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Claudia Cardinale Is Having a Moment. Here’s Why

A new museum exhibit and photo book got Michele Willens thinking about her longtime fascination with the great Claudia Cardinale.

My husband loves to tell the story about walking onto a crowded flashbulb-filled deck of a gorgeous hotel in Taormina, asking friends if they “Know where Michele is.” They pointed to the heaviest swell of cameras and replied, “She’s over there with Claudia Cardinale.”

And I was. It turned out that the classic film The Leopard was being screened that night at a Sicilian film festival. I made my way through the crowd to seek a publicist. When I told him I’d love a few minutes with Cardinale, he said, “No press.” But when I said it would be for America’s Huffington Post, he perked up and said I could have a few minutes with the star if I mentioned the hotel. How do you say “damn right” in Italian?

The actress had always been one of my favorites. I guess I knew her mostly from The Pink Panther, since she made relatively few American movies. So, with my 10 minutes, I asked her about that one. “Oh, my leading man told me one of the nicest things,” she said, but then needed help remembering his name. “Was it David Niven?” I asked. “Yes!” she said. “He said to me, ‘Claudia, next to pasta you are the best thing to ever come from Italy.’”

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Why We’re Thinking About Claudia Cardinale Now

I bring this up because Cardinale, at 84, is having another moment. The Museum of Modern Art’s film department is winding up an entire month of her films, selecting 23 out of the 100 she made. I watched Girl with a Suitcase, one of her early ones. It was a breakout performance by the Tunisian-born actress, with so many changing emotions, often within the same scene—including a rather startling one, where we learn her character had a child as a teenager. Cardinale’s tears seem genuine: It turns out the same had happened in her own life. I still wonder what happened to the suitcase at the end, but no one likely cared—that smile, those eyes, and yes, that body.

She was glamorous but so much more.

Since the MOMA has focused on one actor’s work very rarely, I asked Josh Siegel, the head of its film department, what spurred this decision. He said he likes to focus on international figures (he previously highlighted Jeanne Moreau), particularly those who were part of the New Wave scene that ultimately impacted American movie makers and introduced many Americans to foreign films. “Cardinale was all that,” he says. “She chose filmmakers, not films, and wanted to work with young new ones. Yes, she was glamorous but so much more.”

The Book on Cardinale

Claudia Cardinale

Claudia Cardinale in the Pink Panther

There is also a beautiful new book, Indomitable, mostly photos, which Cardinale’s daughter, Claudia Squitieri, is helping to promote. (Cardinale made nine films with Claudia’s father, Pasquale Squitieri.) I asked her what she learned from her famous mother. “Through her being an actress, I understood how each one of us can be so many people, the multiplicity of each human being, how multiple one person can be!” she said. “Through her being my mother, I have learned to trust in my instincts.” She agreed that many still think of her mom as a former goddess (in the Loren, Lollobrigida mold), but that was only one aspect of her. “For sure,” she said. “She is a solid and courageous woman besides being a great actress! The simplicity and the essentiality of her acting is very modern ’till this day.”

The simplicity and the essentiality of her acting is very modern ’till this day

As for why she is having this moment now? The proud daughter responds, “Well . . . she has received honors throughout her life, but the recent activities are extremely gratifying for sure. I think her talent has always been acknowledged, and that time is only affirming and strengthening this awareness. It is a beautiful thing to celebrate talent. Even more so when the person can be alive to appreciate and receive the honor. America is remembering her, and that is wonderful.”

Men Who Loved Her

One of the stars of the latest season of White Lotus (shot in Sicily) is F. Murray Abraham, who is on the list of C.C. super fans. “You’ve heard the expression, ‘To know her is to love her,’ but that is the absolute truth with Claudia,” he told me. “I made a picture with her sweetheart Pasquale and hung out at their place in Rome. She captivated me with her grace, her natural charm, and her intellect. Her unselfconsciousness in spite of her beauty put one at ease instantly. I consider her one of the great women I’ve ever known, all this after no more than a few meetings. But then, how long does it take to feel an earthquake? Yes indeed, I fell in love with her.”

Claudia Cardinale broke Warren Beatty’s heart.

He was not alone. Cardinale herself has said many of her costars wanted to get her in bed, but that it did not happen. There is a fun passage in the new book about the “great seducer” Warren Beatty pursuing her over several days in New York. “I’ve fallen in love,” Beatty tells her. “I haven’t,” she responded. In the end, he says she broke his heart.

Now living in France, Cardinale has created a foundation to support women’s rights and the environment, and has been a UNESCO goodwill ambassador for many years. The book has personal thoughts from fans like Giorgio Armani, who calls Cardinale “an assertive and kind personality. Discreet and gentle, completely independent while never aggressive.”

One of her most famous directors, Luchino Visconti, may have described her best. He called Cardinale “a splendid tabby cat for the time being . . . but that one of these days we will realize is a tiger.” She has had a lot of us growling for decades.

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By Michele Willens


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