The Guardian (24/Apr/2006) - Obituary: Alida Valli
(c) The Guardian (24/Apr/2006)
- keywords: Academy Awards, Alfred Hitchcock, Alida Valli, David O. Selznick, Farley Granger, The Paradine Case (1947)
Italian film star idolised by Mussolini and betrayed by Harry Lime
The Italian film icon from the 1930s onwards, Alida Valli, who has died aged 84, was described by Benito Mussolini as the most beautiful woman in the world after Greta Garbo. He was not her only fan. Most Italian directors of the time were in love with her, and her countrymen and women considered her a national sweetheart. After the war, she found international stardom in Hollywood, though undoubtedly her best English-language role was as Anna Schmidt, Harry Lime's grieving girlfriend, in The Third Man.
Born Alida von Altenburger in Pula, in what is now Croatia but was then part of the Italian kingdom, Alida moved with her family to Como, in northern Italy, while still a girl. When her father died, she and her mother went to Rome, where she enrolled at the capital's newly inaugurated film school, Centro Sperimentale. In 1936 she beat four rival students for a small part in I due sergenti (The Two Sergeants), directed by Enrico Guazzoni, who had made the Italian silent film classic, the first Quo Vadis?
Alida was still not particularly ambitious, but was encouraged by the Centro's teachers, particularly film historian Francesco Pasinetti, who had every right to claim later that he had been her Pygmalion. The name Alida Valli was invented for her, and in 1937 she made five films, winning such popularity that her salary was increased with every picture. Having discovered that she could support her whole family, she decided that the career was worth pursuing.
She became one of the top stars of Italian cinema, appearing mostly in comedies or romantic melodramas. Then, in 1940, she was cast as the heroine in Mario Soldati's adaptation of Fogazzaro's 19th-century novel, Piccolo Mondo Antico. She was not Soldati's first choice, but once on the set she enchanted the director with her beauty and talent. The film was a triumph and Alida won a best actress award. During the second world war, she made many films, including the striking two-part Noi Vivi/Addio Kira! (We the Living), directed by Goffredo Alessandrini, about the hardships of life in post-revolutionary St Petersburg. She and Rossano Brazzi played the tragic young lovers, and the film was acclaimed at the Axis-dominated 1942 Venice film festival, where its anti-communist message was much appreciated.
In 1944, Alida married Oscar De Mejo, a jazz pianist. Their son, Carlo, was born a year later, by which time Alida had been offered a Hollywood contract by David Selznick. There were initial problems over her American visa after an anonymous letter to the US embassy in Rome accused her of fascist sympathies and of having slept with Hitler's propanganda chief Joseph Goebbels. But Selznick's lawyers disproved the allegations and the visa was granted, with apologies.
In Hollywood Alida was groomed into a mysterious, vamp-like creature - she was known quite simply as Valli. Her first film there was Hitchcock's The Paradine Case (1947), in which her icy aloofness gave a mistaken idea of her talents. In 1948 came Miracle of the Bells, in which she co-starred with Frank Sinatra, whom she would later describe as "the greatest (unrequited) passion of my life". The film was a flop. Then came Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949).
After Alida returned to Europe - without De Mejo, who had discovered a vocation as a painter and stayed on in the US - she made the odd film in France and Italy. Then, in the mid-1950s, her career entered a new phase with roles in auteur films such as Visconti's Senso (1954), in which she played an Italian countess in love with an Austrian officer (Farley Granger), and Antonioni's Il Grido (1957), which had won her praise and almost cult status.
This success, however, was clouded by her affair with a friend of her ex-husband's, Piero Piccioni, the son of a Christian Democrat minister, who had been implicated in the Montesi case, a scandal that rocked Italian society and politics. The case revolved around the death of a young woman, Wilma Montesi, and Alida was called as a witness at Piccioni's trial, attracting much unfavourable press publicity in the process.
During the next decade Alida struggled to rebuild her career, working mainly abroad. In the early 1960s, she moved to Mexico for three years, married director Giancarlo Zagni and appeared in several films and television plays. Back in Italy her reputation was re-established with such films as Pasolini's Oedipus Rex (1967), Bertolucci's The Spider's Strategem (1970), 1900 (1976) and La Luna (1979).
Her theatrical career took off in 1956, when Zagni directed her in Ibsen's Rosmersholm and Pirandello's The Man, the Beast and Virtue. Among her most memorable stage performances were as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, the mother in Genet's Paravents, Deborah in More Stately Mansions, and the Katharine Hepburn role in Suddenly Last Summer. Under the direction of Patrice Chéreau, she played at the Milan Piccolo Teatro in Wedekind's Lulu. When both in their 80s, Alida and Raf Vallone appeared together as grandparents celebrating their golden wedding in a tragi-comedy TV movie, Vino Santo. The marriage to Zagni ended in 1970.
On the whole, Alida hated talking about the past. A 1995 book, for instance, contained only interviews with journalists, apart from an epilogue of her laconic words on the telephone: "Don't bother, lasci perdere; it isn't worth it." But during the 1990s, when she was making her last stage appearances touring in two Pirandello plays, she played in the Calabrian town where I live. We had dinner after the show, with Carlo, who was also in the company, and she told us that there had not been another man in her life. She was still a very beautiful woman.
She received a life achievement Golden Lion award at the Venice film festival in 1997. Carlo and her second son, Larry, survive her.