Remembering Marisa Pavan

A feminist figure of struggle against the dominant studio-system of 1950’s Hollywood and American stereotypes concerning foreign actresses

Rafaella Britto
Cine Suffragette

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By Margaux Soumoy –

There was a time, which never really ceased to exist as a matter of fact, when young foreign actresses immigrating to Hollywood, whether it was a choice or a must for them, were the target of a particular curiosity and attention from the then major Hollywood studios, which hurried in some way to ‘get its hands’ on their cultural differences, with no ulterior motive at first sight, in order to get their careers off the ground in the United States. If the studio-system is not originally a bad thing, nay a positive move for the film industry, it still deals with implicit stereotypes and ways of working that caused a problem in 1950 for a young Sardinian immigrant, who was on her way to become known as Marisa Pavan.

Marisa Pavan in a promotional photo for the film “The Rose Tattoo” taken by American photographer Milton Greene, 1955 (Photo: Reproduction/eBay)

Pier Angeli: the ‘perfect’ example of the dominant studio-system of 1950’s Hollywood, according to her twin sister Marisa Pavan.

It is certainly not an easy and obvious thing, when one is lucky enough to have a naturally-pleasant face and flattering body, as well as a charming and innocent personality, to fight against the numerous signs of attention and exploitation from the major Hollywood studios in the early 1950’s, an era in which the famous Hayes censorship code was still dominating the film industry, and during which the very image of the ‘perfect’ glamorous American pin-up was being built, whose face and body echoed back the then American beauty norms, in order to promote the American dream throughout the world.

Twin sisters Pier Angeli and Marisa Pavan (Photo: Reproduction)

As a matter of fact, the studios certainly knew how to handle young foreign actresses to glorify their beauty and cultural differences to adapt them to the representativeness of the pin-up so much praised by the American public. And even if it is difficult to make an objective and rational judgment over someone’s physical beauty, who can seriously deny Anna Maria Pierangeli’s? Her twin sister Marisa Pavan, real name Maria Luisa (Marisa) Pierangeli, with her unique although atypical personality, was then able to break the myth of the pin-up by claiming that her sister was not ‘pretty’, in the sense that she was not herself under all those superficial studio portraits, hairstyles, clothing and make-up required by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Proud to claim it, Marisa never bore to see what her sister had become at MGM: “The studios made her be like what they wanted her to be like, but from this moment on, it was not my sister I had in front of me anymore. She had become a studios’ product.”, Marisa tells, with a hint of anger in the voice. It is from then on that we can really wonder if the joy and pleasure felt by the public when admiring all those pin-up girls, and envying the beautiful eyes and the long, silky and shiny hair of Italian girls, highlighted by sophisticated hairstyles and make-up, yet corresponding to the American beauty norms, were also felt by those young foreign actresses who had to work hard under the grip of their studios. Just like what Pier Angeli, and numerous American actresses lived. Her name was even changed before any make-up was added on her face. An infringement to her freedom and identity? “Anna Maria Pierangeli”, a name that was considered too long and not ‘sales-orientated’ enough, was Americanized for “Pier Angeli”. Marisa seems to support independent cinema, because according to her, it mainly focuses on greatly-written screenplays and polished shots, coming before all the unnecessary Hollywood hairstyles and make-up. Her three favorite films of her sister’s career are Domani è troppo tardi (Leonide Moguy, 1949), Somebody Up There Likes Me (Robert Wise, 1956) and The Angry Silence (Guy Green, 1960), for even if Somebody Up There Likes Me was made by MGM, her sister was her true self in these films: “I finally recognized my sister, the real Anna Maria Pierangeli, through these three films in which she didn’t wear all that ridiculous make-up…!”. From then on, Marisa’s decision was clear: she would make a career inside the Hollywood studios, fighting to have the greatest possible variety of roles available, and certainly not the role of the ‘fake’ American pin-up, or else, that of the pretty Italian girl whose ‘cute’ accent is being used for commercial purposes!

Twin sisters Pier Angeli and Marisa Pavan (Photo: Reproduction)

Marisa’s fight against the studio-system, and the great variety of roles she has played in the film and television industries.

