Sunday, November 2, 2014

Old Movies

It started simply enough. I was on the fund-raising committee at the Rosendale Theatre Cooperative and we began to hatch plans for a gala event at the Bell Tower, a converted church next to the theatre, now serving as an event venue.

We would have a live band, get local restaurants to contribute refreshments, hold a silent auction, and invite the guests to come in costumes depicting characters from their favorite movies. It was a natural; an upscale party bound to gain traction in the community and maybe become an annual event. The committee was dynamic. Professional, intelligent, committed, and clearly competent to get the job done. I was still a fish out of water, not having any contacts in the area or the get-up-and-go of my youth. Maybe I wouldn't even go to the gala. I'm not much for costumes and don't have one. I sulked. I thought maybe I should just send in a donation.

The event evolved from "come-as-your-favorite-movie-character" to "...or just dress up in your best Hollywood glam..." which intimidated me even more. All my glam had been tossed out years ago in one of my many moves. But I got to thinking about movies that would be simple to emulate in costume. The Bride of Frankenstein? The right wig and a caftan would cover that. The older I get, the more I look like Elsa Lanchester anyway.

I found a great costume shop in Kingston and checked out their Bride of Frankenstein wigs. While I was mulling that over, another movie came to my mind.

La Strada.

Richard Basehart, Guilietta Masina
I never knew a movie could be a masterpiece until I saw La Strada in 1960, as a sheltered 20-year-old with a new husband and a plan for a life in the theatre.  Giulietta Masina, Anthony Quinn, and Richard Basehart showed me what acting really was. At the same time I was transported to a time and place in which one was in the company of destiny—joining three apparent losers on the road of life, without means or even hope. Yet they are in a circus. Zampano is brutish strong man, Gelsomina his assistant, and the acrobat and beguiling clown (Basehart) zigs and zags through the scenes making mischief as he performs his high-wire act. They are jostled against each other, reacting and avoiding, needing and rejecting. The road they face is harsh. The landscape of Italy has been strafed by war; their life is as black and white as the film of it.

First, and central to all, is the girl, Gelsomina. I identified with her totally. Masini’s naïf was the kind of character I had always thought of myself as—like Leslie Caron in Lili and The Glass Slipper, but this film towered above such Hollywood creations. Masina and her mentor, her husband and director of the film Federico Fellini, filled the character of Gelsomina out with a rough authenticity born in poverty and pain. With her clumsy, lost looks, she is the essence of a sweet spirit, impervious yet senstive to the jolts and shocks of her own life. Growing up on a beach somewhere, a sister of hers has been sold off to an itinerant street performer whose act is based on his physical strength. The sister dies—and we never are to learn how. The strong man, Zampano, buys Gelsomina for what we learn is the equivalent of $10, to use her in his act.

We laugh at Gelsomina’s attempts at performing, yet her inherent charm and tenderness win us over as well as the crowds who gather to see Zampano’s rather unpleasant self-aggrandizing turn.
Wherever she is, little children are amused by her and are drawn to her as one of them. She is a grownup who is truly childlike. At the time I first viewed the film I felt I was a child being allowed to play with the grownups.

I was awash with tears throughout the movie the first time I saw it. I saw Gelsomina as me, taken to about the 10th magnitude--an innocent in an untenable life, at the mercy of men who did not understand. The playful “fool” of the movie did not offer Gelsomina escape from Zampano, but he was sensitive enough to suggest a way she could learn to accept her life with the dark strongman. As it turned out, I would ultimately divorce my husband (who was in actuality more like the clown persona than the heartless Zampano), but I never forgot the movie. I was haunted on some subconscious level by its images and the raw grandeur of its theme, story, and message.

And suddenly I thought of my favorite movie role, a costume for the Gala: I came as Gelsomina.  When she performs with Zampano she wears raggedy polo shirts and baggy pants and a clown face that emphasizes her own outlandish features. I found similar articles at the Salvation Army--and a Rod Stewart wig, clown makeup, and a derby at the costume shop. The thought of playing Gelsomina, even for a few hours, was invigorating, rejuvenating, and just plain exciting for me.

I didn't find a trumpet, or a snare drum, but I practiced the makeup for days. The first time I saw the white clown face on myself I was elated. It was magical. I watched the movie three times, listened to what Martin Scorsese said about it, and studied the commentary by a cinema professor. I was able to put La Strada into the context of its time, and of my time. I became a bit of a La Strada expert. And I was glad that I saw more meaning to it with every viewing. I wrote a review of it for IMDb.

When I walked into the gala, I saw that most people had opted for evening wear. Somebody thought I was Charlie Chaplin, but never mind. Some people think Masina was doing a Chaplin turn, but that doesn't come over to me. She is a baggy pants comic and a heartwrenching innocent. She is unique. And I got to be her for an evening.

The party was festive. Most of the costumes were formalwear--evening gowns, glitter, tuxedos. A few assumed I was simply a mime, others recalled the Fellini classic film. I didn't feel a bit out of place, in fact, my inner child was in the forefront. I had a great evening.

And as I process the event in my mind, I'm taken back to the cinema palace where the 20-year-old girl was indoctrinated into the art of the movies. At the moment, La Strada showed me a dark road ahead, called life--but in doing so it revealed the magnificence of the medium of the movies. I was in the presence of greatness. The path of the theatre, acting, directing, and just being in the audience, being moved beyond tears to something near enlightenment, was to last me for at least the next 50 years. And it is something I am proud to love with all my heart.

Me as Gelsomina, 11/1/14


  1. Giulietta was a great actress. La Strada was too sad for me and my favorites are Le notti di Cabiria and Giulietta degli spiriti. She was definitely Fellini's muse.

  2. Beautiful post, Mary Lois

  3. I'd say your turn as Gelsomina shows a far more grnuine bond with the art than just donning an evening gown. Way to keep it real!

  4. It was a fund-raiser. I think we made money--and my costume in the mix reminded them of what we all love and how far some of us go to show it!

  5. I sure wish I'd been there ML! And leave it to you to turn a fun party into an opportunity for a serious research project! Now I've got to see La Strada again.

  6. Maybe we should find a spot for it at The Rosendale. I was surprised how many people hadn't seen it!