Master filmmakers, Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini were seen as opposites, even rivals, by the public. But to the author, a friend of both, they lived parallel lives, in their approach to art and in their epic romances.
Somehow Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, the two greatest film directors to emerge in Italy after World War II, sparked a rivalry in the public’s imagination that didn’t really exist for either of them. Cinema buffs still sometimes ask, “Are you a Fellini person or an Antonioni person?,” much as they would ask you to make that other necessary creative choice: Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky?
I was a friend of both of these remarkable artists and their wives for many years. I wrote a book about one of them— I, Fellini (1995)—and I hope to write a book about the other, who died in 2007. The truth is they led parallel lives. They began their careers as journalists, and both were skilled artists. Young Antonioni sketched architecture; young Fellini drew cartoons. Both were encouraged by Roberto Rossellini, the genius of Italian neo-realist cinema, who was a mentor at the start of their careers. Though they never became close friends, the two men were very respectful of each other’s work. Fellini’s 1952 film The White Sheik was based on a story by Antonioni, and when Fellini was filming And the Ship Sails On, in 1982, Antonioni visited him on the Cinecittà set. Both directors created masterpieces in black-and-white as well as in color. Fellini, whose fame caught on earlier, made, among other major works, La Strada (1954), Nights of Cabiria (1957), La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 1/2 (1963), Juliet of the Spirits (1965), Fellini Satyricon (1969), and Amarcord (1973). Antonioni’s finest works include L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962), Red Desert (1964), Blow-Up (1966), and The Passenger (1975). Their films were only rarely in competition, most memorably at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, when L’Avventura and La Dolce Vita contended for best picture. La Dolce Vita won.
“Fellini and Michelangelo were two sides of the same coin,” Enrica, the widow of Antonioni, told me. “People said they were opposites, but they were twins, though they never knew it. My Mickey was seen as a director who wanted to do highbrow films for the few, but he really wanted to make films everyone would love to see, just like Fellini.”
Antonioni once told me, “I believe Federico was more concerned with the outer life of the people in his films. I am concerned with their inner lives—why they do what they do.”
Fellini told me, “I feel my inheritance as a film director is from art, and Michelangelo’s is from literature. My films, like my life, are summed up in circus, spaghetti, sex, and cinema.”
Both men were honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, in New York—Fellini in 1985, Antonioni in 1992—and directors around the world, from Akira Kurosawa to Ingmar Bergman, raved about their movies. In 1963, Stanley Kubrick said La Notte was one of his 10 favorite films. The young Steven Spielberg wrote to tell Fellini he was an inspiration. Alfred Hitchcock, an enthusiastic admirer of both men, said it best. In 1978, when I was writing a biography of him, he told me, “Those Italian fellows are a hundred years ahead of us. Blow-Up and 8 1/2 are bloody masterpieces.”
‘Looking back,” the actor Marcello Mastroianni told me in 1993, “I think that Federico and Michelangelo were creatively alike, though they worked differently. With Michelangelo, it was like going to heart surgery, but not your own. With Federico, it was like going to a picnic.”
Mastroianni made two films with Antonioni, La Notte and Beyond the Clouds (1995), and he starred in four Fellini films: La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, City of Women (1980), and Ginger and Fred (1986).
Fellini, who frequently visualized his characters in cartoons before casting actors, told me he had wanted Mastroianni for La Dolce Vita from the start. “But Marcello wanted a script. I gave him a thick manuscript, every page blank except the first. On it was a picture I had drawn, showing his character as I saw him. Mastroianni was alone in a little boat in the middle of the ocean with a prick that reached all the way down to the bottom of the ocean, and there were beautiful lady sea sirens swimming all around it. Marcello looked at the picture and said, ‘It’s an interesting part. I’ll do it.’ ”
In Ginger and Fred, Mastroianni played opposite Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife and the star of four of his major films. In 1943, Fellini heard her in a radio serial he had written, liked her voice, and called to invite her to dinner. A few months later they married, and they remained together for 50 years. Early in the marriage, Masina fell and lost a baby. Soon she had another child, whom they called Federico, but when the baby was two weeks old he died. Giulietta was told she couldn’t have any more children. “Giulietta was so young,” Federico told me, “and she seemed even younger than she was, an innocent girl, until baby Federico died. After that, she was never so young anymore. Baby Federico, who never grew up, was a bond between us.”
