A tribute to Pier Angeli — ‘There aren’t many like you…’
This is a guest post written by Paolo Faillace and originally published on his website www.annamariapierangeli.com
She wasn’t exuberant like Sophia Loren, vivacious like Gina Lollobrigida, or intense like Anna Magnani. But she was just as talented. What distinguished her from these women were an ordinary-girl quality, a soft-spoken manner, a most delicate face, and the ability to deliver truly heartbreaking performances.
Perhaps she took from real experiences the emotions she conveyed on the screen. Her personal life was filled with turmoil. The world lost her in 1971, still at a young age. Fame, glory and happiness did not last very long for her.
Her real name was Anna Maria Pierangeli. She had two sisters, Marisa (twin sister/actress) and Patrizia. Anna and Marisa were born on June 19, 1932, in Cagliari, Sardinia (Italy), to a Catholic family, and would find fame under the names Pier Angeli and Marisa Pavan.
At the age of 16, when Angeli was studying Arts in Rome, she was discovered by director Leónide Moguy, who invited her to appear in “Tomorrow is Too Late” (1949). Her work was so impressive that she won an Italian award for Best Acress, and caught the eye of MGM producers, who offered her a contract with the studio. There, she enchanted everyone with her beauty and simplicity.
In 1951, she was given the title role in Teresa, opposite John Ericson. It turned out to be one of her best films and was a promising beginning for the 18 year-old Italian actress.
The next year she had the opportunity to work with the great Gene Kelly in “The Devil Makes Three”, a movie about an ex-soldier who returns to Germany looking for a family that helped him while he was stationed there during World War II. Angeli, who plays the only survivor of the family, becomes involved with Kelly.
In 1953, she was paired with Ricardo Montalban in “Sombrero ”, a musical also featuring Cyd Charisse, Vittorio Gassman and Yvonne de Carlo. It told three stories of romance, drama and comedy. Angeli’s character, a gentle family girl controlled by her father, is romanced by the charming but irresponsible Montalban.
The same year she had one of her most memorable roles as Nina in “The Story of Three Loves”. As a young widow who lost her husband in a concentration camp, Angeli’s Nina is unable to cope with her loss and tries to commit suicide by throwing herself off a bridge. She is saved by an ex-trapeze artist, played by Kirk Douglas , whose life has also been struck by tragedy. He longs to gain back his lost glory, but must find a compatible partner. So he trains Nina and, in the process, falls in love with her — which, by the way, also happened to Douglas off screen.
Soon Angeli herself would be deeply in love as well — only not with Douglas.
In 1954, Angeli was cast as the sweet and loyal Debora in “The Silver Chalice”. She was lovely as the Christian who devotes herself to her faith in God and her love for the slave Basil, played by newcomer Paul Newman.
For Newman and many critics, it was not a memorable film. For Angeli’s fans, however, it was a chance to see her at her most endearing.
One day, after shooting, a dashing young actor working on a nearby set stopped by to visit Newman and another friend. They introduced him to Angeli. It was a meeting that would chance both their lives.
He was just starting his career in Hollywood , and would become one of the biggest screen legends of all times. His name was James Dean, and he was working on “East of Eden”, his first movie.
The attraction between Angeli and Dean was immediate. Maybe they completed each other, for while he was wild and rebellious, she was peaceful and conformist. She could bring him the stability he didn’t have, and he could bring fun and excitement to her life. They began to date and were soon inseparable.
Little by little, Dean became more gentle and easygoing under Angeli’s influence. Friends say he even wore a tuxedo for the first time to accompany her to a première. Apparently, the made each other very happy.
But it was not all a bed of roses for the handsome Hollywood couple. There was Angeli’s controlling mother, who did not consider Dean suitable for her daughter and forbade her to see him. She even tried to make the studio keep them apart. When Pier threatened to leave home, however, Mrs. Pierangeli desisted.
Angeli wanted to marry Dean, but he was reluctant. Though he thought she was “the marrying kind”, he was afraid of having his freedom restrained and of not being ready or able to take care of her properly. His indecision and insecurities hurt Angeli, who believed if he had such doubts, it was because he did not love her. All this pressure began to take a toll on the relationship.
One day Dean travelled to New York for two weeks to do a TV show, while Angeli stayed in L.A.. When he returned, their relationship had changed. Though he and Angeli would still date, their romance had cooled considerably.
