Straight From Europe: The Next Great Hollywood Beauty

Slide 1: Introduction

Given the importance of international markets to Hollywood films, any ensemble cast these days is filled with cast members hailing from different countries and different film traditions. In a global society, where cultures intermingle and foreign box office usually eclipses domestic, international stars bring to American pictures cultural realism as well as necessary fans back home. But when it comes to recognizing the cultural traditions of these performers, recent Hollywood has a spottier record. Some actors, mostly British, learn to swallow their accents and adopt a floating mid-Atlantic speech in order to play “American.” Actors from Asian or Spanish-speaking countries often represent either their immigrant cultures in America or, in the case of Chinese and Hong Kong actors in martial-arts inspired action films, simply enable Hollywood’s versions of their homegrown genres. But European actors who retain their European-ness, who signify their own distinct cultures, are not as common today as they were in the early decades of cinema, when they were some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

Anton Corbijn’s The American stars George Clooney as a private weapons maker for professional assassins who, after a tense job in Sweden, travels to the Italian countryside to await what will be his final assignment. The film co-stars Italy’s Violante Placido and Dutch actress Thekla Reuten as two women instrumental in his journey. For most U.S. moviegoers, The American will be their introduction to these magnetic actresses, who here embody the frisson between U.S. and European cultural traditions that Clooney’s character must negotiate.

What follows are brief looks at ten of cinema’s most celebrated actresses whose careers were built on just these kind of juxtapositions. In their diverse roles, these stars always brought Old World glamour to Hollywood stories, frequently parrying with their American co-stars in films set all across the globe.

Slide 2: Greta Garbo - The Swedish Goddess

When the astonishingly beautiful Swedish-born Greta Garbo was introduced to American audiences by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, it was in silent films like Flesh and the Devil, and Love — American films set in Europe and Russia. Garbo became a huge international star in the process, and the mystery of her accented speaking voice became a marketing hook when it came time to transition her to “talkies.” Throughout her career in America, Garbo’s appeal derived precisely from the fact that her performances registered differently than those of Hollywood actresses. Wrote the New York Times in 1927, “In the film called Love, which is based on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Greta Garbo, the Swedish actress, gives a portrait that soars far above the usual Hollywood conception of a characterization. Her elusive appearance is undoubtedly appealing, and she enhances this gracious effect by her talented acting and her evident unwillingness to emulate other performers. Her style is all the more pleasing because of her restraint and her understanding of the part she plays…. Miss Garbo may lift her head the fraction of an inch and it means more than John Gilbert’s artificial smile or his wide-eyed expression.”

The 1930 Eugene O’Neill adaptation Anna Christie was Garbo’s first role in spoken English on film. (Funnily, she would also go on to star in the 1931 German version of the same movie, also made by MGM.) Several films followed, including Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 comedy Ninotchka, for which Garbo was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of a Russian envoy who falls in love with the West. Throughout her career, Garbo would use her Swedish identity as both a psychological lifeline and as a negotiating tool. “I think I’ll go back to Sweden,” was her famous retort to studio heads during negotiation time. After one final film, Garbo famously retired to her apartment in New York City where she was the object of fan speculation and worship for decades to come.

At some point, though, Garbo became less a real person and more a personification of a lost cinematic ideal. Wrote the French critic Roland Barthes in an essay entitled “The Face of Garbo,” “Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced.”

Slide 3: Alla Nazimova - The Passionate Russian

"If I have lived not beautifully, I must act beautifully," Alla Nazimova wrote in her diary as a young girl. Born in Crimea, Alla Nazimova became a Russian stage sensation in Moscow by the turn of the century, eventually touring Europe and coming to New York City where she made her Broadway debut in 1906. Soon she was bringing Ibsen and O’Neill to life for American audiences. A 1906 New York Times profile exclaimed that she “is so utterly foreign that her mere presence carries with it an atmosphere of the Crimea…She is dark, with such an intense passionate concentrated depth of coloring as is unknown to brunettes of the Western hemisphere.” In 1915, the play War Brides, in which she played the lead, was filmed, bringing the Russian beauty to the attention of film producer Lewis J. Selznick. As a screen beauty, she proved a commercial hit, eventually becoming one of the highest paid Hollywood starlets. But she wanted to make her own work, demonstrating the avant-garde acting traditions she’d grown up with. Using her own money she started producing a series of highbrow silent adaptations. Her version of Ibsen’s A Doll House fell flat, but her biggest flop came with her production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, a lush adaptation based on Aubrey Beardsley's 1894 illustrations. In the end, her film career never panned out, although she remained a Hollywood fixture for years. Famed B-movie producer Val Lewton was her nephew, and she was the godmother to Nancy Reagan. Her lush estate off Sunset Boulevard, The Garden of Alla, became the site of many a debauched Hollywood party before being turned into a complex of bungalows favored by New York writers camping out in Hollywood. Later the place was torn down and immortalized by Joni Mitchell in the song, “Big Yellow Taxi” with the lines: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Slide 4: Marlene Dietrich - The Tough German

