The Search for Beauty: Italian Women on Screen 2 by Grazia Guila Gigante, Emily King, Isabel Davies, and Sophie Adams

Whilst studying an Italian film module which focused on the representation of beauty in contemporary cinema, we developed a personal interest in the culture and history behind popular Italian film stars. We relished the opportunity to explore this further through the research and compilation of our exhibition at the Bill Douglas Centre, focusing our research on the glamourous era of the 1950s and 60s.  Whilst our module had given us an excellent introduction to Italian contemporary film, researching at The Bill Douglas Centre provided us with a unique opportunity to discover primary sources firsthand. We had access to an extensive selection of extra-textual material, ranging from artists’ sketches to popular magazines of the time, with a vast array of material showcasing both the on-screen and off-screen personas of famous film stars of this era.

 In an interview with Barbara Walters Sophia Loren affirms:  ‘I’m not Italian, I’m Neapolitan! it’s another thing’. The question of national and regional and class identity is particularly interesting when analysing the ‘maggiorata’ phenomenon from an Italian point of view. The bodies of Sophia Loren and Lollobrigida are not only stereotypically Italian they are ‘napoletani’ and ‘romani’.  Sophia Loren and Lollobrigida both played roles that enhanced these regional characteristics, emphasizing not only their physicality but also their accents. Their pin up bodies were regularly placed and shot in agricultural environments, around fields and rivers, as were other Italian female stars of the period.  During our research in the Bill Douglas centre we have seen how this was the case, as seen in this iconic image from “Bitter Rice”.

Milky Way Group Women

Their social upbringings are also significant; most of the beloved 1950s actresses came from a poorer background, usually rural. Audiences experienced a glamorizing portrayal of the lower classes. A great number of people now saw, with these women, a representation of their values and customs on screen. The depiction of the lower classes interested the Neo-realism movement too, but with a different focus, with contrasting aims. Films starring these beautiful women were usually comedies, comedies that did not have an explicit primary interest in social comment and critique.  But it would be wrong to think that Italian actresses of the 1950s engaged only with light comedy roles.  In La Ciociara Sophia Loren demonstrates that she was also an established actress.


We also focused on the film industry’s heightened fascination on the female body and its sexualisation. As we have seen in films of this period that we watched as part of our module, there was a very conscious effort from directors and the stars themselves to draw attention to the ever popular ‘maggiorata fisica’ and this in itself drew large audiences. This refers to the exaggerated female shape with voluptuous curves that was the common throughout the film stars of this period. From the fetishistic stockings of Silvana Mangano in ‘Riso Amaro’ to the corseted costumes of Sophia Loren in ‘La Bella Mugnaia’, the female shape started to take a starring role in Italian cinema and this was apparent in most of the sources we found as the media exploited these women’s shapes and rarely printed an image without a hint of Loren or Lollobridgida’s famous busts.

We also explored the cultivation of Loren’s image as a film star and her transition from sex symbol to maternal figure. In the 1950’s and 60’s the notion of paparazzi was still a relatively new phenomenon, and thus the film stars could still control more easily the image of themselves that was portrayed in the mass media.

Looking more closely at Sophia Loren, her exuberance and vitality were positive aspects for which she was admired but she also developed a maternal appeal over the course of her career as we discovered through several interviews with her in magazines of the time. As she already strongly embodied femininity with her overtly feminine physique, being a mother was another form of femininity which she could portray. 

The transition of her image from sex symbol to an actress of substance and a maternal figure can be largely attributed to her aforementioned role as Cesira in Two Women or ‘La Ciociara’  in 1960. It was interesting to put the images next to each other in the exhibition and see the juxtaposition between her well put-together beauty of many of the star portraits and the more dishevelled portrayal of her in the film.

Milky Way Single Woman_1


Two Women Loren

This role greatly contributed to the cultivation of a more robust image of Loren which ensured that she would be remembered not just for her beauty but for her skills as an actress too.

Overall, this experience was extremely rewarding as it gave us the chance to build upon our knowledge of the films that we have studied through the use of invaluable artefacts contemporary to the era. The Bill Douglas centre gave us the opportunity to access relevant sources that allowed us to delve deeper into the personal lives of these Italian film stars and their representation in English and American press. This provided us with an alternative viewpoint to that which we had already explored in class, and a more extensive grasp of this dynamic topic, which we felt lent itself excellently to a visual exhibition.




