He was a student of Italian film legends like Fellini and Mastroianni. Then he met their muse. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Quite a few people here in Hollywood on the Tiber hear “writer,” and understand “translator.” This means you exist to help them get their ideas, novels and screenplays produced in the real Hollywood on the Pacific. Bugged me at first, but they’re fast-cash transactions, and the “translate” button on the digital typer works better and better.
Everyone knows the old Cinecittà lot is being gradually turned into a theme park. They still shoot some TV ads and -series there. Hopeful extras line up at the gate. Eager beaver aspiring directors bring their reels, which are usually on their cellphones. No more paparazzi. No limousines, certainly no helicopters. No men in long black coats and Borsalino cowboy hats atop slicked-back hair who hide their authoritarian gaze behind Persol sunglasses, the lenses a shade or two darker than are commercially available.
One guy I met at a boring party heard “writer,” and understood “tour guide.” Not exactly refreshing, but different. “Tell me,” I said, “what’s the job?”
“All you gotta do is act like you’re the actor who played Porcello in Fellini’s Casanova. Tell the customers you and Donny Sutherland grew up together in Canada, played hockey, ate maple syrup, shit like that. You lead groups through the new fake sets, which are gonna look all dusty and sacred. Make ‘em feel like they’re getting the real deal, that they’re seeing something secret for insiders only, so they’ll go away thinking some of that magic might’ve rubbed off on them.”
Not too long ago, I would’ve said, “No.” Not even “No, thanks.”
Instead, I said, “Guess I could try.”
“Great. Come by tomorrow for an audition.”
There are long lines even for the humiliating gigs these days.
I rode out to Cinecittà on my sea-green Vespa. Couldn’t have done that, in L.A. where the studios aren’t on the way to the beach.
The line was real, and it seemed to stretch all the way to Carthage. Apparently, they were hiring in a big way for the new improved CinecittàLandia. The unemployed hopefuls jabbered on their cellphones, threw gestures at the clear air. Except for a tall thin lady whose long white hair fell down her back in a thick braid secured with glossy black ribbon cut in swallowtails at the ends. She could’ve been there to try out for the part of Intellectual Career Woman in New York circa 1966. The pendant on her necklace was a facsimile of The Mouth Of Truth, but it shone like 18K. She was reading a massive book, A Dance To The Music Of Time, by Anthony Powell.
I hadn’t brought anything to read, since I wasn’t expecting the wait. Here in Spaghettiland, if you’re not nervy, you lose. So I acted as though my mamma had held my spot while I was off buying fresh tomatoes for tonight’s marinara. If anybody even noticed, they didn’t complain. The blabber and hand-jive went on apace.
The woman didn’t even look up from her book. “Slick,” she said. The endless line and the surrounding phone biz didn’t faze her. Maybe her silent concentration got to me.
“You trying out to run the Rosselini Coaster?”
She finished her paragraph. “You know, I really just come out for a look now and then. I don’t know why. There’s nothing left.”
Actually, there was nothing there to begin with, but I kept my thoughts to myself. The real Eternal City was a short subway ride west. There are still statues, mosaics and bloody gladiator helmets buried under the tracks. Cinecittà was a cheap reproduction of Hollywood. The genuine article was created to sell a glorified version of the USA to Americans and to the rest of the world. We were in a line for a chance to help turn fake Hollywood into a phony Spaghetti Disneyland.
The line moved. A young man and a young woman were allowed through the gate by a man in uniform with a non-prop gun on his belt. They followed him towards a low building a few football fields away. Nobody else watched them go. The lady in front of me shut her giant paperback and nudged her significant purse a few paces forward.
It hit me that I’d seen her before.
She lived in Trastevere. She wheeled a wire shopping cart behind her like the old lady natives. Not many of them left. The neighborhood’s become an off-shore offshoot of some American college campus. All the young Italian actors and directors have emigrated to L.A.
She was deep in her novel again. The line moved faster. Doesn’t take long for people who might offer jobs to say, “No. Next!”
They offered me the Casanova tour guide gig. All I would’ve had to do was don 18th Century costume, and point, for example, at a folding beach chair, and say: “That was Federico’s. That’s the real one.” The pay was decent, but when they shoved the contract at me, something made me say, “Better talk to my agent.”
The oily guys behind the big desk didn’t call the armed guard to escort me off the premises. Instead, one of them waved me away like a fly who’d already wasted enough of their time.
While I walked across the denuded field towards the exit, I saw the lady with the impressive white hair again. She was musing on an Ancient Roman street set, with crumbling plaster Corinthian columns and an historically inappropriate palm tree. She hadn’t even pretended to submit to an interview, but no one had told her to leave. I felt like one of those people who see actors in period costume roaming loose during their tour of Versailles, and then find out no one was shooting there that day.
