James Snell

Gina Lollobrigida and the changing face of fame

Her censorship of Orson Welles is a story from a lost world

  • From Spectator Life
Gina Lollobrigida [Alamy]

Gina Lollobrigida, who died this week at the age of 95, was known in the 1950s and thereafter for the kind of beauty which drove Italian men to self-destruction; and for performances in films which seemed to define a scrappy, energetic, self-possessed Italian womanhood.  

During her career, ‘La Lollo’ sculpted, took photographs, did a little journalism and maintained a chaotic personal and political life, in which both her husbands and her male executive assistants always seemed to be in their late twenties.

But she ought to also be famous for something else: being the subject of one of the most exciting and vital early experiments in television, a great short film by Orson Welles. That film, Viva Italia, or Portrait of Gina, has never received a formal release, though. It was censored by Lollobrigida herself, who didn’t like it. She thought it made her seem a little vulgar, a little too ambitious. 

The age of the super-secretive star, capable of blocking even favourable documentaries about them from distribution if they do not fit the approved mould, has passed

Made in the late 1950s as one of Welles’s two great experimental pilots for television – the other being The Fountain of Youth – Viva Italia was a real step forward in technique. It was a protype ‘video essay’ in the choppy, amusing style Welles later used in the feature F for Fake. It is a collage, featuring newsprint, newsreel footage, clips from films and archive footage of people in the Italian film world – and an interview with Lollobrigida and Welles that was stitched together from separate sources. Welles never interviewed Lollobrigida directly, even though he seems to be talking to her quite affably in the film. 

The picture might not be to everyone’s taste. Its rapid cutting and strange uses of music might seem a little disorientating or smug. Certainly, Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that the would-be distributors absolutely ‘hated it’. But

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