time. Citing John Barry among others as a musical influence, Strickland also gave an enthusiastic shout out to the Valerie and Her Week of Wonders soundtrack, which I’ll definitely need to catch up on. After the screening I mentioned to the filmmaker how I thought the score also was reminiscent of those from Dario Argento’s early ’70s work, and he agreed, noting that he sought here a less contemporary sound, one with more flutes, woodwinds, and strings.
In fact, Strickland admits a strong cinematic connection to some of the most eclectic filmmakers of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Claude Chabrol’s Les Biches was a major inspiration for his current film, as was the work of Stan Brakhage (Mothlight ), Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Helmut Newton, and Luis Buñuel (Belle de Jour). Incorporating from the very best, Strickland has merged his sublime influences into a cinematic sensibility that is uniquely, beautifully his own. It gives this cinephile hope when original talents such as Peter Strickland are creating masterpieces such as The Duke of Burgundy, and as with Andrey Zvyagintsev, I’m on board for the long haul. A special note must be added on the well-modulated performance of Sidse Babett Knudsen, one of the most honest and touching I’ve seen in quite some time. Her nuanced vulnerability carries the audience with her into Strickland’s incredible world, in a towering, heartfelt performance.
While it really has nothing to do with the AFI Fest per se (except tangentially the use of the Dolby theater mid-festival), I’d love to make a brief detour by circling back to the great Luis Buñuel, and relate an encounter that was perhaps the highlight of my festival week. Mere hours before he was to accept his honorary Academy Award inside the Governor’s Awards ceremony at the Dolby, renaissance man Jean-Claude Carrière joined a small group of perhaps fifty diehard Buñuel fans (honorary Knights of Toledo all) to chat about Don Luis and one of their finest collaborations, The Phantom of Liberty. The afternoon showing of the pair’s humorously surreal film was screened inside the tiny Silent Movie theater (now Cinefamily), a short bus ride down Fairfax from the mayhem of downtown Hollywood. The gentlemanly Carrière, Buñuel’s screenwriter extraordinaire, joined the couch-lounging audience, and with savoir faire and wry wit regaled the gathered Buñuelites with personal stories and insights into the great filmmaker and cherished friend.
Whether speaking of Buñuel’s love of animals (he named his dog Tristana) or of firearms (Buñuel’s deafness late in life was partially caused by his habit of shooting a pistol inside his enclosed office), Carrière was never less than a fascinating raconteur. “We were so close,” recounted Jean-Claude of their deep friendship. “We’d been working together for twenty years [when collaborating on The Phantom of Liberty]. We ate together, just the two of us, more than 2000 times. We were one. One was starting a phrase, the other completing.” It’s a pity Carrière was pressed for time (damn Academy), as the audience no doubt could have listened to his stories for hours more. Personally I could have for days, and to dream of what I’d have given to have somehow been able to join Carrière and Buñuel at one of their many fascinating dinners.
My heart skipped a beat when Carrière mentioned Buñuel’s love of 1920s American slapstick, in particular the work of Buster Keaton. He spoke of the strong link between Surrealism and the extraordinary explosion of cinema that was Keaton’s decade of brilliance. Laughingly he noted that Buñuel had once stated, “The films of Buster Keaton are as beautiful as … bathrooms.” There was a wonderful circularity to this discussion for me, as nearly twenty years earlier I’d been in that very theater celebrating the 100th anniversary of Keaton’s birth, singing “Happy Birthday” and eating cake in the company of his devoted widow Eleanor.
With the clock ticking in anticipation of his grand evening to come, there was limited time for audience questions so it was fortunate that I was able to squeeze in the first one. Thanking Mr. Carrière for sharing his momentous day with our small group of acolytes, I then commented on the contrast between his two scheduled events that day and how it was almost … Buñuelesque! He laughingly agreed and added, “My last afternoon before Oscar! After the Oscar it would be more expensive.” Opting for a question related to the evening ahead, I showed Jean-Claude the irreverent, discreetly charming photo of Buñuel in full disguise cradling his Oscar, and asked Carrière if he’d be dressing similarly when accepting his own. Chuckling, he explained the photo’s back story, how Buñuel (who had not accepted his Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie Oscar in person), when asked by journalists in his producer’s Paris office if they could get a shot of him with the statuette, surprisingly agreed. “He went into another room,” said Carrière, “put on a wig, big glasses, and disguised himself so as not to be recognized holding the Oscar.” The horror …
Soon after, to a standing ovation from the fortunate gathered few, the humble Jean-Claude Carrière walked up the aisle and out to the curb where a simple compact car awaited, and drove off into the warm Hollywood afternoon. It’s rare that Oscars end up in the hands of true artists such as Buñuel and Carrière, so it was a distinct joy to know that this kind and fascinating man was being so deservedly celebrated that evening inside the Dolby theater (sitting in fact between Hayao Miyazaki and Buñuel’s son Rafael).
