Reviving Cabiria

Altered image from the Physog Family party game, via

Women are funny. They’ve always been: Dorothy Parker, Lucille Ball, Goldie Hawn, Mary Tyler Moore, Sei Shonagon, Gertrude Stein, your sister, your mother, the girl who sat next to you in English class. It’s embarrassing that we feel compelled to call roll this way. But ever since Christopher Hitchens wrote the 2007 Vanity Fair article “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” lady pundits have had their panties in a twist scrambling to prove him otherwise. Less incendiary than the title suggests, Hitchens outlines the reasons why women might be less hilarious than men in the aggregate, quoting Fran Lebowitz: “The cultural values are male; for a woman to say a man is funny is the equivalent of a man saying a woman is pretty.”  Hitchens muses that men may actually like a passive, unfunny woman, because “[Men] want them as an audience, not rivals.”  And anyway, if a woman is funny, she is probably, “hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of both.”

A year later, the same magazine commissioned an Annie Lebowitz photo shoot and accompanying article entitled “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?” to put that bad man in his place.  The magazine trotted out the big girls to prove their existence in a glossy full-page photo of Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Tina Fey in spread eagle poses in the back of a limo smoking cigarettes, popping bottles and looking vaguely distracted, enacting a wild night of bad boys on the town image, but in cocktail dresses and Jimmy Choos.  A sharp contrast to Hitchens’ characterization, they were lithe, sexy, and shiksa (or at last half, in Rudolph’s case.) Their names read like an Emmy award red carpet roster, and their visibility and hilarity remains almost universally acknowledged.

But while women are enjoying demonstrable success on the small screen, the big screen remains a wasteland for women in comedy.  There are oodles of examples of hilarious SNL sketches, genius self-produced YouTube clips (google “The Real Housewives of South Boston”) and the endlessly provocative comedy Girls, but women being genuinely, uproariously funny in Hollywood movies just aren’t that common. As Tad Friend wrote in his profile of What’s Your Number? star Anna Faris, “Being funny is the first criterion for comic actors, and somewhere down the list for comic actresses.”  Film critic Manhola Dargis also recognized the trend in a recent review of Jennifer Aniston’s dismal turn in Wanderlust: “Bridesmaids notwithstanding, the women’s liberation movement in comedy has yet to arrive on the big screen.”  Old Hollywood had more steady examples of actresses playing comic roles and engaging in witty repartee, particularly in screwball comedies, like Katherine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, and Carole Lombard.  But these actresses were confined within the tart-tongued romantic dialogue that the genre permitted.  Federico Fellini’s 1957 film Nights of Cabiria, on the other hand, is a stand-out that defies character archetype and genre, due largely to its unsinkable heroine played by the extraordinary Giulietta Masina.

Masina is virtually unknown by my generation, and Nights of Cabiria is tough to access in hard copy.  The Criterion Collection re-released her previous film La Strada, but Nights of Cabiria has not received the same renaissance, even though it won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 1957 and Masina was awarded Best Actress in Cannes in 1957. The real-life wife of Fellini for fifty years, she starred in many of his films, including Ginger and Fred and Juliet of the Spirits.  But no other film than Nights of Cabiria captures Masina’s humorous and dramatic chops, her noodly physical comedy and obstinate resilience, the dogged determination of a character who steadfastly chooses to be an optimist despite all evidence to react otherwise, a comic actress who complicates the genre and the idiotic binary question of Women: Funny or Not?

Still from Fellini's Nights of Cabiria

Nights of Cabiria doesn’t lend itself to classification very easily, and it isn’t easy to file Giulietta Masina’s performance into a certain type, either.  She’s not a manic pixie dream girl, characters played by the likes of Zooey Deschanel who float in and out of the story for the sole purpose of showing the broody male star how fun life can be. She’s not the hot klutz, either. Cabiria is a Thumbelina-size prostitute, (“She really lives the life!” as the neighbor boys say, knowingly elbowing each other in the ribs) and not a very good one; in the role, Masina fluctuates between the waif, the virgin, the whore, the fiery Italian mama with more hand gestures than an umpire. While Cabiria’s colleagues loiter under the arches of the aqueduct on the outskirts of Rome reapplying lipstick, smoking cigarettes, and taking their pimp’s Fiat for a spin, our heroine shows up late in the evening, in tomboyish saddle shoes and socks, a tight black trumpet skirt and a mangy fur coat, brandishing an umbrella that she uses alternately throughout the night as accessory and weapon. Cabiria is an independent contractor, not under the auspices of any man, and is free to go anywhere, from the arches to the tonier plazas of the city. Short blonde bangs and a stubby ponytail frame her round face, which twists into a fist when she flies into rages at anyone who challenges her, her drawn-on black eyebrows furrowing into a V.

