After the election of 1960, my friend Howard Austen and I moved to Rome not far from the classical library of the American Academy, where I daily worked on a novel about Julian the Apostate. Also during our first Roman years, in the Via Giulia and later in the Largo Argentina, movie production was at its peak, and, for a few years, many movies were made at Cinecittà, the principal Roman studio. During the late 50s I had worked on the script of Ben-Hur in an office next to that of the producer Sam Zimbalist. Farther down the corridor from my office, Federico Fellini was preparing what would become La Dolce Vita. He was fascinated by our huge Hollywood production. Several times we had lunch together in the commissary. Soon he was calling me Gorino and I was calling him Fred…
Suddenly, one day in 1971, there was Fellini on the terrace of our Largo Argentina flat. “I make film about Roma. I want you and Alberto Sordi and Anna Magnani and Marcello Mastroianni.” I asked Why? This was Fred’s least favorite word. He was a droll and inventive liar and his verbal arabesques were for the most part entirely wasted on flat-footed showbiz interviewers. He blinked his eyes as if in thought: Why? We were in the restaurant of the Grand Hotel, where he would establish himself at a special table set in what looked to be an opera box. “Because,” he said, “you all live in Rome and you are all from outside.” I laughed. “Magnani is Rome.” He realized his mistake. He waved his hands. “She is from everywhere. Like the sun. The moon. The … I have one question I will ask each of you, who can live anywhere, Why you live in Roma?”…
My scene was shot in a small square off Via dei Coronari. It was a freezing February night, but we were all dressed in summer clothes, pretending it was the August Trastevere festival of Noantri. Tables and benches were scattered around the square. Huge plastic fish were on display in tubs. Howard and I sat at a table with three or four American friends. I was fascinated to find that Fellini worked much the way Picasso did in the documentary where he paints on a sheet of glass while the camera shoots from under the table so that we can see what he is painting as he erases, transforms, re-structures. Plates of food kept arriving. Wine bottles. More plastic fish. Some tourists sit at a table opposite us. Fred directed his cameraman as he kept filling in the background with people, food, decorations. When Fellini Roma was released, in 1972 (Fred’s name was part of the title), he was also ready by then to tell the world why he had picked his four stars. “I pick Mastroianni because he is so lazy, so typical. Alberto Sordi because he is so cruel.” An odd characterization: Sordi was a superb comic actor whom one did not associate with cruelty, but then, at the core of comedy, there is indeed a level of sharp observation that the ones observed might easily regard as cruel. “I chose Anna Magnani because she is Anna and this is Roma. Vidal because he is typical of a certain Anglo who comes to Roma and goes native.” As I never spoke Italian properly, much less Roman dialect, and my days were spent in a library researching the fourth century A.D., I was about as little “gone native” as it was possible to be, but Fred clung to his first images of people. — Gore Vidal*
This weekend at the Egyptian, the American Cinematheque celebrates Fellini’s centenary with a screening of the 4K restoration of the director’s surrealist documentary ROMA, preceded by a program of clips and photographs presented by Cineteca di Bologna director Gian Luca Farinelli.
Sunday, February 16, at 7 pm.
6712 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles.
*Gore Vidal, Point to Point Navigation (New York: Random House, 2006).
Fellini’s Roma (1972) stills (6) and Italian poster. Black and white photograph: Gore Vidal (left) and Federico Fellini. Images courtesy and © the filmmaker’s estate, the participants, the photographers, the graphic designer, the producers, and Park Circus/MGM.