This Monday I was lucky enough to go to a lecture on La Dolce Vita by Professor Richard Dyer. I say lucky advisedly. It was pure chance that I went.
I never enjoyed this 1960 movie very much and, apart from its iconic status, remember little about it. But one of my best friends invited me. I wanted to see my friend. And so I went – and got so much more than I expected.
Professor Dyer is the sort of enthusiast I could listen to for ever. Moreover, he loves La Dolce Vita. Not uncritically, you understand. He wrote the British Film Institute’s guide to the movie – which I immediately ordered – and he clearly continues to research its creation and ponder its message(s). Above all he is just wonderful on the gossip that surrounds the movie.
Indeed, a major part of his thesis is that the movie is precisely about that gossip: how it arises, how it is delivered, how it is received.
La Dolce Vita: Iconic Status
I’m going to illustrate rather than argue that La Dolce Vita has set its stamp on a time and a way of seeing life to which we still refer today. For this I offer two pieces out of the great body of evidence propounded by Professor Dyer.
First – that title! La dolce vita is now universal shorthand for a hedonistic, fast-paced, self-absorbed lifestyle, part playful, part empty, dependent on display. It paid, and pays, celebrity an almost religious devotion. Consider certain current politicians.
Second – paparazzi. The word was an introduced by the movie. The photographer who accompanies the journalist, Marcello, is named Paparazzo. He is one of a group of photographers who, Professor Dyer points out, actually become part of the story they are photographing.
Anita Ekberg, the star of La Dolce Vita, was photographed threatening photographers with a bow and arrow outside her home in Rome. (Looks a bit staged to me.) But there were undoubtedly fistfights between paparazzi and their subjects/clients/victims.
La Dolce Vita: Rome
Like its 1952 predecessor, Roman Holiday, La Dolce Vita was made in black and white and is a visual love poem to Rome. The other thing the two have in common is that both put a journalist centre stage. In each movie, he pursues a celebrity, during which his personal and private life collide. And he is accompanied by a photographer.
But William Wyler’s confection is pure joy. Audrey Hepburn travels delightfully from royal wooden top through a day of teenage exuberance to woman on the edge of love. Well, the journalist is Gregory Peck. Who wouldn’t? He’s an American, a foreign correspondent in Rome.
Fellini takes us on an altogether darker journey. Literally to a great extent. The streets of Rome, whether crowded or dangerous and near-deserted, are shot in a chiaroscuro that Caravaggio would have envied.
La Dolce Vita: the Hero – or Is He?
Marcello Mastroianni as the journalist is as hungry for a story as is Gregory Peck, at the beginning hunting down his princess. But, while Peck learns empathy and possibly love, Mastroianni’s character is altogether more equivocal. He is on his home turf, a gossip columnist. The moment where he almost loves Sylvia, the famous actress, evaporates. He is defeated – her husband, an ageing actor who once played Tarzan, slugs him in the stomach – deflected and, ultimately, absorbed by other stories and other roles for himself.
La Dolce Vita: the Blonde
Professor Dyer points out that by 1960 Marilyn Monroe was The Blonde and that nearly every country had at least one celebrity sharing her type of big-busted blondness. There was Diana Dors in the UK, Anita Ekberg in Sweden and, oddly enough, American Jayne Mansfield living and much photographed in Rome that year.
The part of Sylvia references Marilyn explicitly at least twice, possibly also Jayne. (Professor Dyer’s thesis is convincing. Buy the book!) But what took me aback, is that it also uses episodes from Ekberg’s own life. The first, rather sweetly, was when she was photographed paddling in the Trevi Fountain two years earlier. The second, which sticks in my craw rather, comes when Sylvia’s husband slaps her. Professor Dyer believes this to be based on an incident with her former husband, British actor Anthony Steel. As so much does seem to be a distorted reflection of the life around Fellini, I can believe it. But it does seem particularly unkind.
And the Other Blonde – Maybe
During the salon scene, we catch a glimpse of Iris Tree. She was the daughter of Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree, Edwardian London’s premier actor-manager (and, incidentally, grandfather of the late, lamented Oliver Reed. In 1916 she sat for Modigliani. To him she was clearly a brunette at that time.
This amazing woman, poet, actor and all-round free spirit, was living in Rome at the time of La Dolce Vita. She was, by my reckoning, 63. At the gathering of literati she is, like so many others in this film apparently, playing herself.
She wears druidic robes and her hair, which I suppose could well have been grey by then, looks – well – blonde.