Just a few nights later international screen icon Sophia Loren, accompanied by her two sons with Carlo Ponti, made her way through adoring crowds to the red rose bedecked Dolby stage to be honored in the festival’s gala tribute. Truly one of the silver screen’s most sensual legends, Miss Loren was the talk of the festival, and two of her best films with Marcello Mastroianni (directed by Vittorio De Sica) were screened that week to help remind audiences of her voluptuous, primal charm. A world-class beauty by any measure, Loren was also an accomplished and natural actress whose exotic earthiness propelled her to the very top. She chose her collaborators well (particularly in Italy) and her four-decade-long pairing with Mastroianni (“my god on the screen”) helped bring out her best.
While queuing for the screening of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1964’s Best Foreign Film Oscar winner), the crowd suddenly lit up with excitement … heads turned and the entire line broke into spontaneous applause as the grand Sophia strode confidently towards the Egyptian entrance. Fans shouted Bellissima! as the Italian beauty (looking far younger than her eighty years) oddly was asked to show a ticket to enter, but soon she and her companion were escorted inside the historic auditorium. The gathered ticket holders were all abuzz, knowing that legend Sophia Loren would be in the house viewing her film alongside them, a full fifty years after she’d filmed it. Except, unfortunately, that … she wouldn’t be. Apparently, unbeknownst to all, we were instead graced by the presence of Vera, Sophia’s “double” who, if nothing else, knows how to make an impressive entrance.
As this was Hollywood, I suppose no one should have been surprised by fake-Sophia’s appearance. Vera (whose voice ultimately gave her away) did supply some palpable excitement to the matinee crowd, and livened up the proceedings quite impressively. The following evening when one particularly enthused fellow couldn’t contain his excitement over having met Sophia Loren the previous day, well …I thought better than to correct him. After all, what’s the purpose in taking that charmed memory away from someone by exposing Vera’s charade? This town is built on illusion, so where’s the harm in Vera’s bit of performance art tribute (my preferred interpretation, rather than simply a way to cut the line)? Sophia’s proper AFI tribute would follow in a few days, so why not begin the party a little early? To each tribute his own, I’ve always felt, and after all, imitation is apparently the sincerest form of flattery. Again, this is Hollywood where too much is never enough, as demure Jayne Mansfield loved to proclaim.
On to the subject of Miss Mansfield – the shy wallflower, the working man’s Marilyn, and the tigress who upstaged Sophia at her Hollywood coming-out party back in 1957 by strategically overflowing her own dress. At the conclusion of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow Loren puts on a record and slowly disrobes for long-suffering horndog Mastroianni, who howls his approval as he waits impatiently on the bed. Sophia really puts the tease in strip tease here, and this saucy number was perfect fodder for opportunistic Jayne, who proudly recreated it in her posthumously demented mondo docu-psychodrama The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield. Jayne and Sophia … forever linked it seems (whether Sophia wants it or not).
Speaking of ‘full-circle moments’ (Ava DuVernay and AFI, Keaton and Carrière at the Silent Movie theater), leave it to Jayne Mansfield to once again steal Sophia’s big Hollywood moment nearly six decades after the first infraction. Perhaps it was an even more impressive feat this time around, as sadly Jayne’s been gone for nearly fifty years now. It seems that from the start Jayne was always figuratively lurking just behind Miss Loren, ready to pounce if opportunity beckoned. Back in 1957 when both starlets were in their early twenties, Sophia’s studio threw her an impressive soiree at swank Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills to introduce her to the power players of Hollywood. Jayne (never one to squander a publicity opportunity) seized the moment as only she could.