Epitomizing glamour and mystery, German-born Marlene Dietrich had been acting for almost a decade in theater and film before Joseph von Sternberg’s German production The Blue Angel made her an international star. She was immediately scooped up by Hollywood, signing a contract with Paramount Pictures despite her poor English. A series of American-produced films by von Sternberg followed, including Morocco (for which she received an Academy Award nomination), Shanghai Express, and The Devil is a Woman. In the ‘40s, Dietrich became a spokesperson for the Allied powers, selling war bonds in the U.S. and touring USO shows. Later in her career, she appeared in films like Judgment at Nuremberg and in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, usually adding a haunting memory of old Europe to the story.

Slide 5: Ingrid Bergman - The Natural Swede

One of Hollywood’s greatest stars, Ingrid Bergman was born in Sweden in 1915 and appeared in local productions before one, Intermezzo, caught the attention of producer David O. Selznick, who brought Bergman to the States for a remake. His strategy was to launch her in America as a “natural” actress. In her autobiography, Ingrid Bergman: My Story, she recalled how Selznick insisted her name not be Americanized and that she not pluck her eyebrows. Said Bergman in an interview, “I arrived in Hollywood exactly at the right time, because they had all these actresses that were so made up and everything was so phony in a way.” Of her early work in Hollywood, her daughter, Pia Lindstrom, recalled, “The way she was presented to the public was something like a Swedish milkmaid — a good-hearted, sweet family girl [who was] just home, you know, all the time. They didn’t know what to do with her… When they couldn’t turn her into a glamour puss, they finally decided, okay, let’s go with the country girl.”

Following the film, Bergman returned to Sweden where she appeared in more pictures before another American film beckoned: the World War 2-set Casablanca. Playing a Norwegian woman who, thinking her husband has died in a concentration camp, falls in love with an American bar owner in Paris, Bergman catapulted to fame in a film precisely about the complexities of national identity. In his New York Times review, Bosley Crowther wrote, “Miss Bergman is surpassingly lovely, crisp and natural as the girl and lights the romantic passages with a warm and genuine glow.”

Bergman would go on to star in such classics as Notorious, Gaslight, and Spellbound. She returned to Italy in 1949 to make Stromboli for director Roberto Rossellini, whom she, scandalously in U.S., left her husband for and married. In the years that followed, Bergman alternated between Hollywood and Europe. For one of her final performances, in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, she won a Best Actress Academy Award.

Slide 6: Alida Valli - The Italian "next Garbo"

The fact that the actress who later would be known simply as Valli was born “Baroness Alida Maria Laura Altenburger von Marckenstein-Frauenberg” might have suggested she was fated to be Hollywood royalty. But the Italian-Austrian actress, who would become an icon of European cinema, only brushed up against fame in America. Stardom came quickly in Italy as she shot to the top of her countries “most popular” list by the early 40s in a series of popular comedies. At the same time, she demonstrated her personal independence when in 1943––under penalty of arrest––she dropped out of films so that her image could not be used for propaganda purposes. After the war, producer David Selznick imported her, hoping to make her into “the next Garbo,” going so far as to use only her last name in a nod to the Swedish star. She appeared in Hitchcock’s 1947 thriller The Paradine Case, after which co-star Gregory Peck exclaimed, “Not only are her shapes and features perfect: from her eyes radiates an irresistible flashing of love." But her most famous role came several years later as the mysterious refugee in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, a part for which she was regularly applauded in reviews. But in between were appearances in a string of lackluster productions eventually leading to her break with Selznick in 1950.  She returned to Italy to start her career again, breaking out (again) in Luchino Visconti’s dark melodrama Senso. But just as the film was gaining critical momentum, Valli was pulled into a national scandal when her husband’s close friend became the chief suspect in a drug-laden, orgy-centered murder. Three years later, Valli returned to film, slowly gaining a sturdy reputation in theater and appearing in such European classics as George Franju’s 1960 Eyes Without a Face, Bernardo Bertolucci‘s 1970 The Spider’s Stratagem and Dario Argento‘s 1977 Suspiria.