In the late 1950s, Antonioni discovered the actress Monica Vitti, who would star in four of his great films during the following decade: L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse, and Red Desert. Like Fellini and Masina, they also had an intense personal relationship. Antonioni had his Rome apartment joined by a trapdoor and spiral staircase to the apartment of Vitti, who was living on the floor below, so that they could visit each other without being seen. When the affair ended, Antonioni had the door in the floor sealed. Enrica, his second wife, whom he married after his involvement with Vitti, once lifted the carpet to show the place to me. In 1971, Enrica had been an art student in Milan, looking for a job in Rome. After observing that she had “the most beautiful legs in the world,” Antonioni hired her to work as a wardrobe assistant, and they remained together until his death.
Fellini and Antonioni were both awarded a lifetime-achievement Oscar, and I was with both of them when they received it. In 1992, when Fellini learned that he was going to be awarded this Oscar—he had already received one for Nights of Cabiria as best foreign film—he was very happy, but the thought of having to fly to California to accept it made him very unhappy. In continual pain from arthritis, Fellini dreaded the long flight, and he couldn’t face making his acceptance speech. His solution was that Giulietta would go and accept the award for him. Soon, however, every taxi driver in Rome was telling him, “You must go, Fefe—for Italy!” So he relented. In a memorable Oscar moment, he looked out over the audience from the lectern and spotted Giulietta, who was so proud and happy that she was crying. He said into the microphone, “Thank you, dearest Giulietta. And please stop crying.” Later he told me, “That moment summed up our lives.”
I was staying at the Antonioni country house, in Umbria, when Enrica heard that Michelangelo was being considered for the 1994 special Oscar. “We must ask Saint Francis for a blessing,” she said to me, and we went to the nearby Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Enrica took my hand, and we prayed. Sure enough, back at the house, a smiling Michelangelo informed us that he had just learned that he was getting the Oscar.
In Hollywood, a bottle of champagne was waiting for the Antonionis in their hotel suite. A card said “Joy!” and it was signed “Jack.” Jack Nicholson had starred in 1975 in The Passenger. They didn’t open the champagne in the hotel but took it back to Rome, where it was served at the wrap party for Antonioni’s next film, Beyond the Clouds.
In 1985, Antonioni had suffered a massive stroke. In the hospital, unable to speak, he traced a wedding band on Enrica’s finger, and she accepted. As time went on, Antonioni recovered some of his ability to move and speak, though both with difficulty. “There was one advantage to having the stroke,” he told me. “Ever since I was a boy, I had a facial twitch. The stroke took it away.”
Though he wrote his Oscar acceptance speech, he knew he could not say it, so he arranged to have Enrica read it for him. When she had finished, he planned to say just one word: Grazie.
Before the Oscar rehearsal, Jack Nicholson, who was going to present the statuette, strode into Antonioni’s dressing room with a big grin. They hadn’t seen each other for a long time. They clasped hands, and Nicholson said, “Son of a bitch.”
When Antonioni and Enrica were waiting to go onstage the night of the ceremony, Nicholson whispered to him, “Don’t bother checking your fly to see if it’s open, Mickey. Everybody’s going to be looking at Enrica.” As Antonioni automatically looked down, Nicholson laughed and said, “Gotcha!”
Moments later Antonioni said his Grazie clearly and received a tumultuous ovation.
In 1993, Fellini also suffered a stroke. Giulietta was very ill at the time, so he was determined to leave the hospital long enough to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, which was only a few weeks away. It was a Sunday, and all their favorite restaurants were closed, but he finally found a suitable one. His doctor had warned him not to eat mozzarella, one of his favorite foods, but, seeing it on the menu, he went ahead and ordered it. He choked on a piece, and later that day he suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma. He never regained consciousness.
Fellini died on October 31, 1993, at the age of 73. Giulietta died four months later. Her last words were “I am going to spend Easter with Federico.”
Antonioni outlived Fellini by 14 years. Failing eyesight slowly took away his ability to paint or draw. Two days before he died, he asked Enrica to drive him around Rome so that he could “see” the places that had meant the most to him.
“I’ll call one of our friends to drive us,” she said.
“No. I don’t want anyone else there. Just you.”
The next day Enrica drove to all of the places Michelangelo requested. He asked her to tell him everything she saw, and he sat with his face pressed against the glass of the car window.
On the last day of his life, July 30, 2007, they sat at the window of their apartment, holding hands. He was 94.
Enrica later told me, “Michelangelo was always looking for a place he might put his camera, even if we just went for a walk or to have a coffee. Sometimes it irritated me, because he wasn’t paying attention to me. His camera was his mistress, and I could never compete. Then he began losing his sight. When Michelangelo stopped looking for places to put his camera, I tried to suggest good places, but he didn’t even look. The strange thing is that now, still, I’m always looking for a place for him to put his camera. I see places and think, Michelangelo, what about this one?”