FEDERICO FELLINI'S first encounter on North American soil might well have been a scene from La Dolce Vita, the movie about Roman scandal reporters that brought him mass acclaim as well as the fanatic devotion of film fans. As he touched down at the John F. Kennedy Airport, he was accosted by a veteran airport reporter:
“Your admirers say you are the greatest film director in the world. What do you think about that?”
“I agree,” said Fellini.
What else could he say? To a man who got his start writing gags, a straight-line like that must have been irresistible. And after all, he was in America to publicize his first color movie, Juliet Of The Spirits.
There had been Milan, Rome, Paris, and then New York. The klieg light foufara of four successive premieres, complete with huge champagne parties and exhaustive interviews.
So it was a very tired Fellini who arrived in Montreal without either of his Giuliettas—the film or his wife, Giulietta Masina, the film’s star—for one last stop in what he appeared to regard as a purgatorial descent into publicity.
Why had Fellini, famous for his avoidance of the press, ever agreed to such a trip? My guess was that after Fellini failed to deliver Juliet Of The Spirits on time for the Venice Film Festival, the producer, Angelo Rizzoli, demanded that Fellini make up for the lost publicity in person.
Later, Fellini allowed there was some truth in that.
He emerged from a silver-grey Rolls at the Ritz Carlton with a pretty faun-blonde reporter already in tow, and took in the lobby with one pan of his leonine head.
For that night, the movie people had arranged a private party at a French restaurant, and I was invited. It was a chance to observe the other Fellini—that side of his personality he never shows in public. It turned out that he wanted Chinese food, so instead we went to Ruby Foos. We were nine in a private room with neo-Lucrezia Borgia decor—Fellini at the head of the table, five solicitous press agents, Fellini’s Italian manFriday, Melinda McCracken, a Weekend Magazine writer, sat on one side of the director, I on the other.
But even in private Fellini is the total director, he somehow gives every scene, however ordinary, the feel of a movie set. “Turn up the lights,” he commanded, “turn off the music, too.” The waiters, evidently not used to taking direction, did nothing. “Guidarino,” called Fellini, “tell them to turn up the lights.” They did.
In some ays it was like having dinner with a camera. Fellini’s prominent brown eyes zoomed suddenly to examine and record the gesture of a hand. Abruptly he reached out and adjusted a lock of my hair. And when he inquired about the next course it was as if it were a missing property.
“I hope you’re being fascinating for the ladies,” one of the publicity men called down from the other end of the table. “That’s what we brought you up here for.”
I did try to question him, but he was sick of being interviewed: “I’ve answered all those questions so many times before. And I’ve got so I don’t believe anything I say anymore.” But during the dinner conversation it became evident that Fellini is an intuitive thinker, a poet who resists self-analysis. (When someone asked that pointblank question: Why do you make films? He cried out in exasperation: “I don’t want to know why I make films.”)
But he has a huge curiosity. During
the dinner he dug all kinds of personal information out of the people around him. And by the time the meal was over, I got the feeling he always found out more about a journalist than the interviewer got to know about Fellini.
The next day, too, in the grueling round of interviews that began at nine in the morning it was Fellini who asked the questions.
When Weekend's Melinda McCracken enthusiastically related her experience with the hallucinatory drug, LSD, Fellini played the innocent, making out that it was the first time he had heard of LSD, taking notes on his box of Turkish cigarettes while he fixed her with his camerarolling gaze. Later, reading an interview published with an early version of the screenplay of Juliet Of The Spirits (Orion Press, New York), I discovered he had in fact already taken LSD under medical supervision and had talked for seven or eight hours under the drug’s influence. The experiment was taped but so far Fellini has chosen not to hear what he said. “With drugs,” he told me, “the space between heaven and hell is infinitesimal.”
But Juliet Of The Spirits suggests that listening to those tapes is some-
thing Fellini will not be able to resist for long. His last two movies have taken him deeper and deeper into the mind. And he has become fascinated by the movies’ capacity to show man’s hidden self.
Juliet is a lonely, child-like, childless wife, completely dependent on her husband. When she discovers that he is deeply involved with another woman, her whole world is brought into question.
“A free man,” Fellini said, “cannot do without a free woman.” And Juliet Of The Spirits is about a woman getting free, growing up— like those beautiful tall Roman pines, deeply rooted and secure in their own existence.
The trouble is that Juliet comes across not as a woman’s dreams but
as a man’s dreams of women. Fellini has admitted that “to speak calmly and clearly about a woman is almost impossible for a man.” And when he talks of woman’s independence he speaks always in terms of the woman’s relationship with her husband.
What we see is an extravagant variation on the themes of the harem scene in 8Vi. The character of Juliet stands not at centre stage but off to one side, watching (with an ironic little smile) her husband watching women.
And what a magnificent parade of women they are! Nevertheless, the film reveals not so much Juliet’s inner conflict over how to live but the conflict between Fellini’s attraction for the highly erotic and his nostalgia for innocence.
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