As Sophia related in her just-published autobiography, “At that moment, Jayne Mansfield arrived. The crowd of guests parted to let her through as she headed straight for my table. She moved forward, swaying on her heels, perhaps not completely sober, with something grand and imperious about each step she took. She knew everyone had their eyes on her, and how could anyone not gape at her neckline, which was more than generous. It was as if she were saying: “Here comes Jayne Mansfield. The Blond Bombshell!” She sat next to me at the table and started talking — it was like a volcano erupting. As she got more and more worked up, suddenly I found one of her breasts on my plate. I looked up at her, terrified … One especially quick reporter took a picture of the scene, and the image went around the world. I refused to autograph it. Hidden behind Hollywood’s enchanted kingdom were some coarse and grotesque sides, which I refused to have anything to do with.” The lady doth protest too much, methinks. Oh Sophia … coarse and grotesque? I suspect a mild case of cleavage envy instead, as Miss Loren has never been particularly shy about displaying her own lovely assets to the world (okay maybe never served up on a plate, but still).
Additionally, Miss Loren has not seemed at all reluctant to milk this long-ago encounter to help sell her current book – Jayne’s savvy seizure of Sophia’s spotlight has been highlighted in almost every interview Loren’s done of late. Tellingly, some of the loudest hosannas from her tribute audience (guilty) erupted when the iconic photo flashed larger than life up on the giant Dolby screen behind Sophia (surely the grandest display that photo has ever seen). The jaw-dropping Mansfield/Loren version then dissolved into Modern Family’s spot-on recreation, whereupon that other Sophia (Vergara) came to the stage to kindly pay homage to her charmed namesake.
Ah, the battle of the mighty bosom, Hollywood’s version of a classic alpha male face-down. This was her town back in ’57 dammit and Jayne would abide no interlopers, serving up a master class in one-upmanship to the inexperienced Italian ingenue. It was simply Sophia Loren’s bad luck (or rather, ultimate good fortune?) to be caught in Miss Mansfield’s crosshairs that evening. And count our lucky stars that she was, as otherwise the most interesting photos from that Romanoff’s party might have been the ones of Sophia hobnobbing with Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. And who’d still be talking about those over a half-century later?
The remainder of Loren’s gala tribute was somewhat anti-climactic after Jayne’s surprise appearance (likely the reason AFI chose only the Mansfield clip to feature on their site). Sophia spoke well of most all her A-list co-stars (save Marlon Brando and Peter Sellers), lavishing particular praise on Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, and especially Marcello Mastroianni, her screen partner of forty years. The incomparable Mastroianni was a nice, simple man according to Loren, and one with a “great, great sense of humor.” He enjoyed food and loved to eat, talking throughout the entire day about what he would eat for dinner that coming night. “He knew the best restaurants in Rome,” recalled Loren, and their mutual love and admiration for each other is evident in their many collaborations. In fact, in their last pairing together for Robert Altman’s Prêt-à–Porter, like Jayne before, they too recreated the classic howling striptease from Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow one final time.
Before one of their most satisfying De Sica collaborations (Marriage Italian Style) screened that night in a beautiful restoration, the short film Human Voice (La Voce Umana), based on Jean Cocteau’s one-woman play, was shown to the appreciative crowd. Loren, when just a teen, had seen Anna Magnani perform the challenging part at her local cinema and it inspired her to become a film actress. She’s wanted to tackle the role ever since, and it fell to her director son Edoardo to finally fulfill her wish. “She gave me life,” explained Ponti, “The least I could do was give her a movie in return. But what I truly respect and admire about her choice in making this movie, is that she really had no reason to prove herself yet again. She gave so much to the world, why risk even denting her legacy with such a daunting role which has challenged so many actresses across the generations and the cultures? Why? Because she is an artist. Because she’s a woman inspired by her desire to tell stories that move her. And she does so with passion, with humility, and with courage.” Indeed, Sophia has lost none of her power as an actress, and this emotional monologue of a woman saying her final goodbyes to her last love showcases those still formidable acting chops. To see Miss Loren perform this heartwrenching gem so movingly, followed then by her full-blooded performance in Marriage Italian Style (a half century fresh!), tied the 2014 AFI Fest up in a beautiful overflowing Italian bow. Mille grazie, bella Sophia!
All AFI Fest photos by Steve Striegel, exclusively for ICS