Via Telephone
July, 1990


I got her mad when I referred to her as primal, which I thought was a compliment: You ask me what primal means, and I think it describes something that is essential, necessary, and I felt that, in her acting, Magnani went directly to the truth, the heart, of the character and the scene. She was primal.

She did not like that one bit.

Should I have said what first came into my mind? That I found her prehensile? Meaning that she grasped, mightily, all that was good and true about a character, herself, and her partners and used it fully?

She would not have spoken to me at all.

Both of us were actors as surnames: Brando and Magnani. Joanne Woodward once joked that she was the only member of the cast with two names, no entourage, and always on time. I suppose we were moody; I suppose we were difficult; I know that more than anything we worked hard to get it right.

Maureen [Stapleton] told me to calm down and just keep doing what I was doing: 'I don't care about the screaming,' she said, 'as long as I can keep seeing the footage.'

The film [The Fugitive Kind] wasn't well-received, but I liked it. I liked [Sidney] Lumet: he gave us both a lot of space to do what we needed, and a bit more space so that we didn't hurt anyone. Both Magnani and I worked like fighters--we each went to our corner of the ring, bounced around--ideas and our energies--and then came out fighting. I have never worked with anyone who had the intense energy she had--she was beyond volcanic; she was a range of volcanoes, each ready to explode. She could also hone in on a scene with such sensitivity that you fell into a stupor trying to hear her, to divine what she was thinking, fearful of what might come next. She was coiled at all times to be great.

 

She showed up each day assured in her presence on the set: she had done her homework. She believed as many did that Joanne and I, both products of the Method, which she hated, were always working, always studying, always altering, but we did no more in preparation than she did, but we had no embarrassment in talking about our approaches or our problems. This was verboten with Magnani: You do not talk about the work; you do the work. I can respect that, and God knows she delivered.

She was worried about her age, and I was worried about my weight, so we were defensive; we moved slowly and nervously. We were well-served by our costumer and our director and our cinematographer, and when Magnani knew that she looked as good as possible, and when I knew that I wasn't being shot below the nipples, we were best able to concentrate on our characters and do our best work.

I'm proud of the film.

I would never want to work with people who only worked as I did or believed as I did, because what do I learn? I was fascinated watching Magnani tear a script apart as if it were a side of beef, searching for tendon and sinew and sweet meat. She was primal! I told you! 'I understand the human heart,' she would say, and she did. She despised analysis and what she called the coddling of the soul, so she disapproved of me and of Joanne because we had shrinks and nutritionists and we read books that might help us think and feel better. What fools we were, we mortals, seemed to be what Magnani was thinking. Live, love, fight, fuck, rage. That might have been her motto.

I loved her stories about [Pier Paolo] Pasolini and [Luchino] Visconti and [Roberto] Rossellini. She gave me an education into Italian literature and film and theatre and life. She cooked for me, then we'd talk and argue and then fight. 'The best enhancement for pasta is anger,' she told me, and then we'd laugh.

We did not dislike each other. I hate that people now believe that. We were different and we disagreed. That is all.

She was a magnificent actress. She lived fully. She gave me Italy, and I have it with me still.