La Dolce Vita and Blonde

La Dolce Vita Movie poster, blondeThis 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.

La Dolce Vita by Richard DyerProfessor 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.

La Dolce VitaFirst – 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.

The new light-weight cameras of 1960 allowed photographers to get in really close to their subjects, sometimes while running. Many resisted. Some fled. Some fought back, in the film, as in real life.

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.

Roman Holiday subtextBut 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?

La Dolce Vita Mastroianni and EkbergMarcello 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

La Dolce Vita Gentleman Prefer BlondesThe Blonde, as a concept, was already iconic before La Dolce Vita. Anita Loos published Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1925.

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

Iris Tree by ModiglianiHowever, there are other sorts of blondes (I may well return to this theme) and I think I caught sight of one, very briefly in Fellini’s film.

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.

Dolce Vita Iris TreeThis 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.

Sophie Weston Author


Pedantique-Ryter : changing meanings, right and wrong

hand slicing through a stone question markEnglish usage is full of constantly changing meanings. How often do you yell at the radio or TV because some idiot presenter doesn’t know his (or her) English usage? How is it that educated people so often get fairly common words wrong?

English is a vibrant, living language and evolving all the time.

Not always changing for the better, in my pedantic view. But I know I am probably fighting a losing battle against sloppy English.

Changing meanings as words enter more common usage

Some words used to have very specific and precise meanings but have been misused so much that the original meaning has no traction any more.
So, if I say, “We underestimate the enormity of the decimation,” what do I mean? Continue reading

Medium Fiction

No, this blog is not about a new modestly priced genre for the  middle-aged, middle-gendered, middle-brow reader. This blog is about stories built around the figure of the professional medium. Because I’ve just read a cracking good one, and realised that it’s a subject I bump my nose on every few years. I don’t always like them, as you will see, but they often give me that little kick of electricity which means I never quite forget them.

Medium in All That Was LostThe Book that started this is All that Was Lost, by Alison May, published last Thursday.

The main character is, indeed, a professional medium. Very professional. One doesn’t entirely trust her but there is something oddly reassuring about her, though she clearly has some well-buried issues. She grows in stature throughout the book. Indeed, as in so many relationships, the reader alternately engages and retreats. I was 100% on her side by the end, though.

I found this a page-turner, intriguing and consistently engaging – and quite unlike anything else I have read this year. A refreshment to the jaded palate indeed. Continue reading

Odd titles wanted: for books written and unwritten

old books waiting for odd titlesAuthors often agonise over titles for their books. Not just odd titles — any title. And finding the right title may be the very last thing an author does. Sometimes, authors never find their title at all; their publisher supplies one instead. (And the angst that process can create could be a subject for several blogs, on its own.)

Odd Titles Competition


Mice — but not nude at all, in this Rackham illustration

There is actually a competition for odd book titles. It’s called the Bookseller/Diagram Prize for the Oddest Title of the Year. It was started by The Bookseller to provide entertainment at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1978 but has since grown quite a lot. The very first winner was:

  • Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice

The most recent winner was by Michaela Giles and rejoiced in the title of:

  • The Commuter Pig Keeper: A Comprehensive Guide to Keeping Pigs when Time is your Most Precious Commodity 

Continue reading

My First Library And What it Taught Me

writer's cat with booksThe fantastic experience of visiting the 250-year-old Leeds Library started me thinking about how my life has been marked out in libraries and, specifically, my first library. It was a small, very definitely a suburban sub-branch. But its great virtue was that it was at the end of the road. Ten minutes walk from home, tops!

And it had a visiting cat.

(No, not this one. This is my own TK. My own books too, come to think of it.)

Joining My First Library

Continue reading

Stuck on your manuscript? Bring on the villain

Bring on a villain, like this one, when manuscript is stuckDelightful chap, isn’t he, our villain? I particularly admire those enormous teeth. And that improbable moustache.

I’ve blogged about villains before — including charismatic villains played by Alan Rickman (yes!) and Richard Armitage — but today’s blog isn’t about individual villains. It’s about what villains can bring to our manuscripts, especially when we’re stuck.

I was stuck on my current wip. It was moving at the rate of a glacier before we had climate change.
In other words, it was going nowhere very slowly.

Crit partners : support when stuck

Continue reading

Magic of a Georgian Library

The last couple of weeks I have been contemplating the magic of a Georgian Library. As a result I have been researching libraries in general and, in particular, libraries I have known intimately. There are a surprising number of them scattered through my career. My spiritual home, maybe?

Georgian Library

Grand Library at Osterley Park, not like my poor house at all!

Partly this must be due to the novel I am currently editing. It stars a distinctly down-at-heel stately home. Its library was put together in the eighteenth century on the basis of some sketches by the Adam brothers and a certain amount of DIY on the part of the servants and the cash-strapped owner. A classical frieze in the library, indeed, was constructed out of clever paint effects and paper mâché. I’m rather in love with that frieze. Continue reading

Female names : flowers, fashions and faux-pas

single blush-pink climbing rose flower against blue skyvariegated ivy growing up a stone wallleaves of a rather leggy laurus nobilis (bay) tree

The images above (in case you were wondering) show various plants from my drought-ridden garden, specifically: rose, ivy, catmint, bay (laurel). Anything strike you about them?
Yes, three of them also provide female names.  At least, they do in English.

I don’t think it’s usual to call a baby girl “Catmint”. Unless you know someone called that?

But Rose, Ivy, and Laura (Laurel) used to be fairly common.

bee on lavender flowersspikes of blue delphiniumsAlong with Pansy,
the occasional Delphine (Delphinium),
and loads more… Continue reading

Romance Conference Diary by Liz Fielding

Liz Fielding, multi-award-winning author, celebrates her arrival in the Libertà Hive with a Romance Conference Diary, after Joanna’s blog about the RNA Conference. Welcome, Liz!

Liz is just back from Denver, where the Conference in question was that of the Romance Writers of America — and where her lovely Sheikh’s Convenient Princess was short-listed for the 2018 Short Contemporary Rita® Award.  


Romance Conference Diary - suitcasesPacking for Conference is ridiculous. You have no idea how cold the hotel is going to be. You do know it’s going to be steaming hot outside, so you pack twice as much as you need. Plus conference “swag”.

I checked in online and printed my boarding card. Tick. Car delivered me to Heathrow in good time. Tick. Bags dropped. Tick. Through security… Er, hello Border Control. I was drug swabbed! I mean, could it be any more ridiculous? Noticeably all the swabbees were women. The lady in front of me had a scented candle. I hadn’t taken the plastic pouch with my toiletries out of my hand luggage before it went through the x-ray machine. Slapped wrist. Don’t do it again. Continue reading

Never stop learning : inspiring working authors

RNA conference reception with goody bags, coffee, bookstall

Goody bags for delegates, tea, coffee, bookstall
Just what arriving delegates need (possibly + wine later?)

Last week, the Libertà hive was buzzing round the annual conference of the
Romantic Novelists’ Association at
Leeds Trinity University. 

In Yorkshire.

God’s Own Country, I’m told.

And here was I thinking it was Scotland 😉

open courtyard for RNA conference delegates to relax in

Leeds Trinity’s courtyard where RNA delegates relaxed

It was a fantastic few days — as it always is — with dozens of inspiring workshops to choose from, old and new friends to meet, [many, many] glasses of wine to drink… Continue reading