Remembering the Romantic Italian Heartthrob

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In 1961, when Photoplay magazine asked its readers to vote for their favorite new Hollywood actor, Italian born stars Marcello Mastroianni and Rosano Brazzi finished first and second, respectively, on a list that included Italian Americans Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

During the 1960s, when much of the film industry was in the doldrums, film directors and stars, imported from Italy , attracted audiences back to the movie houses. These internationally famous superstars created an enviable image of the cool, good-looking jet setter.

Marcello Mastroianni, with his tall, dark and handsome good looks, just naturally filled the roll of the bon vivant man of the world. American movie fans adored his on-screen persona, while his rakish smile and devil-may-care attitude appealed to American men, who envied his unencumbered lifestyle. But it was Mastroianni's sensitive, romantic nature that attracted his faithful female followers.

Mastroianni was born in 1924 in Fontana , Italy , but his family would soon move to Turin and then on to Rome . The Italian star's real life may have been more exciting than some of his movie roles. As a young man serving in the military during WWII, Mastroianni was captured and sent to a German prison camp. He managed to escape and hide in Venice at the home of friends and relative.

After the war Mastroianni tried his hand at acting. His breakthrough film came in 1960, when Federico Fellini cast the sexy actor as an attractive journalist in the jet-set film, La Dolce Vita ( 1960). This film would prove to be the genesis of his "Latin lover" persona.

When asked about his famous role in this Fellini film, the actor is said to have told interviewers that he was hired because Fellini thought he had a "terribly ordinary face."

Mastroianni was never one to take his star status seriously. In fact, he couldn't understand why some method actors made working in films so much work. "I just do what comes naturally," said Mastroianni, "no preparation, no hours of studying, and it always turns out to be more fun than work."

Mastroianni starred in a series of films with the equally famous and romantic leading actress, Sophia Loren. Among the most memorable is “Y esterday, Today and Tomorrow”. These films proved to be Italy 's most popular pairing of a male and female star in the 20th century. Award-winning costumes by Christian Dior enhanced these films, which exploit the enormous appeal of both stars. When asked by a reporter why he rarely portrayed mobsters in his films, Mastroianni answered with a wink, "I'm a lover, not a fighter." He more than lived up to that reputation.

Marcello Mastroianni was wed to Flora Carabella since 1948. However, at his bedside when he died were his long-time, extra-marital amore, actress Katherine Deneuve, and their love child Chiara. It seems this Latin lover's personal life was not far from the on-screen romantic characters he portrayed.

During the 1950s and 60s another Italian-born star, Rossano Brazzi, came to represent the fascinating Italian man. Born in Bologna , Italy in 1917, Brazzi's life was turned upside down when his parents were killed by the Fascists. He fled his hometown and joined a repertory company just before the war in 1937. During WWII, Brazzi joined the resistance groups in Rome working with his fellow countrymen to fight and defy oppression. It seems this actor's real life was as exciting as his screen characters.

It wasn't until 1954 that Brazzi would ignite the screen in the romantic film, Three Coins in the Fountain . He later starred in David Lean's romantic film Summertime (1954)…an unforgettable film that still rekindles and inspires the romantic soul.

Brazzi was sympathetic in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), disarming in A Certain Smile (1958), ruthless in Legend of the Lost (1957), musical in Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific (songs were actually sung by another Italian-born star, Enzio Pinza). His rolls were varied and unique from one another. I can't remember ever seeing him portray a mob boss. The media had created a romantic image of the Italian leading man, an image that stimulated every woman's heart and every moviegoer's imagination.

These romantic Italian heartthrobs filled a void in the lives of all American movie-goers. They gave us romantic and fulfilling moments, little pieces of time that will remain with us forever.

By the 1970s, the world had become a smaller place where just about everyone was a jet setter. European film stars had lost their intriguing mystique.

During the 1970s and 80s, the names of Italian American actors, such as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, became household words. But not for their romantic images, rather for the nefarious Italian American characters they portrayed.

It's my hope that the blossoming generation of new actors and directors will bring back to the screen the kind of romantic Italian images and stories that inspired movie fans to a better lifestyle; the kind of film that made every movie-goer's heart beat faster, not with fear, but with anticipation for the warmth, love and romance that is Italy's own.