The Search for Beauty: Italian Women on Screen by Zoe Wolstenholme

When Phil, curator of the BDC, asked me to lead and put together a new display cabinet on Italian Women in film I could not think of anything more fabulous. However, at the same time I felt nervous. All I could hear was the Spanish voice of FawltyTowers’s Manuel saying “I know nothing!” – I couldn’t even find an Italian expression for my amateur understanding! But then Phil explained I would have a team of Italian film students to work with and suddenly it all became much less daunting.

My team, Emily, Isabel, Sophie, and Guilia are discussing the history and background to the themes and pieces we included in our collection in their accompanying blog post. In this post I will go on to describe the process of putting the display together and then I will concentrate on Belinda Lee, the British actress who was captivated by Italy in the 1950s. 

We began by pouring over the material that Phil had selected from the BDC, reading and comparing images to work with. Then we moved on to searching the archive ourselves, taking boxes from shelves and opening up filing cabinets to find items like the Studio Beauty Contest Exhibitors Guide entitled “The Search for Beauty” (EXEBD 77034) which, although dating from the USA in the 1920s, became the inspiration for our title for the display, because it is so resonant of the role of women in Italian Cinema of the 1950s.

Exhibitor's Guide to Paramount Beauty Contest

Inevitably there were too many beautiful pieces that we wanted to fit into our small space. Of the many things we left out of the final display, I found one set of photographs of Sophia Loren particularly interesting. The images showed her with some US soldiers in Italy before going over to Hollywood. She was playing snooker and picking up their accent, showing Loren in the transition from Italy to Hollywood. Another image I wanted to include, which was unfortunately too large to fit into our cabinet, was an image of Anita Ekberg “as a huge symbol of eroticism, dwarfing the models specially built to reproduce the monumental architecture commissioned and erected by fascists in Rome for the… universal exhibition that never took place.” This image and this quote came from a book in translation by the Italian director Fellini on Cinecittà film studios.

To help us narrow down our selection we decided upon a few key themes for our display to showcase the most beautiful and significant images. We wanted to explore how the private lives of these actresses were presented in the public eye, moving on through this to stress the serious and often powerful female characters that were a part of the Italian film industry at the time. Finally, to me, the glamourous “maggiorata” “Italian movie goddess” image had to be central to the display. It defines the sensual Italian glamour associated with Italian women on screen in the 1950-60s.The companion piece to this post written by my team of Italian film students explores these categories in much more detail.

We decided to include Belinda Lee in our display as she was an outsider seduced by the Italian film industry, highlighting the allure of its uncensored passion. The British Rank Organisation starlet from Budleigh Salterton, only 15 miles south of Exeter, left behind the wholesome roles offered at home for more sensual parts in Italian films. In England, Belinda Lee had never really been allowed to break from the on-screen image of a privileged but naive young woman.  When she moved to Italy her scandalous private life seemed to match the scandalous roles she played. Not only was she seduced by the sexual liberation she was given on screen but she began an affair with an Italian aristocrat, Prince Filippo Orsini. They entered into a suicide pact, which they did not go through with, but which made Belinda Lee into a European celebrity. In 1958 she was dropped by Rank Organisation but the scandal worked to her advantage. She was offered many more risqué roles, showing how her private life was being used to define her on-screen persona.

The fact that Belinda Lee had lost fame in Britain by the time of her death in 1961 shows the divide between British and continental film at the time. In the issue of Picturegoer from 5 December 1959 we included in our display there is a section ‘On the Covergirl’ which discusses Belinda Lee:

“Our cover picture reminds you of the beauty that is Belinda…of the beauty that we are not likely to see on British screens for a long time to come. For what a transformation in the curvy, blonde Belinda Lee who was, at one time, one of our top glamour girls! Quitting this country, the RankOrganisation and cameraman-husband Cornel Lucas for the delights of Rome, Miss Lee is now an Italian-accented beauty living quietly on the Continent.”

So Belinda Lee was the British starlet who became mesmerised by Italian cinema and in this way I felt like I could relate to her. Surrounded by my Italian film students I felt like I was undertaking a much more sedate and curatorial version of Belinda Lee’s adventure into the new and exciting world of Italian film.

Belinda Lee Picturegoer

You can look at images from the exhibition at our Facebook album “The Search for Beauty: Italian Women on Screen” on The Bill Douglas Centre’s facebook page.

‘All Work and No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy’: The Lighter Side of Stanley Kubrick by Chris Grosvenor

Stanley Kubrick was a director who, perhaps most prominently in the latter part of his career, came to be defined by his demanding yet mysterious persona; one crafted through years of troubled productions, and a generally reclusive nature. He very rarely gave interviews or made public appearances, preferring instead to lock himself away in his Xanadu-like home in Hertfordshire, working away on films, many of which were destined to become masterpieces. His films, as it has often been claimed, did the talking for him.

