Gina Lollobrigida and the Changing Face of Fame

Gina Lollobrigida, who died this week at the age of 95, was known in the 1950s and thereafter for the kind of beauty which drove Italian men to self-destruction; and for performances in films which seemed to define a scrappy, energetic, self-possessed Italian womanhood.   

During her career, ‘La Lollo’ sculpted, took photographs, did a little journalism and maintained a chaotic personal and political life, in which both her husbands and her male executive assistants always seemed to be in their late twenties. 

But she ought to also be famous for something else: being the subject of one of the most exciting and vital early experiments in television, a great short film by Orson Welles. That film, Viva Italia, or Portrait of Gina, has never received a formal release, though. It was censored by Lollobrigida herself, who didn’t like it. She thought it made her seem a little vulgar, a little too ambitious.  

Made in the late 1950s as one of Welles’s two great experimental pilots for television – the other being The Fountain of Youth – Viva Italia was a real step forward in technique. It was a protype ‘video essay’ in the choppy, amusing style Welles later used in the feature F for Fake. It is a collage, featuring newsprint, newsreel footage, clips from films and archive footage of people in the Italian film world – and an interview with Lollobrigida and Welles that was stitched together from separate sources. Welles never interviewed Lollobrigida directly, even though he seems to be talking to her quite affably in the film.  

The picture might not be to everyone’s taste. Its rapid cutting and strange uses of music might seem a little disorientating or smug. Certainly, Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that the would-be distributors absolutely ‘hated it’. But they were wrong to take against it – it is an important episode in television history. And Welles has been consistently popular, even revered, since his death in 1985.  

The film was lost for decades before being discovered again in 1986 and screened at the Venice Film Festival. Lollobrigida saw it for the first time, hated it and had it banned. She never changed her mind. But it’s remarkable that we have never had a formal release of the film purely on account of her dislike for it. 

That’s not to say the film vanished without a trace. You can track it down on YouTube, in somewhat inferior quality. That’s where I saw it (and was impressed by it) a year or so ago. There were digital limits to Lollobrigida’s increasingly protracted bid to censor the ghost of Welles.  

There’s an interesting final coda to this story, which is brought into sharp relief with Lollobrigida’s death. After more than 60 years, the film might finally see formal release, maybe on one of the prestige TV channels or film-snob streaming services which like to parade artsy fare like this as if it were a grand rediscovery.  

And this is also a chance to reflect on an entirely lost world. Even if Welles’s film never does make it to release, the age of the super-secretive star, capable of blocking even favourable documentaries about them from distribution if they do not fit the approved mould, has long passed. The fact that these things persist in digital space and that one can bootleg this stuff in the YouTube era really does mean the time of big movie stars being both willing and able to shield their image is long over.  

Ours is a new age of celebrity – an ‘attention economy’ where social media fame is as much a money-spinner as hit singles and high-grossing films or roles in prestigious TV dramas. Attention is the thing that matters most, not selectivity. TikTok stars such as Bella Poarch go from obscurity to instant-superstardom on the basis of moving their heads a little in time with songs – and travel from that to a manufactured career as a pop star almost as quickly.  

Even for established names, it seems the new celebrity path is one of lugubrious oversharing, press junkets and constant posting online. Will Smith tried to become the face of YouTube (before he slapped a comedian at the Oscars), while his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, hosted a confessional video series on Facebook offering the kind of self-exposure that would make Prince Harry blush. No wonder that when Smith released an all-too-revealing autobiography a while ago, even celebrity-obsessed websites such as BuzzFeed said (in a headline since changed): ‘We know too much about Will Smith now.’ 

Lollobrigida relished attention, but it had to be the right kind of attention. It had to reflect her image as vital and fiery, beautiful and clever, but also modest. The fact that this was impossible to square with her lifestyle didn’t matter to her. Those simply were her conditions.   

Egomania has not disappeared among celebrities. But as in so many areas, attention is now a volume business, not a quality one. Exposure is money, and essential for survival. There’s no room to worry all that much about what it means. 

This piece was originally published in Spectator Life.


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