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The Stars in Their Courses

Comparing America's Marilyn Monroe and Italy's Sophia Loren.

As they do with governments, countries usually get the film stars they deserve. Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren, each of whom now appears in a film comedy well-tailored for her, are good examples. To see both in one week, as I did, is inescapably to compare them not only as women and actresses but as national evocations. Although each lady has a big international audience, each seems to represent what her compatriots, male and female, consider desirable in woman.

Miss Loren, as she often tells us in her American films with flashing eyes and hand flung toward heaven, is “Eetahlian.” Which is not to say that you can see anyone like her in Italy. But she embodies what might be called the travel-poster virtues. In her, as in the travel literature, no defects are apparent.

In Miss Loren there is no murderous hate of the poor by the rich: no time-hallowed vulgarity: no neurotically exaggerated fear of sickness and death. What is Sophia, who is she? She is sunlight, she is hearty warmth, she is great contentment with Simple Things, she is song and laughing dance, she is freehearted love that yet is never depraved. The wonder is that, although she could not possibly exist, there she is: existing. She is not fake.

On the other hand no one can ever believe that Miss Monroe really exists. She is a figment, carefully synthesized by her own shrewd mind and those of her advisers. And it is curious that while Miss Loren embodies Italian strengths, Miss Monroe seems to have been devised to embody American weaknesses. No flawless Juno this, but, in the tradition of Jean Harlow, lots of flesh and not too fussy. A hushed, unreal voice made for dark back-seats of cars. Not a mate but a protectorate. A girl to wheedle up against you and ask for expensive things. . . so that you’ll go out to be a success in life. Oh, there is good humor and some self-mockery, but it is always implicit mockery of you, too, for being fascinated by her.

Of course she is no more a complete picture, in her negative way, of American womanhood than Miss Loren, in a positive way, is of Italia femminile. But, with Miss Monroe, the account need not be balanced by listing American woman’s virtues. Every male reader must be aware of them, if not married to them. And no female reader needs reminding.

As to their performances, ease and abandon are the keynotes of Miss Loren’s, caution and studied effect are the notes of Miss Monroe’s. Miss Loren is a large, excellently proportioned woman with a face of farouche beauty and with Etruscan eyes. She is an actress of respectable competence and, in comedy, is distinguished by her explosive high spirits. She makes us feel that she loves being large, beautiful, and in the movies, that she loves the men who want her and the women who admire her. You are convinced that if they fished her out of a swamp and shoved her in front of a camera, she would photograph with the same electric beauty. Her two songs in this picture are less songs than romps. Hollywood has corseted her figuratively and literally, but the happy animal still breaks loose.

Miss Monroe, however, is an actress of abysmally little talent. She exudes an air of caution and contrivance, of concern with angles and lighting, with re-takes, coaching, souping up of the baseless voice by vigilant engineers. She seems all put together; but one of the secrets of her success is that--to counter-act this synthetic feeling--the character which she and her advisers have chosen to create is a rather sloppy girl. She is not a heavy vamp; she is an innocent trollop who seemingly doesn’t know as she walks toward you that her pneumatic equipment is jiggling wildly ‘neath the cardigan; and so she is often entertaining. But she is rarely credible, even in her “serious” performances like that in Bus Stop, and her effect is aided by the consciousness of extrinsic publicity that the audience brings with it.

As to their new films, they are both based on comic ideas dug up from the grave but fairly well revived. Miss Loren’s It Started in Naples is about an American man and an Italian woman brought together by mutual concern for a child. The Technicolor shows us ageless Naples and Capri and aging Clark Gable. Happily Vittorio de Sica is on hand, as a lawyer, to grace the picture. Melville Shavelson’s direction is far from flawless; Miss Loren’s first entrance and the final scene could have been much better staged and photographed. But if you can abide Gable, and evidently millions can, you can have a good nonsensical time at the film.

Miss Monroe’s comedy is based on the idea (in 1960!) of a billionaire concealing his identity and wealth in order to woo a poor girl. In this case she is a singer in an off-Broadway revue (more lavish here, of course, than some Broadway shows), and he gets a job in the cast to be near her. The film’s chief attraction is Yves Montand, the billionaire, who is clearly going to add a new flavor to the American screen. His face is craggy, his manner self-confident, strong, humorous, his talents many and appealing. Let the faithful pray that he won’t allow himself to be “packaged,” that he won’t have a few of his qualities emphasized, wrapped in cellophane, and merchandised in a series of similar pictures: in short, that he will insist on playing a range of parts to the fullest of his ability and personality.

George Cukor has directed in his plush, experienced way, but comedy is not his genius. Billy Wilder would have got more out of the scene in which the girl discovers who the man is. The film is not as consistently entertaining as Miss Loren’s and has little of the infectious quality. And the script includes the Oldest Living Joke:

    “Boy, call me a taxi.”
    “O.K., you’re a taxi.”

But it makes Miss Monroe pleasantly available to her fans, and it presents Mr. Montand. The scene in which Milton Berle teaches him how to be a comic is first-rate knockabout fun.