Valentina Cortese, an Italian actress who held the extremely rare distinction of having been nominated for best supporting actress for her work in a foreign film, Francois Truffaut’s 1973 classic “Day for Night,” has died, according to Italian news agency Ansa. She was 96.
In Truffaut’s “Day for Night,” considered by many to be the best movie about making movies ever made, Cortese played, in the words of Roger Ebert, “the alcoholic diva past her prime.” The New York Times said: “The performances are superb. Miss Cortese and Miss Bisset are not only both hugely funny but also hugely affecting, in moments that creep up on you without warning.”
For a two-part, Carlo Ponti-produced 1948 film adaptation of “Les Miserables,” Cortese caused a sensation by playing both female leads, Fantine and Cosette. (The film was otherwise an adequate treatment of the Victor Hugo novel.)
“With Valentina Cortese’s passing, the Italian entertainment industry loses its last diva of cinema and theater,” said Carlo Fontana, president of AGIS, Italy’s main show-business trade organization.
Cortese attracted the notice of Hollywood for her work in the British-made 1949 melodrama “The Glass Mountain,” about an RAF pilot and aspiring composer (Michael Denison) who crashes in Italy during World War II and is rescued by a local girl played by Cortese; the composer translates his love for the girl into an opera once he’s back home in England. The New York Times said, “As the love-torn Italian village girl, Valentina Cortesa gives a sensitive, poised and wholly convincing portrayal.”
In Hollywood she appeared in a supporting role in the historical melodrama “Black Magic,” starring Orson Welles; starred opposite Richard Conte in Jules Dassin’s brilliant film noir “Thieves’ Highway”; starred with Spencer Tracy and James Stewart in the atmospheric adventure film “Malaya”; and, perhaps most significantly on a personal level, starred opposite Richard Basehart in Richard Wise’s excellent 1951 film noir “The House on Telegraph Hill.” (Cortese, who was unaccountably credited as Valentina Cortesa in her Hollywood efforts, married Basehart in 1951; they divorced in 1960, and he died in 1984.)
In 1952 she starred with Serge Reggiani and a very young Audrey Hepburn in the almost-successful British thriller “Secret People,” about a conspiracy to assassinate a foreign leader.
In any event, she was soon back in Italy making films there. In 1954 she had a supporting role in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “The Barefoot Contessa,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner and shot in Italy.
She starred in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Le Amiche” (1955), Gérard Brach’s “The Boat on the Grass” (1971), Terry Gilliam’s British-made “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988), and in a number of Franco Zeffirelli projects, including the 1972 film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” 1977 miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth” and the 1993 film “Sparrow.” She essayed her final American film role in the 1980 Irwin Allen disaster film “When Time Ran Out,” which sported an all-star cast that included Paul Newman and William Holden.
Valentina Cortese was born in Milan. She made her movie debut in 1940 and played ingenue parts in many Italian films early in her career.
Cortese never remarried after her divorce from Richard Basehart, with whom she had a son, actor Jackie Basehart, who died in Milan in 2015, predeceasing Cortese.
Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.