Key Roles: La Dolce Vita, La Notte, 8 ½, Divorce Italian Style, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, Marriage Italian Style, A Special Day and Dark Eyes
When evaluating an actor, the temptation is to begin with his awards resume. On such terms, Mastroianni acquits himself well enough: three Oscar nominations, six Golden Globe nominations with two wins, two BAFTA nominations and victories and a host of Italian-specific awards. But merely examining his trophy case is insufficient.
Instead, Mastroianni should be considered through the characters he embodied. He had a fine career with roles in seven different decades. He had the good fortune to be Italian in the 1950s, when Italian neo-realist cinema brought that country’s film industry into global prominence. And he became a global persona himself, as evidenced by his Oscar nominations.
His real impact, however, came in a very short window at the turn of the 1960s. In this period, Mastroianni brought to life three of cinema’s most poignant, emotionally-wrenching protagonists: Marcello Rubini in 1960’s La Dolce Vita, Giovanni Pontano in 1961’s La Notte and Guido Anselmi in 1963’s 8½. These three films are masterworks and none of them could have achieved that status without Mastroianni playing the feature part.
In Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, his carefree playboy attitude and the minimalist way in which he humanizes Rubini’s fall into bourgeois ennui are essential to the film. His understated performance feels relatable and allows Fellini to be bombastic in the rest of the production (the helicopter intro, for instance). Upon re-viewings of La Dolce Vita, Rubini generates even more pathos and more fully embodies the wandering man-without-a-home. He is without a purpose, yet without any right to complain. Mastroianni seemingly effortlessly personifies the film’s central conceit of the vapidity of peak consumer-capitalism.
His work in Antonioni’s La Notte is even more significant and carries a greater degree of difficulty. As Pontano, Mastroianni is a successful and celebrated writer with a beautiful wife in a roaring metropolis—he is the sort of person the viewer is supposed to envy. Instead, he is wracked with boredom, has no self-confidence and seems at any moment capable of rash decisions. He is quite similar to “Mad Men’s” Don Draper, but Mastroianni did not have the benefit of 60-plus hours of screen time to create his character. In a matter of minutes, with facial gestures and vocal rhythms, he brings to life the crushing self-doubt and temptation to self-destruct so central to the man Pontano is supposed to be. And he maintains it throughout the film’s runtime.
As Anselmi, Mastroianni again embodies the character in a singular way that is crucial to Fellini’s impossibly good follow-up to La Dolce Vita. As with the other two roles, he manages to personify the crux of the character without endeavoring to cultivate sympathy. Anselmi has reached the pinnacle of success and cannot climb higher, yet his artistic urges, his fans and his financial sponsors are all pushing him back into filmmaking. The frenzied sadness and hollow, bacchanalian enjoyment of it all shine through in Mastroianni’s performance: He is loving it and he is simultaneously miserable.
These three grand Italian films, with their successful-but-unhappy male protagonists, are the true cinematic legacy of Marcello Mastroianni as an actor. – Ryne Clos