There were no guards in sight. I went over and cleared my throat so as not to make her jump. “Would you have dinner with me at Il Ciak?”
“Delighted,” she said, and lowered her huge sunglasses to shoot me a look from a long time ago. A guard materialized from behind a soundstage tank, saw us, and approached. I headed him off at the pass. He left her alone to wander among prosthetic monuments poised to become features of a new tourist attraction.
The sea was calm at Lido di Ostia that day. Glassy, even.
On the way back from the beach, I stopped at the Colosseum, and got off my Vespa to ask a guy dressed as a Centurion whether he had to interview for the gig. He had a heavy Roman accent, so he probably wasn’t some imported extra, hired for his swarthy and slightly menacing good looks.
“Tell me,” I asked, “how does it feel to masquerade as one of your ancestors?”
He said the factories were closed, and he wasn’t big enough in the pants to get the other kind of showbiz work. Then he told me to get lost or he’d konk me on the head with his gladius, which was steel — not plywood painted silver.
Directors in Hollywood on the Tiber used to say “Ciak!” when they meant “Cut!” Il Ciak is a restaurant in Trastevere. Movie people used to have dinner there. Intriguing ladies arrived, with dreams of cultured foreign lives and liaisons with aristocrats and artists. They joined shady men in black clothes and sunglasses with pomaded hair and oily demeanors, owners of the Alfa Romeos and Ferraris insouciantly parked on the cobblestones just outside the restaurant. Quick dinners, then woosh! Off into the night, fast as possible. Some actors who went to Il Ciak to get their pictures taken had to pay for the privilege. Sometimes they acted as though they didn’t want to be caught on film, or not just then. Ordinary human beings went there to see the stars, and to be in the backgrounds of pictures for tourists of the future.
The lady with the white hair walked into Il Ciak while I mused on background people. I nearly knocked over my chair when she headed in for her close-up. I immediately saw she had been the sylph wedged between Federico and Marcello in the picture snapped half a century earlier, hung from a nail a few yards from where we were standing. Even then, her hair was the color of long ash on a good cigarette.
She lowered her sunglasses, then took them all the way off. We stared at each other, waiting for an imaginary director, or one of the waiters, to yell, “Ciak!” She moved, slightly. I got her coat and pulled out her chair. Her fingers did business with a breadstick since there was no smoking inside Il Ciak any more. “
“I prefer the one with Alberto Moravia and PeePee Pasolini,” she said. “Elio got my good side that time.”
“Wow. I’ve never seen that one, and I’ve been coming here for years. Is it in the Ladies Room?”
“No silly, it’s at my place. But look at the shot directly above your head.”
The waiter came by with a bottle of fizzy mineral water and a liter carafe of the house white. He said the special that evening was grilled stuffed cuttlefish. I was immersed in ancient sepia, fishing for faces in a black-and-white mosaic. There was the prophetic Pier Paolo Pasolini, in his commie intellectual get-up, years before he directed Salò and got massacred by the young fascist thugs he lusted after. What was he doing with the young lady in furs with long white hair, aside from being in the background of a picture of Miss Italian Bosom 1967? M.I.B. was still around. She ran a massage salon in the underground shopping mall at the Termini train station. She was narrowly beaten out of the part of the busty tobacconist in Amarcord, and never got over it.
“The grilled cuttlefish here is one of the best things in the world,” I said, and sat back down. “Shall we trade this hooch for a good bottle and get a double portion? With puntarelle on the side?”
She didn’t even hear me. “PeePee asked me to decorate his beach house at Sabaudia,” she said. “If you watch the first restaurant scene in Accattone, you can sorta see me wolfing down spaghetti alle vongole. I hadn’t eaten for days, and it wasn’t because I wanted to lose weight. That was what’s known as a mercy cast.”
Iris Powell had come to Rome from Pawtucket, R.I., on a Fulbright scholarship. She didn’t have too many stars in her eyes. She wanted to learn the secrets of classical engineering, thought it would translate into a career with Mies van der Rohe in New York, or Carlo Scarpa in Milan. But some people heard “female architect” and understood “party girl” or “hopeful starlet.” No one was hiring, except film director Pier Paolo Pasolini.
The waiter brought bruschetta and a bottle of Terre Nere, nectar from the slopes of Mount Etna. She thanked him with no accent, especially not a Roman accent, and dug in without disturbing her lipstick.
“Oh, he was just the worst client anyone could ever have. He didn’t care what I did with his things or his furniture, and he never paid. I think he knew he wouldn’t be around to see the glorious results.”
“How about Fellini?” I asked, like a jerk, as if I wanted the names of celebrities she had hobnobbed with back in the dreamtime. So I had to recover quickly. “You know, aside from all his films, brilliant as they are, he’s one of my favorite writers.”
