Why you should care
Because before Sophia Loren, there was the mold they cast her from.
By the end of 1944 Italy had pretty much ended its World War II adventure, joined up with the Allies and waited for whatever would come after. Which, in short order, was the death of Benito Mussolini, the end of the war proper, and a reparation bill to the tune of $360,000,000 owed and paid to various aggrieved countries while plunging Italy into a certain kind of financial chaos.
It was this chaos that caught a 16-year-old Silvana Mangano in Rome, weighing her options. Options that, for a pretty girl who was already a model and a dancer, winnowed down to the best of the not-so-bad: a beauty pageant.
She was crowned Miss Rome in 1946, and with the win came a small role in a movie, followed by a string of minor roles. While she failed to win a title in the Miss Italia pageant the next year, who she was and how she was able to make that work on screen eventually secured her a permanent place in the pantheon of Italian beauties, right beside the slightly older Gina Lollobrigida and the slightly younger Sophia Loren.
She acted for some of the greatest film directors ever, in some of the greatest movies ever.
But by age 19, Silvana Mangano had arrived with a starring role in the neorealist drama Bitter Rice (1949). A role in which she caught the straying attentions of audiences everywhere on her way to becoming an international icon of Italian womanhood, and after a brief love affair with actor Marcello Mastroianni, Mangano married the prolific film producer Dino De Laurentiis, with whom she raised four kids.
The rest is history — film buff history, but history nonetheless. And a history that saw her act for some of the greatest film directors ever — Vittorio De Sica, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti — in some of the greatest movies ever. The three we love the best: not only Bitter Rice for its blend of noir, romance and potent visuals; but also Visconti’s 1971 treatment of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice starring the estimable Dirk Bogarde at his creepy best; and Dark Eyes (1987), which was not only Mangano’s last movie with Mastroianni, but her last movie ever.
Silvana Mangano’s famous granddaughter? Food Network star Giada De Laurentiis.
Two years later, after filing for divorce from De Laurentiis and undergoing surgery for lung cancer, she slipped into a coma and died at the age of 59. It’ll have been 25 years ago this December. On screen, Mangano was sexy and earthbound, if only a little clichéd in movie roles that were all too willing to see Italian women as nothing but. And in a career that spanned nearly 40 years, she made just 30 films because she was only interested in making that many. So much for the siren call of international fame.
But Mangano seemed to prefer the private life, dropping the sex-goddess trappings to play tennis, ride horses, embroider tapestries and spend time with her children. Film critic for The New York Times, Bosley Crowther, said of her in 1950 that she recalled nothing if not “Anna Magnani minus 15 years, Ingrid Bergman with a Latin disposition and Rita Hayworth plus 25 pounds.”
High praise indeed, though it brings to mind Mangano’s very fitting line from 1951’s Anna: “It is as if there were two women in me. One you love, the other … I cannot say.”
Or, as she said in Dune (yes, she was in that, too), “We are the secret of the universe. We are the secret.”
Well, at least she was.