Although the history of international films evidences a deluge of sultry European actresses throughout the 1960s, only a few among them could boast the depth and range of talent as Claudia Cardinale. Apart from Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren, she appeared as one of the most sought after woman in the movie world during that period, as an expression of Italian beauty. In addition to that, considered by many as another Italian sex symbol, she became Italy’s answer to Brigitte Bardot of France. Even though acting was not her first career choice, Claudia Cardinale has been one of the most prominent Italian actresses, working with some significant actors and directors over the course of her career, with more than 120 acting credits to her name and 37 coveted awards.
Claudia Cardinale was born as Claude Joséphine Rose Cardinale on 15 April 1938 to Sicilian parents in La Goulette, a predominately Italian neighbourhood near Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia. She was habituated in French, Tunisian Arabic, and the native Sicilian language of her parents, but could not speak Italian until she began to be cast for Italian films. She was educated at the Saint-Joseph-de-l'Apparition school of Carthage and then studied at the Paul Cambon School, where she graduated intending to become a teacher.
As a young girl, Claudia was described as a rather silent but wild teenager, and like the other girls of the generation, she was deeply fascinated by Brigitte Bardot, who created a wave with her And God Created Woman in 1956. Her first cinematic experience came in the same year when she participated with her classmates in the making of a short film by French director René Vautier. The film, Les Anneaux d’or (1956) generated enough buzz when it was presented at the Berlin Film Festival and led to her being spotted by Jacques Baratier, who offered her a minor role in Goha (1958). Initially, Claudia was reluctant to accept the offer, but finally accepted it when the director explained that he wanted a Tunisian girl rather than an Italian to star in the role, opposite the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif.
Although it marked her feature-film debut, Claudia’s life took a turn and swept her far away from her aim to become a teacher, when she won a beauty contest in 1957 as the most beautiful girl in Tunisia, with the prize of a trip to the Venice Film Festival. At the event, she was spotted by several film producers which quickly led to film contracts, and was offered a scholarship to Rome’s Experimental Center of Cinematography. But she left the renowned film school at the end of her first term and decided to return home because, despite her extremely photogenic looks, she had trouble with her acting assignments, mainly due to her difficulties with the Italian language.
After coming back to Tunisia, Claudia unexpectedly discovered that she was pregnant, the result of her relationship with a Frenchman in Tunisia, some 10 years of her senior. Although the man concerned refused to assume any responsibility, Claudia decided to keep the child. However, by that time she had already signed a seven-year exclusive contract with Vides Cinematografica, a production company, mainly run by the Italian Producer Franco Cristaldi. Under the circumstances, Cristaldi came to her help and arranged for Claudia to deliver a boy, named Patrick Frank, in London in 1958. The child was placed in the care of nuns in Italy until the age of around five, when Claudia’s family took over the charges of the child in Tunis. As part of the arrangement, the boy was told that Cardinale was his older sister, not her son, while Cristaldi had brought Cardinale back to Italy, and began to groom her as a starlet in the mold of Brigitte Bardot. In between, Claudia was advised not to reveal her story as that would end her career and explain that she had gone to England to learn English for a film. For seven years, she lived this lie and kept her secret even from her son until it was published in a tabloid, and she felt a great burden lifted from her shoulders.
Franco Cristaldi largely managed Claudia’s early career and was later married to her from 1966 until 1975. At first, she was given a minor role in director Mario Monicelli's internationally successful criminal comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), in which she portrayed Carmelita, a Sicilian girl virtually imprisoned in her home by her over-protective brother. In 1959, she appeared in the British film Upstairs and Downstairs, The Magistrate, and a crime film The Facts of Murder, which is considered to have been her first real test as an actress. In Mauro Bolognini’s Golden Leopard film Bel’ Antonio (1960), Claudia portrayed the wife of Marcello Mastroianni, whose confusion over sex and love made him a renowned lover with strangers but impotent with her. During its filming, Marcello Mastroianni fell in love with her, but she did not take his love seriously as she considered him to be one of those actors who cannot help but fall in love with their heroines.
However, Mastroianni insisted that his feelings were genuine, even after many years. In the same year, Claudia played the role of Napoleon’s sister Pauline Bonaparte in The Battle of Austerlitz (1960), and also appeared in Luchino Visconti’s critically acclaimed Rocco and His Brothers (1960). However, it was Silver Spoon Set (1960), in which she performed the role of the female protagonist, was instrumental to pave her way to great success as the sweetness of her smile struck a chord with the public. The mesmerizing combination of her alluring beauty, her dark and appealing eyes, explosive sexuality, along with her intelligent acting talent virtually guaranteed her stardom.
1961 was a welcome year for Claudia when she was warmly praised by the critics for her portrayal of a sultry nightclub singer and young mother in Valerio Zurlini’s Girl with a Suitcase (1961), in which she conveyed the concerns of a teenage mother from her own experience of early motherhood. Later in that year, she starred as a prostitute opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in Mauro Bolognini’s La Viaccia (1961), which was presented at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. Her other important appearance in the year also included The Lions Are Lose (Les Lions sont laches 1961).