Luckily, the waiter arrived with the calamari. All I had to do was watch Iris eat. She was used to being observed, I guess, and gawkers have to pay.
“Did you get that amusement park job you cut in line for?” she asked me.
“Well, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be the conductor on the Sophia Loren Tilt-a-Whirl, or the Antonioni-a-GoGo. So I turned it down.”
She dropped her fork. “Come on. They wanted an anglophone guide for the Casanova set they’re rebuilding. I was in that one, too, by the way. The crowd scene in the canopy bed. Nude under a nightshirt.”
The scene came back to life, vividly, then shifted into a living breathing attraction featuring some huckster who pulled aside a dusty curtain with an obscene flourish and announced, “Here’s the lady who sorta bared all in an actual handful of frames that really didn’t wind up on the bona fide cutting-room floor.” Then showbiz tourists would elbow each other out of the way for autographs, cellphone snapshots, and maybe a feel.
I finished the calamari and wiped my mouth. “Yeah. Well, I turned it down anyway.”
“Listen, I want you to write my autobiography.”
“I’m not a ghostwriter.”
“That’s fine. I’m not a ghost. Yet.”
“How about this: I’ll write your story if you turn my fleabag into a place where a human being might want to live.”
She looked me over, especially my hands. “You drive a hard bargain.”
With practiced ease, she let me handle the check. Not such a big deal at Il Ciak. No Maseratis clicking out on the cobblestones, no smoke, no creative wave that follows a dictatorship, no dreams that are really only dreams. Her heels clicked towards the street where she lived, one of the few where no nightclubs or fake Irish pubs had opened. Yet.
We developed a work routine. She’d drop by my dump to tell me what to do, where to paint and what color, which sticks of furniture to get rid of, and where to put the heavy objects she made me buy to take their place. She knew the last of the reasonable antiques dealers. She approved some of my friends’ paintings and condemned others. She moved my bed so it was facing in the right direction.
When I went to visit her, I brought flowers. In pots, not cut. We’d get into the psychoanalysis position, and I’d listen. What I heard was an average story, with two-dimensional characters, and the occasional brilliant bit-part.
When I gave my expert assessment, she said, “It’s up to you to do the exterior decoration, honey.”
When she thought she’d done all she could for my bachelor pad, she brought me a housewarming present. She’d had the picture reframed in ebony, with an ivory matte. There she was, the meat in an intellectual writer sandwich.
“Those stinkers wouldn’t let me tag along when they went to India,” she explained. “So I don’t want them in my toilet anymore. Merry Christmas, baby.” It was August. “OK, happy feriae Augusti. Happy birthday. Just don’t ever sell it.” The signatures are on the back of the old black and white photograph. The writers wrote their esteem and appreciation from the heart.
Hers stopped beating that fall. She’d spent too many Dolce Vita nights smoking Gitanes and drinking white wine. She’d been married to a baron for a while. She never used the title. He didn’t have much dough, but he drove a racing green Morgan, and was Italy’s leading expert on breeding boxer dogs. That story didn’t last.
Her baron is in the background of a few pictures at Il Ciak. He’s beautifully dressed in his grandpa’s tweeds, tailored to fit. He’s bald, and it looks like he’s wearing goofy glasses while everyone else sports near-opaque shades.
They’re all shades, now.
She left it to me to find an American publisher for what she called our book, but I never could. The “translate” button on my digital typer jammed up, permanently.
The daughter of a guy I went to college with came to Rome to visit. Since I wanted to at least try to be a halfway decent artificial uncle, I gave her my bedroom and slept on the chesterfield sofa which Iris had insisted on. The girl didn’t ask who the pretty lady in the picture over the bed was, and didn’t recognize the bozos on either side of her.
She did ask if I’d take her out to CinecittàLandia on my Vespa. I let her drive without asking to see her license. Carabinieri have a sense of humor about that sort of thing. I got her take the Appia Antica, which is a bumpy ghostly ride. I told her the tomb of Cecilia Metella was Emperor Vespasian’s house, and that Frank Sinatra had lived there once. The Fellini Casanova Coaster features ups n’ downs, ins n’ outs, and a big pair of tits flop in your face at the end. Kind of fun, I’ve got to admit, but the ride doesn’t last long enough to be satisfying.
My “niece” was also disappointed by Il Ciak. She pronounced the place moldy and pooh-poohed the grilled calamari.
Next evening, we hit the Hard Rock Café for hamburgers. There are framed pictures on the walls there, too. Turned out we were sitting in the same booth that Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio had once occupied. The girls in the background stared with stars in their eyes. My niece stretched out her arm and immortalized us with her cellphone.
She groaned when I offered to sign the snapshot.