Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Caesar and Claretta (1975)

By Jack Russell.
BBC TV, 9 May 1975.

In November 1971 Richard Burton received a visit from one Carlo Cotti, a “neo-fascist” who “appears to be a cut above the average in intelligence”. An assistant director itching to graduate to making films of his own, Cotti had a proposition for Burton and Taylor:

He wants to talk to me re Benito Mussolini I think for whom, I’m told, he has a great and relatively unfashionable admiration. He is anxious for me to play the last days of Mussolini in a film. Never know, it might be interesting and with E possibly playing his mistress Clara Petacci it would certainly set all Italy by the ears. (Diaries, 13 Nov 1971)

This intriguing project never got off the ground, although under a different director, Carlo Lizzani, it mutated into another venture for Italy’s Cinecittà studios: Mussolini – ultimo atto, a vehicle for Rod Steiger, with Lisa Gastoni as the dictator’s loyal mistress.   

Meanwhile, back in England and on a much smaller scale, the BBC had a Mussolini drama of its own in development. It was one of a series of single plays under the title ‘Private Affairs’. (Other episodes tackled the relationships between Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, David Garrick and Peg Woffington, Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O’Shea, and George, Prince of Wales, and Mrs Fitzherbert.) Clive James, writing in The Observer, was unimpressed by the whole concept:

These famous modern love stories must have looked a good idea in outline, but when it comes to the scripts there is not much for the actors to bite on, and they are obliged to spend most of their time coal-heaving the exposition.

This is a bit harsh, even by the Antipodean’s acerbic standards. Caesar and Claretta, in my view, is one of the strongest of Mirren’s early TV appearances.

The play is based closely on historical events. Mussolini was captured on 27 April 1945 as he tried to escape to Switzerland disguised as a German soldier in a German motorised column. They were stopped by partisans, who insisted on searching all the vehicles before allowing the Germans to proceed. One figure slumped in the darkness at the back of the truck had attracted attention. “His face was like wax and his stare glassy, but somehow blind,” the partisan leader later remembered. “I read there utter exhaustion, but not fear.” After being detained at the town hall of Dongo, Mussolini and his mistress were transferred overnight to a farmhouse near Lake Como while their captors pondered what to do with them. As is well known, the following day a group of communists arrived with orders from Milan to carry out summary justice on the Duce. He and Petacci were shot, their bodies later transferred to Milan where they were exhibited, to the howls of a raucous and unforgiving public, dangling upside down from scaffolding in the Piazzale Loreto.

Writer Jack Russell took that last night in the farmhouse as the basis for an intimate drama. The dictator and his mistress retire to a well-guarded bedroom for the night. According to the testimony of their guards, there was only a little whispered conversation before Mussolini fell asleep; Claretta stayed awake for a long time before dropping off. Russell used dramatic licence to imagine a long duet between the doubly impotent Duce (“my power is gone with my power”), unable either to “save” Italy or make love to his mistress, as he railed against the perfidy of the French, English, Americans and Germans (“my friends, the wolves”). Then the old vainglory stirred, and with it (we were to suppose) came a stirring in the loins. Many details of the historical record were woven into this compact drama: Petacci’s squeal of delight when she mistakenly believes that the leader of the execution squad has come to liberate them, her stumbling through the farmyard mud in fashionable high heels.

The production moved in and out of black-and-white, suggestive of Italian neorealist cinema, and Mirren in broad-brimmed hat and scarlet lipstick looked every inch the Cinecittà star. She has spoken of her early admiration for Italian actresses like Monica Vitti and Anna Magnani; here was her chance to make good. Michael Ratcliffe wrote of her performance in The Times:

Miss Mirren is an actress who always seems to know what she is doing and why. She is also very sexy and Mr Whatham [the director] was not going to let us forget it. He shot this Claretta Petacci… through the Duce’s own intermittently devoted, if not fetishistic eyes.

Yet, “against this pin-up presentation”, and here I agree with him, she “cleverly retained the essential simplicity of Claretta’s character.” Petacci, described by one of Mussolini’s biographers as hailing from the “comfortable Rome bourgeoisie”, was no intellectual, but, in Russell’s script, she was more than a gold-digger – more than just another Fascist groupie. Clive James’s TV review underestimated how these qualities were captured in writing and performance:

Mussolini and Claretta Petacci trailed a few tatters of tragic grandeur but that was scarcely the point – the point being that in real life there was no grandeur at all, since Mussolini in his last days was nothing but a farceur without a theatre and Petacci was a B-girl on the skids. Neither Robert Hardy nor Helen Mirren (especially not her) could play it that low down, even when supplied with dialogue drained as dry of interest as the Pontine Marshes.

The writing never sought to rehabilitate the old rogue or his floozy, merely to take baby steps in comprehending them. As the Telegraph’s reviewer commented,

It was essentially a melodramatic, operatic piece of writing, but very much, one felt, in the style Mussolini would have used in private as well as public. Towering over all was the virtuosic performance of Robert Hardy as Mussolini, a portrayal uncanny in its physical resemblance, memorable for its restraint as well as its power.

Mirren recalls this play with affection, likening Petacci to Eva Braun as “someone who is absolutely at the height of ‘mistressdom’ and then has to pay the ultimate price”. She’s also full of admiration for her co-star Robert Hardy, whom she sees as a great screen actor manqué. From him she learnt ”how much repressed energy has got to be there, underneath the performance”. These two giants were to have reunited on stage almost forty years later in The Audience, in which Hardy was scheduled to play Churchill opposite Mirren’s Elizabeth II. Alas, Hardy, now 87, had to withdraw after suffering cracked ribs as the result of a fall. Let’s hope he makes a full recovery. The man, like his erstwhile co-star, is a national treasure.
RJB Bosworth, Mussolini (2002)
The Richard Burton Diaries, ed Chris Williams (2012)
Clive James, “Formula for soap opera”, The Observer, 1 June 1975
Richard Last, “Robert Hardy makes Mussolini a man”, Daily Telegraph, 10 May 1975
Ray Moseley, The Last Days of Mussolini (2006)
Michael Ratcliffe, “Private affairs”, The Times, 10 May 1975