5 Things You May Not Know About Fellini's 'La Dolce Vita'

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
April 18, 2012 11:00 AM
2 Comments
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51 years ago today, on April 19th 1961, Federico Fellini's masterpiece "La Dolce Vita" arrived in U.S. theaters. The film was already a phenomenon; it had premiered in Italy the previous February, was instantly condemned by the Catholic Church (it was banned entirely in Spain until 1975), and won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960. On its U.S. release, it was widely acclaimed by critics, became a huge box office hit, and picked up four Oscar nominations the following year, including director and screenplay, and won for costume design.

To mark the anniversary of the much copied, but never equalled film which follows a journalist, played by Marcello Mastroianni over the course of a tumultous week in Rome, we've assembled a selection of five pieces of info that even the biggest Fellini fans might not be aware of. Check them out below.

1. Paul Newman and Henry Fonda were considered for roles.
It's hard to imagine "La Dolce Vita" without Marcello Mastroianni in the lead role, but the original producer, the legendary Dino Di Laurentiis, considered the actor "too soft and goody-goody; a family man rather than the type who flings women onto the bed." He pushed Fellini to cast Paul Newman at first, and then French star Gérard Philipe ("Devil In The Flesh," "The Lovers Of Montparnasse"), but Fellini was commited to Mastroianni, and Di Laurentiis quit as a result. Fellini wasn't against American stars in principle as he wanted to cast Henry Fonda as Steiner (a character based on the real-life writer, Cesare Pavese) at first. Fonda turned the part down, so the director was torn between Enrico Maria Salerno ("Escape By Night," the voice of Clint Eastwood in the Italian versions of Sergio Leone's trilogy), and Alain Cuny. At the urging of his friend Pier Paolo Pasolini, he went with Cuny.

2. An entire sequence, which was to have starred Oscar-winner Luise Rainer, was scripted, but never shot.
In the intial draft of the script, there was a sequence where Marcello had an affair with an older writer. The part was written for German actress Luise Rainer, who with 1936's "The Great Ziegfeld" and 1937's "The Good Earth" became the first actress to win two Academy Awards. However, she also became the first victim of the Oscar curse, and as roles dried up, she returned to Europe. Rainer got as far as travelling to Rome for the shoot, but fell out with Fellini, possibly because of a reluctance to shoot the sex scene, possibly because she wanted to rewrite all her dialogue. The two went their separate ways, and rather than recast the part, Fellini cut the scene altogether.  

3. When he shot the famous Trevi fountain scene, Mastroianni was stinking drunk.
Undoubtedly the most iconic sequence in the film is when Marcello and actress Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) splash around together in Rome's famous Trevi fountain. But the scene wasn't the easiest to get on film. When they arrived, the water was filthy and Fellini despaired until an employee of the airline SAS, who happened to be on set, volunteered the use of his green sea dye marker -- used to help attract attention in case of an emergency landing at sea. It worked a charm. Despite the shoot taking place in freezing January, Ekberg happily went in, but Mastroianni was made of less hardy stuff, insisting on wearing a wetsuit under his clothes, and not going in the water until he'd downed a bottle of vodka. We wouldn't recommend you try and replicate the scene when you're in Rome, however: the Italian police will fine you 500 Euros if they catch you in there.
 
4. The film is responsible for coining the term "paparazzi."
Celebrity-pursuing photographers, Lady Gaga songs, instantly-forgotten Cole Hauser-starring action movies: all of these would have been called different things were it not for "La Dolce Vita." Marcello's friend Paparazzo (Walter Santesso), who accompanies the journalist to the reported sighting of the Madonna, ended up popularizing the term, and it soon passed into common use (paparazzi is the plural) for a particular kind of relentless photographer. Fellini claims the character was named after someone he met in Calabria, and that it was inspired by a word in a certain Italian dialect for "sparrow," saying that the photographers' movements reminded him of the birds. But co-writer Ennio Flaiano tells a different story, saying that he lifted the name from a character named Signor Paparazzo in George Gissing's "By The Ionian Sea."

5. Keep an eye out in the party scene, and you'll glimpse future Velvet Underground collaborator Nico.
"La Dolce Vita" has proved endlessly influential: it crops up in "Lost In Translation" and "The Sopranos," it's referenced in "L.A. Story," and Woody Allen paid tribute with his 1998 film "Celebrity." This extends to the musical world too: Bob Dylan and Blondie refer to the film in their songs "Motorpsycho Nitemare" and "Pretty Baby," while The Divine Comedy quote Steiner's speech extensively in their song "The Certainty Of Chance." But perhaps the most notable link to the music world comes in the "party of the nobles" sequence -- German chanteuse Nico, who would later become famous for her work with the Velvet Underground, plays herself in the scene.

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2 Comments

  • groove68 | April 19, 2012 8:41 AMReply

    For the Nico fans among the readers - here's a rare documentary about her seminal 1986 Berlin concert:

    http://www.realeyz.tv/en/nico-in-memoriam.html

  • iche | April 18, 2012 4:12 PMReply

    i ADORE this recurring segment!

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