It is finally with a strong determination and a fighter personality that Marisa has been able to slip through the cracks of the Hollywood studio-system, and work as a totally independent actress. For that matter, she didn’t even spare her agents: “I was quite demanding. When I didn’t like a role, I refused it. When I didn’t like an agent, I refused him too. I was going to live my life as I wanted!”. And when we think that Marisa was born a shy and introvert person, her later attitude is even more surprising! Marisa started her career at 20th Century Fox, after she was secretly brought in front of John Ford for an audition organized by Italian American agent and producer Albert Romolo “Cubby” Broccoli, without her knowing. She was then chosen to play the role of French schoolgirl Nicole Bouchard, who is subtly in love with Private Lewisohn (played by Robert Wagner) in 1918 France, in What Price Glory (John Ford, 1952). If most of the actors and actresses back then would not have tolerated to see their contract broken for any possible reason by their studio, Marisa’s reaction to her contract with Fox being broken because of financial issues was, once more, opposed to any logical attitude anybody experiencing that situation would have. Thus, this reaction is another proof of Marisa’s disinterest toward the studio-system’s way of working, even though being an actress was something she was beginning to enjoy! However, working with agents and having to endure long and ‘painful’ English classes finally allowed Marisa to have the opportunity to play a greater variety of roles than her sister, who was ‘stuck’ at MGM, according to her. Thus, Marisa has embodied various nationalities in her films such as a blind American woman in Down Three Dark Streets (Arnold Laven, 1954) opposite Broderick Crawford, a Native American girl in Drum Beat (Delmer Daves, 1954) opposite Alan Ladd, Italian princess Catherine de’ Medici in Diane (David Miller, 1956) opposite Lana Turner and Roger Moore, a French lady at the Court of Louis XVI in John Paul Jones (John Farrow, 1959) with Robert Stack and her husband Jean-Pierre Aumont, or even a Jewish woman in ancient Israel in Solomon and Sheba (King Vidor, 1959) with Gina Lollobrigida and Yul Brynner.

Alongside Anna Maganani in “The Rose Tattoo”, which gave her the Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress (Photo: Reproduction/Tumblr)

Let’s not forget the intense role of Rosa Delle Rose Marisa played opposite Anna Magnani, one of the icons of Neorealist Italian cinema in The Rose Tattoo (Daniel Mann, 1955), a role which she fought hard for to get an audition, and which brought her an Oscar nomination for “Best supporting actress” in 1956, and a well-deserved Golden Globe from the Foreign Press Awards in 1955. For even if this role remains one of the key roles of her entire career, Marisa did not want to be considered only an Italian with a stereotyped behavior as her role connotes it in the film, through several artistic means. Solomon and Sheba is Marisa’s very last American film, and which she unfortunately remembers as a bad experience, mostly due to Tyrone Power’s unexpected death during the shooting, and the numerous changes in the original screenplay she was not aware of. In the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, Marisa’s career shot up in television, with, once more, numerous various roles such as that of Antigone in The Kaiser Aluminum Hour “Antigone” (Franklin Schaffner, 1956) opposite Claude Rains, or that of Celia Vandervoort in the Arthur Hailey’s the Moneychangers series in 1976 opposite Kirk Douglas. Decades during which she also started her own family with French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont, greatly appreciated at the time, and who has been the only love of her life.

(Photo: Reproduction)

Family life or professional success? Marisa has combined both ideals!

After her marriage to Jean-Pierre in 1956 and the birth of her two sons Jean-Claude and Patrick in 1957 and 1960, Marisa could have been forced to choose between her family life or her career. Even if she always wanted to favor a nice family life, professional success automatically arose without her knowing. Numerous television appearances, drama tours and musicals throughout the world with Jean-Pierre, a couple of films and television shows in France, Marisa was kept pretty busy! Marisa and Jean-Pierre successfully combined their beautiful French and Italian cultures and lead a very promising professional career. Marisa’s doggedness, though, did not end after her film and television career was over. Far from it! Also author of a few records, Marisa was the founder and director of the URMA association, which aims at collecting fonds with musical receptions to help financing the research of treatments against the Alzheimer disease. A strong, independent and wonderful personality!

Marisa has everything going for her. Her life was both a professional and personal success and her progression is the symbol of the success of a fight just as unexpected as fascinating led against one of the fundamental pillars of the American film industry.

Sources :

Article

Pavan Aumont, Marisa. Phone interviews with Margaux Soumoy, 2015–2017

Cover photo

Aumont, Jean-Pierre. Le Soleil et les ombres, Robert Laffont, 1976

Cover photograph borrowed from Jean-Pierre Aumont’s autobiography and scanned by Margaux Soumoy

Learn more about Marisa Pavan’s life and career on Margaux Soumoy’s website www.marisapavan.com

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Rafaella Britto
Cine Suffragette

São Paulo-based writer, poet, teacher, translator and researcher. Lover of classic films, music, traveling and all things vintage.