Angeli began dating a young singer she had met while making a movie in Germany, three years before. His name was Vic Damone — a rising star at MGM at the time. He was charming and had a magnificent voice. But most importantly he came from a Catholic Italian family and, unlike Dean, was not a rebellious type. He possessed a clean cut image. In other words, Damone was the son-in-law of Mrs. Pierangeli’s dreams.
After a few months, to Dean’s bewilderment, Pier announced she and Damone were engaged.
They had a big church wedding in Beverly Hills, on November 24, 1954. Legend has it that on this day, Dean sat on his motorcycle outside the church, with his red jacket, worn-out jeans, boots and leather cap, waiting for the bride and groom to come out. When they did, he hit the gas and sped noisily away at full speed.
After their break-up, Dean was desolate and broken-hearted. Though he would have other affairs until his death in 1955, there would never be another Pier Angeli in his life. No other woman would ever be so romantically linked to him.
The same year, Pier gave birth to a son, Perry Damone.
In 1956, she starred in one of her most important films, “Somebody Up There Likes Me”. Ironically, Dean was supposed to have starred in it. When he died, Paul Newman was signed to replace him. He and Angeli worked together for a second time, and the result was much better than their first effort, “The Silver Chalice”.
“Somebody Up There Likes Me” is a movie Newman is proud of. As prizefighter Rocky Graziano, he was the star of the picture and gave a commanding performance. But Angeli contributed a great deal with her sweetness and vulnerability to the role of Graziano’s supportive and self-sacrificing wife, Nora.
In 1957, she appeared in “The Vintage”, a romantic and dramatic story of forbidden love and hidden meetings involving two couples. Co-starring with Angeli were Mel Ferrer, John Kerr and Michèle Morgan. Angeli played the tormented heroine who was willing to do anything for love.
Her next part was in a much lighter movie — the musical comedy Merry Andrew, starring Danny Kaye. The film became quite popular and gave Angeli the chance to play the cheerful Selena Gallini, a trapeze artist who wins the heart of Kaye’s Professor Andrew Larabee.
But if on screen it was all joy and laughter for Angeli, in real life things were going badly. In 1958, she and Damone were divorced.
Pier went on to work in “SOS Pacific” — the only film she made in 1959. It told the story of survivors of a plane crash who land on a nuclear-test island.
In 1960, she made “Musketeers of the Sea”, “Estoril y Sus Fiestas” and “The Angry Silence”. While the first two were forgettable, “The Angry Silence” was highly praised. Angeli played the distressed wife of Richard Attenborough’s character, a man who refused to take part in a strike and accepted the consequences of his decision.
In 1962, things seemed to be definitely looking up for Angeli. She decided to take a new chance on marriage with composer Armando Trovajoli. In addition, she worked in two great productions: “Sodom and Gomorrah ” and “White Slave Ship”. And in January 8, 1963, Pier gave birth to another son, Howard Andrew Rugantino.
The following years would prove, however, to be disappointing. Angeli kept busy, but mostly in obscure European films.
Her union with Trovajoli did not bring her happiness either. They separated in 1965.
As Angeli aged, it became increasingly difficult for her to find good parts. The times were different, too: the studio system, under which she was nurtured, was falling to pieces. As the seventies arrived, there was little to hope for.
Angeli made her last film in 1971. Titled “Octaman”, it was considered the worst film of her career.
At the age of 39, despondent and lonely, suffering from a nervous illness and in a very difficult financial situation, Angeli died of anaphylatic shock after being given a tranquilizer by her doctor.
Her twin sister, Marisa, had changed her surname to become Marisa Pavan. Her life was happier than Angeli’s and her film career more successful. Though Pavan did not work in many pictures, one of them was especially noteworthy: “The Rose Tatoo”. Her performance earned her a nomination for an Oscar of Best Supporting Actress in 1955.
Pavan’s marriage to French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont was somewhat troubled and the couple divorced, but reconciled years later and remarried.
Anna Maria Pierangeli was unpretentious, simple and realistic. She would not become a glamorous Lana Turner type, but instead, she was the girl next door, the girl who suffered, cried and had weaknesses and fears, like most people.
Angeli conveyed sadness, the need for love and protection, and broke the audience’s hearts with her sweet, gentle way. She possessed great charisma and should be remembered as a beautiful, talented woman who had all it takes to become a superstar.
It is a shame that the motion picture industry never fully recognized her potential. But she left behind a legacy of 30 movies that bear witness to the wonderful actress and lovely lady she was.