Great Italian actress Valentina Cortese turned 90 this year. Style has always been part of her life (she is the sort of actress who is theatrical offstage as well as on) and the diva quality in her manner and dress belongs to the glamorous era of Taylor and Burton, and the jet-set. But Cortese is no snob. Get her talking about dogs and no one else in the room can grab her attention, and when she asks how you are, she really does want to know.
In the heart of Milan's shopping district – next door to Chanel in fact – is an exhibition of her gowns called Valentina Cortese – Uno Stile. Set in the museum of costume and fashion in Palazzo Morando, over fifty creations made for her are displayed; designs by Capucci, Dior, Ferré, Galante, Mila Schön, Valentino and others.
Cortese goes back a long way and she seems to have kept a lot over the years – her wardrobe must be vast – with fame for her starting in the 1940s when she was both Fantine and Cosette in the successful Italian film of Les Misérables.
In 1948 she signed a contract with 20th Century Fox, after which she starred in Malaya (1949) with Spencer Tracy and James Stewart, Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway (1949) with Richard Conte and Lee J. Cobb, The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) directed by Robert Wise, and co-starring Richard Basehart (whom she later married) and William Lundigan, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Barefoot Contessa (1954), with Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner.
It was in Europe that she had her greatest successes however, including being the muse for the great Italian stage director Giorgio Strehler at Milan's Piccolo Teatro. She starred in Michelangelo Antonioni's Le Amiche (1955), a cameo in Federico Fellini's Giulietta degli spiriti (1965), Gérard Brach's The Boat on the Grass (1971), Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), and in various Franco Zeffirelli projects such as the 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, his 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth and the 1993 film Sparrow.
She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1975 for her brilliant performance in François Truffaut's Day for Night, but lost out to Ingrid Bergman for Murder on the Orient Express, for which Bergman apologized in her acceptance speech, saying that Cortese deserved the award more.
To coincide with the exhibition, Skira have published a glorious volume of photographs: Valentina Cortese – 100 Portraits, which follows her from Cinecittà to Hollywood, to the Piccolo Teatro in Milan.
I have pursued ideals where grace and beauty are important; to these, and to myself, I want to stay true. – Valentina Cortese
VALENTINA CORTESE – Uno stile
Exhibition of clothes and accessories at Palazzo Morando, via Sant'Andrea 6, Milan
11 September 2013 – 10 November 2013
from Tuesday to Sunday 9.00-13.00 / 14.00-17.30.
Valentina Cortese – 100 Ritratti (100 Portraits) is available in English and Italian.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.