Slide 7: Sophia Loren - The Italian Scandal

In her long career, which continues to this day, Sophia Loren, born in Rome in 1935, has epitomized a kind of earthy Italian sexuality, a radiant glamour that was born in a series of screen roles that still emphasized her poor, “peasant” roots. Although her early career was with Italian directors such as Vittorio de Sica, her first film appearance was actually in an American film — as an extra in Mervyn LeRoy’s ancient Roman epic Quo Vadis.  Just as Bergman shocked American mores with her divorce, so too did Loren make an early impression in the States through her romantic liaisons. Her first English-speaking film was 1957’s The Pride and the Passion, with Cary Grant. The tabloids were full of reports of a scandalous romance between the married Grant and his beautiful co-star. In turn, Loren fell in love with the film’s producer, Carlo Ponti, and he left his own family for her, bringing condemnation from the Vatican. By the time of El Cid, her breakout picture in the States, Loren’s identity had turned into a complex mixture of sex symbol, homewrecker and demanding diva. The American press took note of her high $200,000 salary for the picture as well as the lawsuit she filed in New York Supreme Court over the size of her billing on a Times Square billboard. A five-picture deal with Paramount Pictures, co-stars like John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Peter Sellers, and Anthony Perkins and a facility for both drama and comedy went on to make Loren one of cinema’s hottest stars in the 1960s. Still, in her most prolific period, Loren alternated between U.S. and Italian productions, earning her highest critical praise for two Italian films. She won an Academy Award — the first given by the Academy for a non-English-speaking role — for Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women and was also nominated for his Marriage Italian Style. Over the years, Loren popped up in several American films, almost always playing glamorous parts — even opposite Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men. In 1990, she received an honorary Academy Award. The Academy said, “[She is] one of the genuine treasures of world cinema who, in a career rich with memorable performances, has added permanent luster to our art form. Loren continues to work, recently playing the “Mama” character in the Rob Marshall adaptation of Nine.

Slide 8: Catherine Deneuve - The Cool French Beauty

Few actresses symbolize their home country as much as France’s Catherine Deneuve. The regal beauty, whose face was once the model for the national symbol of France, achieved fame both in France and abroad with her starring role in Jacques Demy’s musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Classic films followed with Roman Polanski (Repulsion) and Luis Buñuel (in his sly satire of prostitution, Belle de Jour), and while Deneuve didn’t work as actively in the U.S. as some actresses on this list, in each decade she brought her special form of glamour to a stateside production. Her first American film was actually a 1969 comedy, The April Fools, in which she co-starred with Jack Lemmon. Even at the time of this early film, though, Deneuve never saw herself pursuing a Hollywood path. In a 2005 interview she remembered, “To be far away from France [shooting The April Fools] was very difficult for me. And the shooting was not taking enough of my time to make me forget that I was there. I really felt like a European actress taken out of Europe to look very good in an American film.” Indeed, that’s how the U.S. critics received Deneuve. In their two-paragraph pan, Variety wrote approvingly but condescendingly of her: “Deneuve, in her first American film, is worth just looking at.” In 1975, she co-starred with Burt Reynolds in Robert Aldrich’s grimy crime drama, Hustle. But more than from her occasional film presences, Deneuve became a familiar face in America as the visage of Chanel No. 5 and by topping journalists’ polls for the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.

Perhaps Deneuve’s most famous American role occurred in the 1980s, when she played alongside Susan Sarandon and David Bowie as a socialite vampire in Tony Scott’s first film, The Hunger. Always known for her cool sense of reserve, even today Deneuve doles out her English-language work sparingly and through sometimes offbeat choices, mixing appearances like her guest spot on Nip/Tuck among her regular roles in international European art films like Dancer in the Dark and Indochine, for which she was nominated for an Oscar.

Slide 9: Penelope Cruz - The Dark Iberian Vision

For the Spanish actress Penelope Cruz, the story of her relationship to the American film industry is a drama all its own. Born in Madrid in 1974, Cruz’s first role in Spain launched her stardom. She appeared opposite current husband Javier Bardem in Bigas Lunas’ 1992 film Jamon, Jamon. The film made her not only an international star but also a sex symbol, and it earned her a Best Actress nomination at the Goyas (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars). A series of Spanish and European films followed, including the thriller Open Your Eyes, Pedro Almodóvar’s Live Flesh, and Fernando Trueba’s The Girl of Your Dreams, which won her a Goya. Her first American role was The Hi-Lo Country (“a little stiff,” is what Variety’s Todd McCarthy had to say about her performance). Billy Bob Thornton’s All the Pretty Horses followed, and again McCarthy panned her, writing, “Nor will it help the commercial prospects for this domestic Miramax release that there was more chemistry between Matt Damon and his golf balls in The Legend of Bagger Vance than there is here between the star and leading lady Penelope Cruz…. the dark Iberian beauty who still hasn't registered in English with the effectiveness that she does in her Spanish films; here, her range extends from come-hither looks to tearful remorse.” By the time of the U.S. remake of Open Your Eyes, Vanilla Sky, in which she starred alongside her reported boyfriend at the time, Tom Cruise, the critics had it out for her. While everyone commented on her charm, she simply wasn’t taken seriously as an actress in the English language. “…her performance is seriously weakened by barely competent English-language line readings that are just one step above phonetic pronunciation,” wrote Stephen Holden in the New York Times. As her U.S. career continued, performances in flops like Sahara created the impression that Cruz’s individualism was being squashed by producers’ desire to employ her as simply another glamorous European face. Cruz next took a break from American moviemaking to reunite with Almodóvar, and her starring role in his Volver earned her another Goya as well as a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Then, playing Bardem’s tempestuous ex-lover in Woody Allen’s Barcelona-set Vicki Christina Barcelona, she won an Academy Award role in an English-language film that embraced all the elements of her character and abilities. She recently married Bardem, received acclaim for her performance in Marshall’s Italy-set Nine, and signed up for another big American film — the fourth installment of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Slide 10: Audrey Tatou - The Fresh French Face