In this sense,the subject matter of Kubrick’s filmography is one of sombre, often profound observations on humanity, dealing with subjects ranging from war, social taboos, behavioural conditioning, criminal underworlds, the fragility of the family unit and, in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), ‘death, infinity and the origin of time’. Can any other directorial output be said to cover so much ground? The scope of Kubrick’s films, paired with his cold, detached cinematic style certainly shapes a certain reading of his cinema; largely as very serious. 

However, alongside the serious, scholarly discourses surrounding Kubrick as an auteur, there exists a lighter, more playful body of ephemera surrounding some of his greatest films. There are a number of examples of this in The Bill Douglas Centre.

To begin this small exploration of such artefacts, one baffling example, can be seen in the 7” single for I Wanna Be Your Drill Instructor, a single which combined the military chants of Full Metal Jacket‘s Sgt. Hartman character with a pumping guitar and drum track. Composed by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian under the pseudonym Abigail Mead, this musical oddity becomes even more endearing upon learning that it reached number two on the U.K. Pop chart upon release. Certainly at odds with the kind of items one would normally associate with the work of Kubrick, its proves an interesting example of the attempt to make a notoriously difficult type of film a commercial product.

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Perhaps of greater interest, however: the aforementioned 2001, a film of great visual power and philosophical awe, spawned a Marvel comic book in 1976. It is difficult at first to grasp how a film like 2001, a film which radically departs from the more conventional adventure-based narratives of the sci-fi genre, can be adapted for the graphic novel medium which usually favours more hyperbolic content. The comic, however, does make for an incredibly interesting read, above all, as a curiosity. The bulk of Kubrick’s version is surprisingly kept intact within the (now fading) pages of the comic book. Instead of constructing its own visual style, many of the panels make direct reference to scenes from the film itself. Its a text abundant with nostalgic reverence for a film which had only come out 8 years prior to its own publication.

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Moreover, the comic makes an interesting use of original dialogue; sourced in parts from abandoned drafts of the film’s screenplay, as well as Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same name which was released in conjunction with the film. During scenes in which little or no dialogue is heard within the film, the comic in contrast supplements such sections with dialogue or exposition; an effect which more than often undermines the power of its filmic source material. The scene in which astronaut, Frank Poole’s oxygen supply is cut short and ejected into space by the menacing HAL 9000, a scene in which only the pacing breath of fellow astronaut Dave Bowman is heard, the panels of the comic, feature such garish lines as:

 ‘Frank Poole screams in vain! The Killing pressure increases with relentless rapidity… Then, the screams stop as life stops… Frank Poole dies in space’.

 This kind of melodramatic rhetoric is littered throughout the comic; Part 2 of its narrative outlandishly titled ‘The Thing on the Moon’. Used to initiate and promote a short-running 2001 comic book series, this artefact, confusingly stands as a testament to Kubrick’s eye for cinematic visuals, whilst simultaneously undercutting his story-telling ability; the comic feebly attempting to explain and characterise the incomprehensible monolith, the enigmatic centre of 2001, in order to be more accessible to, what we can presume to be, its target child/teen demographic.

Alongside these artefacts The Bill Douglas Centre also has a range of other Kubrick related memorabilia, including posters, postcards and books on both himself and his films. The Stanley Kubrick Archive at the University of the Arts in London holds a mass of material from his productions and the BDC holds some publicity cards they have produced, such as this one from A Clockwork Orange.

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One of the most poignant discoveries to come across is the souvenir leaflet from An Academy Tribute to Stanley Kubrick held at the BFI in 2007. Featured within this document is copy of a letter signed by then Prime Minister Tony Blair which begins:

 ‘Stanley Kubrick was a cinematic visionary. His films were daringly innovative and beautifully crafted. He was often controversial, but always moving and thought provoking’.

 In my opinion, whilst the aforementioned artefacts may prove interesting to academics and researchers in their rarity or peculiarity, I’m thankful that it was always the films which ‘did the talking’, even if they were ‘daring’ or ‘controversial’, and not plethora Jack Torrence action figures or A Clockwork Orange boardgames. Kubrick’s filmography is one that, broadly speaking, transcended such commercialisation leaving items like the Full Metal Jacket single or the 2001 comic book, certainly of interest, but at the same time jarring and uncanny.

 Chris Grosvenor

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