Cannes Film Festival Honoree Claudia Cardinale Reflects on Her Long Career

Claudia CardinaleIllustration by Michael HoewelerPhoto reference
illustration: michael Hoeweler; photo reference: aria Laura Antonelli/REX/Shutterstock

Silver screen icon and committed feminist Claudia Cardinale, who’s being celebrated by the 70th Cannes Film Festival, has been breaking the mold of the submissive sex symbol for six decades.

Born in Tunisia to Sicilian immigrant parents, Cardinale was discovered by Italian producer Franco Cristaldi as a teenager after she won a Miss Italian Beauty pageant. Her first mention in Variety, dates back to 1959. It reads: “Tunisian-Italian thesp, signed by Rank for Ralph Thomas’ ‘Upstairs and Downstairs,’… and specifies “she’s under contract to Vides of Rome.” That contract, inked reluctantly when Cardinale was 18, marked the start of a glorious career comprising memorable roles in classics by European masters including Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Sergio Leone and Werner Herzog, and appearances in several Hollywood movies such as “The Pink Panther” and “Lost Command.”

Today Cardinale continues to work non-stop often with first-time helmers, most recently playing an avaricious duchess in Antonio Pisu’s black comedy “Nobili Bugie.”

You played a London housemaid named who wreaks havoc in “Upstairs and Downstairs.” Is there anything about the film that you remember?

Not that much, given that I’ve made 124 movies, except that it’s my first film with my real voice. Being born and raised in Tunisia, I didn’t speak Italian at the time. So for all my early Italian films I was dubbed. I had studied English in school.

I’m sure you remember signing the Vides contract that bound you to Cristaldi for 17 years.

Well, Cristaldi was the best producer in Europe and thanks to him I made lots of great movies. But the problem was that I was paid a monthly salary; I wasn’t paid per movie. I was just an employee, like an office worker. So when that contract ended I didn’t have a dime in the bank. [Director] Pasquale Squitieri, who has been the love of my life, said to me: “with all the movies you’ve made, how is this possible?”

You’ve revealed in several interviews that you didn’t want to become an actress but decided to accept Cristaldi’s offer because you were pregnant after having being raped, and that he had promised to help you.

Exactly. I decided to be in the movies precisely for that reason. Because one day as I was walking home from school in Tunis a man in a car grabbed me and raped me and I became pregnant. After that my mother and my sister stayed close to me. I gave birth in London, because in those days it would have been a scandal. We pretended that my son was my little brother. I didn’t want to become an actress; I did it so I could be independent.

1959 is also the year of the wonderful picture of you dancing in a swirling skirt on a Rome rooftop, the one used for the Cannes poster that sparked controversy because it’s been modified. 

They’ve sent me the posters. They are beautiful and I could not care less about my thighs being airbrushed.

What did Thierry Fremaux say when he called you about being honored in Cannes?

I have a beautiful rapport with Cannes. I’ve been going to the festival since the start of my career. And I have a wonderful rapport with Thierry. He told me: ‘I want you to be the muse of our 70th edition!’

You first went to Cannes in 1961 with two films: Valerio Zurlini’s “Girl With a Suitcase,” in which you played an independent-minded singer, and Mauro Bolognini’s “The Lovemakers” opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo. Then you were back on the Croisette in 1963 with two milestone movies, Visconti’s “The Leopard” and Fellini’s “.”

I shot them both at the same time. I had very long hair. Luchino wanted me dark-haired and Federico wanted me blonde-ish, so I had to change hair color every two weeks. It was a magic moment for me. They were very different directors. Being on set with Luchino was like being in the theater; we had rehearsals and all that. With Federico there was no script, it was all improvised. Those two movies both really took my career to another level.

Then in the mid-’60s you had a three-year stint in which you made several Hollywood movies, including two with Rock Hudson, “Blindfold” and “Lost Command.” 

Yes, at that time Universal wanted me to sign an exclusive contract. But I said: “No, I’m European. I’m going back.” But they really insisted!

Can you talk about working with Rock Hudson?

We were very close. At that time in America if it was known that you were gay you could not work in Hollywood. So we pretended to be a couple. Always arm in arm around town. Rock had lunch and dinner at my place a lot. I stayed close to him to the very end.

In the late 1960s I believe you had a special rapport with Sergio Leone, who directed you in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West.’

I was the only woman in that movie! The thing is … I love music. And that was the first time I worked on a film where the music was composed [by Ennio Morricone] before the cameras started rolling. So before shooting my scenes, Sergio would play the music … which really helped me get into the part. Morricone recently invited me to his concert in Paris. I was sitting in the front row and he opened with the theme from “Once Upon a Time in the West,” while looking straight at me. [Laughs!]

For me your standout movie in the 1980s is Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo”

That was one the most beautiful adventures of my life. We were in the Amazon rainforest in the midst of [Brazilian] Indians hired as workers and extras, with lots of insects and nothing to eat. The Indians had never seen a woman from outside the jungle, so I was forced to remain on set even when I didn’t have any scenes, because otherwise they threatened to leave. I love Herzog; he’s such an amazing director!

Perhaps more than other actress of your generation you embody a feminist role model. You’ve refused plastic surgery and Botox and have dedicated yourself to affirming women’s rights in Mediterranean countries as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for many years. Today actresses are treated better than they were in the 1960s, but there is still a long way to go. How do you feel about the current movement against gender disparity in the business?

The thing I find most disturbing these days is that as soon as an actress hits 60, she gets thrown in the trash, with very few exceptions. I’m 79 and I keep working, but I don’t care about money. What I care about is helping directors who are starting out.