However, 1963 was perhaps the most prolific and significant year in Claudia Cardinale’s career as she starred in Luchino Visconti’s criminally underrated The Leopard (1963) portraying a village girl, the object of an unrequited passion of an Italian nobleman, Burt Lancaster, but married to his nephew, a progressive young aristocrat played by Alain Delon. Apart from that, she also appeared in 8½ (1963), one of the masterpieces of Federico Fellini, playing the role of an enchanting young actress named Claudia cast by director Guido Anselmi, portrayed by Marcello Mastroianni. It was the first role in which Cardinale got the opportunity to use her own voice, which was dubbed in her earlier film as her voice was considered deep and husky, contrary to her soft, feminine persona. Nevertheless, with her portrayal of Angelica in The Leopard and her brief appearance as herself in 8½, Claudia Cardinale achieved the status of a top-ranking star and an actress who could shine with her brain as well as her alluring beauty. But as they were filmed at the same time, the films created a strange problem for Claudia because she had to change her hair colour now and then.
Although produced in Italy, she made her Hollywood debut in the same year when she played a Middle Eastern Princess Dala, the love and jewellery interest of a master thief, David Niven, in The Pink Panther (1963). After that, she portrayed a prostitute in Bebo’s Girl (1964) and received the Nastro d’Argento Award for Best Actress in 1965. In the same year, she also starred in Francesco Maselli’s Italian-made Time of Indifference (Gliindifferenti 1964), and thereafter, spent three years in the United States. In Hollywood, she first starred in Circus World (1964), playing the daughter of Hayworth, and performing in a circus with her mother and then played the lead role in The Magnificent Cuckold (1964), which left a bitter memory for her as she experienced little empathy with the producer while the male co-star tried to seduce her. She also played a Holocaust survivor in Visconti’s Sandra (Vaghe stele dell’Orsa 1965), who possibly had an incestuous relationship with her brother. Later in the same year, she appeared in Blindfold (1965), opposite Rock Hudson, who sensing her discomfort outside Italy, became very protective of her, and ultimately became one of her good friends. However, although she had good friendship also with Steve McQueen, Barbara Streisand, and Elliot Gould, she never felt at home in Hollywood.
Franco Cristaldi, the Italian Producer who helped to build Claudia’s early career, suddenly joined her in America at the beginning of 1967, and without informing or taking her consent, took her to their wedding ceremony in Las Vegas, which he had arranged without her knowledge. Although she did not protest and went ahead with the ceremony, she did not formalize the marriage in Italy. However, despite the marriage not been made official in Italy, they were together from 1975 to 2002, and they had a daughter, Claudia, in 1979.
Nevertheless, following her success in Hollywood, she starred in Mark Robson’s war picture Lost Command (1966), opposite Anthony, Quin and Alan Delon, and Richard Brooks’ western The Professionals (1966), again with Burt Lancaster, which she considered to be her best American film. After that, she was paired with Franco Nero in The Day of the Owl (Mafia 1968), with Rod Taylor in The Hell with Heroes (1968), and reunited with Rock Hudson in the Italian-made criminal comedy A Fine Pair (1968). However, she completely won the heart of the American audience in one of her best-known roles as a former prostitute in Sergio Leone’s epic Western Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), in which her performance was depicted as permanently engraved in cinematic history.
Claudia’s important films in the 1970s include The Legend of Frenchie King (1971), where she formed a duo with Brigitte Bardot, A Girl in Australia (1971), in which she again appeared as a prostitute, and won the Best Actress Award at the David di Donatello Award the following year, L’udienza (1972), a film by Marco Ferreri, which was screened at the 22nd Berlin Film Festival. Later, she was paired with Burt Lancaster in The Skin (1981), played the role of a brothel owner who finances her lover’s crazy scheme to build an Opera House along the River Amazon in Werner Herzog's surreal film Fitzcarraldo (1982), and paired with Marcello Mastroianni in Marco Bellocchio’s Henry IV (1984). Her important works also include Mayrig (1991) and its sequel, 588 rue paradis (1992), which is the saga of an Armenian family who emigrated to France after the genocide of 1915 by the Ottoman Turks. In recent years, she played in The Silent Mountain (2014), a war drama set in the Dolomite Mountains in 1915. She won the Golden Orange Best Actress Award for the movie Signora Enrica (2010) at the Antalya Film Festival in Turkey.
For her contribution to the film industry, Claudia Cadinale has been honoured with lifetime achievement awards at nearly every major film festival. Apart from that, she was the recipient of an honorary Golden Lion at the 1993 Venice Film Festival and also an honorary Golden Bear at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival. Another feather was added to her crown when she was named among the 50 most beautiful women in film history, in The Los Angeles Times Magazine in February 2011.She is a coveted UNESCO goodwill ambassador for the Defense of Women's Rights since March 2000.