France’s Audrey Tatou was noticed as a promising newcomer with her first picture, Tonie Marshall’s 1999 film, Venus Beauty Institute. Two years later, her awestruck face on the poster for Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s international hit Ameliewould make her a gigantic star. The film’s winning mood of indomitable good cheer charmed critics and audiences. Roger Ebert called her “a fresh-faced waif who looks like she knows a secret and can’t keep it.” Lisa Nissellson in Variety called her “a delight to watch and root for,” and in the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote that Tatou “has the innocent vitality of a silent film star.” Perhaps as a reaction to such early typecasting, Tatou has resisted further roles reprising her wide-eyed innocence. Since that iconic role, Tatou has chosen her parts cannily, not doing the deluge of pictures so many rapidly rising actresses sign on to. In Stephen Frears’ 2002 British film Dirty Pretty Things, she played a Turkish maid caught up in an organ smuggling scheme. In A Very Long Engagement, she won a Cesar Award reuniting with Jeunet in a World War 1 epic. In America, she starred opposite Tom Hanks as a French cryptographer in Ron Howard’s adaptation of the international best seller The Da Vinci Code. But it would be require a return to France for Tatou to make the kind of impact she did with Amelie.  She won another Cesar playing one of the most famous women in 20th century France, the designer Coco Chanel, in Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel. For the critic Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle, the two roles were almost bookends for this subtle and extraordinarily empathetic actress. He wrote, “Though Amelie established her in America as a whimsical zany, Audrey Tautou's essence as an actress has always had much more to do with melancholy, a kind of systemic sadness born of an innate capacity for unvarnished observation. Tautou's dark eyes always seem to see the truth of things, and in Coco Before Chanel, she finds her ideal role, playing a woman whose direct gaze took in and understood everything - from the desperation of her own situation to the ridiculousness of women's styles at the turn of the 20th century.”

Slide 11: Monica Bellucci - The Exotic Italian

Born in the Umbria region of Italy in 1964, Monica Bellucci began her career as a fashion model, transitioning into acting in her late 20s. Interestingly, Bellucci became best known early on through an American and a French film. She had a small role in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula as one of the vampire’s brides, and then was nominated for a Cesar for her role in the French psychological thriller L’Appartement. Her first major American film was the widely panned Gene Hackman thriller Under Suspicion, and later she would star opposite Bruce Willis in another critically maligned picture, Antoine Fuqua’s African-set Tears of the Sun. Bellucci is best known in America for playing Mary Magdalene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The stunningly beautiful Bellucci continues to appear sporadically in American films, usually playing exotic characters such as her latex-clad cyber denizen in The Matrix Reloaded and alongside Nicholas Cage as one of three wizard’s helpers in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Much like Deneuve and Loren, Bellucci seems to find her more serious parts in Europe and is content to be used by the Hollywood system when the time is right. In an interview for E!, she said, “I like to come to America once in a while. I’m European, so for me it’s important to stay in Europe and make European movies and then come to America to do something interesting for me. I’m not ready to make an American movie just because it’s American. I have to find the right project and the right character. I know when I make an American movie it’s going to come out all over the world – it doesn’t happen the same way for an Italian film or a French film.”

Slide 12: Thekla Reuten & Violante Placido - The New Wave

Like the legends who have come before them, two actresses from The American, Thekla Reuten and Violante Placido, could easily become the next great international stars. Born in the Netherlands, Thekla Reuten (who plays the “client” Mathilde in The American) has already made her presence known in a number of international productions. From the her breakthrough Dutch film De tweeling to appearing in such English-language features as Highlander: The Source and Focus Features’ own In Bruges, Reuten has been all over the globe. And it doesn’t hurt that she speaks five languages. Violante Placido (who plays Jack’s love interest, Clara, in The American) is a multitalented phenomenon in Italy. She was born in Rome into an entertainment family; her father Michele Placido is a well-known director and actor and her mother Simonetta Stefanelli is an actress who has been cast in a number of well-known Italian films and television shows. In addition to appearing in both film and television, Placido released her first album Don’t Be Shy (under the name Viola) in 2007.


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