“She’d probably spent the night in bars,” said filmmaker Jean Renoir, remembering Anna Magnani, star of his thrilling valentine to acting and the theater, The Golden Coach. Magnani, he explained, would arrive at the set haggard and drawn, and wonder how they could possibly shoot with her looking so wretched. To ease her anxiety, the director would suggest merely rehearsing. “By the fourth or fifth run through,” he recalled, “she looked just like a young girl.” What Renoir recognized was that Magnani, neither sylph nor sex bomb, possessed a more witchy sort of glamour, an ability — refined during her days as a café singer and stage actor — to trick a gaze away from her dark circles and broad-beamed frame and dazzle it instead with the sensual force of her sparking feline eyes, the rich rumble of her voice and an earthy bodily grace.
It was a gift that Hollywood never knew quite how to handle. Her Volcano director William Dieterle called her “the last of the great shameless emotionalists,” as if emotion were something to be ashamed of, an idea borne out by the sober longueurs of the film’s high-minded melodrama. When Magnani did get a Hollywood role she could grab onto — that of bootlegger’s widow Serafina in The Rose Tattoo— it had less to do with her green and stagy director Daniel Mann or a sorely miscast (if irresistibly earnest) Burt Lancaster as her would-be lover, than with scripter Tennessee Williams. Williams wrote Serafina with Magnani in mind, and his feeling for women stifled by social misapprehension finds a staggering embodiment in the stunned bewilderment that tinges Serafina’s grief. Magnani won an Oscar for the film, and she deserved it — the film, worth seeing despite its drawbacks, rises and falls on her laughter and tears.
It’s The Golden Coach, though, that carries Magnani’s finest role. As Camilla, a commedia dell’arte diva in Spanish-colonial Peru, she dabbles in lifestyles and lovers (including a fantastic Duncan Lamont, a presence as cool as Magnani is fiery) over the course of tenderly layered, gorgeously shot plays within plays within a movie. “Where does the theater end and life begin?” the film asks, somewhat simplistically. Magnani’s answer is the magical performance of a true actor, someone whom Renoir called “an animal created completely for the stage and screen,” and for whom such boundaries are not only elusive, but, in the end, meaningless. Los Angeles County Museum of Art; thru Nov. 24. www.lacma.org/events.