by Hugh Gilmore
Since last May most of my columns have been about people who were not what they seemed to be. For example, I’ve written about Margaret Wise Brown, the children’s book author (“Goodnight Moon”) who turned out to be quite neurotic, depressed and misguided. And John Howard Griffin, a white journalist who passed as a Negro to travel the American south recording the racial oppression he observed.
Most recently, I told how the world-famous “Crying Indian” (from the 1970s anti-pollution ads) was really the movie actor Iron Eyes Cody – who in real life was a Sicilian American from Louisiana.
I hesitate to include today’s illusion, “la Saraghina,” in this series. The woman who played this character in Federico Fellini’s classic movie “8 1/2” never pretended to be anything other than what she was: an actress. Nonetheless, her performance in her one big scene in that movie was so perfect she remains lodged in my mind as the grotesque dancing temptress known as la Saraghina.
Young cinema buffs can never know how we all awaited and anticipated each new Fellini film back in the 1960s. Fellini and Italy were inextricably linked, thoroughly original, and terrifically entertaining. He wrote and directed most of his films. “What will he do next?” was on our collective movie-going minds whenever he released a new movie. They were not classics then; they were modern.
Fellini’s films were heavily autobiographical. “8 1/2” appeared after he written seven and a half previous films. It is a movie about a middle-aged filmmaker’s struggle to wrestle his script (and his life) into shape. Nearly half the scenes portray current fantasies or flashbacks to his past. In the scene from “8 1/2” I want to relate to you, the main character, Guido, the movie maker, is bored as he listens to a priest lecturing to him in a garden. Distracted, he watches a middle-aged peasant woman with bare feet as she hikes her skirt to her knee while descending a slope.
The sight triggers a reminiscence. He is a boy again, about 12, on the cusp of sexuality. His friends urge him to come with them to the beach and see la Seraghina. He joins them as they run away from the village, to the beach, where they cry out her name, “Saraghina! Saraghina!”
Out of the darkness of a beach shed, a figure emerges. The sound track begins with some churchly organ chords that soon morphs into what is now known as the famous “Saraghina rumba.” We see her. She is large and mysterious. Her black hair is full and disarrayed, framing her wild, round face. Her astonishing, upward-slanting eyebrows punctuate her knowing eyes and lascivious mouth.
She takes a proffered coin from Guido, puts it in her large bosom, pulls her blouse to expose her shoulders, pauses, and begins to dance for the boys. They stand there, howling and hooting, as her hips and bosom roll sensuously for their delight. She picks up Guido and holds him close as she raises him high …
Too bad we’ll never know what might have happened next. Two priests came running up to the scene. The boys fled. Guido was caught and dragged home by the priests. Cut back to present time in the garden, the adult Guido nodding perfunctorily as the priest talks and his boyhood memory fades.
What a great scene! Indelible. The essence of Italian cinema to me back then when all was new. Funny, thoughtful, offbeat, sensuous, satiric. And la Saraghina: An icon of Italian sexuality to those young, uninitiated boys. All the swells and curves of the female shape widely exaggerated. Made up to seem repellent, but still mysteriously attractive. As though one wandered backstage and learned some truth about women, especially Italian women. Ah, that’s what they’re really like. Raw and irresistible.
Another unforgettable Fellini character. (For a treat, see “Fellini’s Faces,” a book that contains over 600 head shots of characters Fellini auditioned over the years.) La Saraghina has been blazed into my memory all these years. Enough so, that last month I wanted to know more. I wanted to see the beach scene again and found it easily on YouTube.
It was as good as I remembered it. Better in some ways because my accrued maturity allowed me to appreciate her more. Fascinating. But who was the actress? What part of Italy was she from? Did she appear in other Fellini movies?
The IMDB revealed that la Saraghina, to my complete and utter surprise, to my everlasting amusement, was played by a woman named Eddra Gale. Who had been an opera singer from Chicago! Of Norwegian descent. She was living in Milan in the early 60s, taking vocal lessons. Fellini saw her on the street one day and asked her to audition for “8 1/2.” She had just the look he was searching for. The rest is cinema history.
And thus it happened that this tempestuous figure, by appearances straight out of classical Italian peasant folklore, was anything but: She was a Scandinavian American from Chicago, of all places. Another cinematic illusion. After this film, she went on to appear in over 100 movies and TV shows including, “The Graduate,” “What’s New Pussycat” and “Somewhere in Time.” She died in New Mexico in 2001.
Obviously, like the other persons I’ve described in this series so far, Ms. Gale and Sig. Fellini had an intent to deceive us. But in a different way. They presented us with a greater and more memorable truth than any mere press clipping or advertisement ever could. The moral: Always remember, my stage-door nephews, that an actress and the role she plays are two different creatures. A great screen role lives forever.
I’ll never forget you, Seraghina. Thank you, Eddra.
Hugh Gilmore is the author of the Kindle Top-100 memoir “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.”