Valentina Cortese, an Italian post-war screen diva who was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar but lost out to Ingrid Bergman, died on Wednesday. She was 96.
Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala announced the death of the Milan-born actress in a tweet, thanking Cortese for having “given us marvellous and unforgettable” performances on the screen and stage.
Cortese was a popular muse for leading Italian directors including Michelangelo Antonioni and Franco Zeffirelli.
She garnered an Oscar nomination in 1975 playing a fading diva in Francois Truffaut’s ‘Day for Night’, a movie about making movies.
While Cortese didn’t win the Academy Award for best-supporting actress, she was showered with praise by the actress who did clinch it that year: Ingrid Bergman for her performance in ‘Murder on the Orient Express’.
In an elegant acceptance speech devoted to Cortese, Bergman said the Italian actress had given “the most beautiful performance” in ‘Day for Night’ by playing an ageing actress who forgets her lines like “all we actresses” do sooner or later.
“I’m her rival, and I don’t like it at all,” Berman said and gestured toward a smiling Cortese in the audience. “Please forgive me, Valentina.”
In an odd twist, the Truffaut film had won in the best foreign language film category a year earlier. But Cortese was only nominated the following year in the supporting actress category.
Cortese won acclaim too as a stage actress. Her performances at Milan’s Piccolo Theater included roles in works by Brecht, Goldoni and Pirandello, directed by Giorgio Strehler, one of the theatre’s co-founders and a long-time companion.
The theatre will hold a wake for her on Thursday and Friday.
The theatre in a statement mourned the loss of a “splendid, elegant, iconic” actress.
Cortese’s film career included roles in Federico Fellini’s ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ and Zeffirelli’s ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon’.
Her film career began in the 1940s. She stood out in a field filled with other beautiful and talented Italian women on the screen, including Alida Valli, Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren.
But by the early 1950s, she had returned from Hollywood. She appeared in ‘The Barefoot Contessa’, the 1954 Joseph L Mankiewicz film, which starred Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart and which was filmed in Italy.
In a 2012 interview with Rome daily La Repubblica, Cortese said “I could have remained in Hollywood for who knows how long, but I never made compromises. Never was in a producer’s bed,” although she claimed, without naming names, that “because of a ‘no’ to one, I was destroyed.”
In the same interview, she called theatre “my true passion.”
Cortese married actor Richard Basehart, with whom she starred with in the thriller ‘The House of Telegraph Hill’. Both Basehart, and their son, Jackie Basehart, an Italian-American actor, died before her.