When a mambo comes on the car radio, Cabiria explodes into the unself-conscious dance most of us only do behind closed bedroom doors. Masina’s only peer in this arena of physical comedy might be Lucille Ball, but she is from television, so Masina is closer cousins to the Little Tramp - which is why she became known as the female Charlie Chaplin.  Moments later, she’s doing the mambo again, but this time at a fancy nightclub with a famous movie star Alberto Lazzari who picked her up on the Via Veneto, where high-class hookers in hats looked down their Roman noses at her.  Cabiria gets tangled in the velvet curtains and after dancing a few stiff steps of a waltz; she breaks into knock-kneed twists and kicks.  She’s independent, and she owns her own one-room cinder block home, filled with photos of her suitors and rummage sale clothes.  And she’s different.  She separates herself from the other women and takes pride in the luxuries her work ethic provided her.  She boasts to Lazzari, “I have my own house!  With electricity!  Bottled gas!  I got everything!  Even a thermometer!  See this one here? She never slept under the arch!  Well, maybe once… or twice.”  Cabiria cannot be anything but totally transparent, totally forthcoming.  Were she playing the typical waif role, her ingenuous honesty would be cloying.  But since Cabiria is scrappy, these moments make us love her even more.  She is a character, not a caricature.

Lousy men are Cabiria’s Achilles heel.  We first meet Cabiria in the opening scene, a wide shot of a sun-bleached post-War Rome.  Fellini’s neo-realist style documents the half-finished cheap constructions dotting the dusty road, and ragamuffin boys kicking up dirt in the bleak space.  Nights of Cabiria is a big, spacious film, which Fellini achieves with wide shots and long pans over the desolate landscape.  Even in bustling city shots, you feel the length of Cabiria’s commute back to the edge of town.  The feeling of bigness also comes through in the temporal breadth: days bleed into nights and back into days, which Cabiria walks through twirling her umbrella.  In the opening scene, she’s skipping arm and arm with her boyfriend Giorgio.  When they come to a bank of a muddy river, she cranes on tippy toes to kiss him again, but he snatches her purse and pushes her into the water.  As she is bobbing up and down and nearly drowning, the boys jump in to save her. When her friend Wanda hears about what happened and comes to talk to her, Cabiria cannot relinquish her stubborn pride: “Would someone throw you in the river for $40,000 lire?!”

The film is a journey, as we follow Cabiria over the course of a few days or maybe even month (the time isn’t clear, but it mimics the dismal stagnancy of Italy’s postwar recovery) as she grapples with love and fulfillment.  Fellini tours familiar institutions of Italian culture, all of which seem to have lost some majesty after the war.  He skewers the Catholic Church when Cabiria and a caravan of prostitutes journey to an ersatz Lourdes where miracles are said to be performed, but it turns out to be a scam.  “Look at us!  We’re the same!” Cabiria cries between gulps of liquor and taunting nuns.  Disillusioned, she wanders into a smoky music hall full of drunks where a magician pulls her onstage and hypnotizes her to fall in love with a suitor named Oscar.  Under the magician’s spell, she acts like a little girl, picking flowers and talking about her long black hair, portraying her innermost self as a gentle soul, a church girl, the opposite of who she has become.  After she comes to and gets laughed off the stage, but not before shaking her fists and hurling epithets at the blustery men in the audience, she meets a man who claims to be Oscar, who will yet again disappoint by nearly hurling her into the river, a tragic bookend to the story.

Fellini presents dark undertones (homeless cave dwellers, gaunt street urchins) as a foil to Masina’s rollicking performance throughout, but the horseshoe of comedy and tragedy meet in the middle at the end of the film. After scumbag Oscar robs Cabiria of her life savings, she begs him to throw her off the cliff, to kill her because she can’t go on living.  For the first time in the film, she loses her dignity - and it is not funny.  She releases guttural cries, left with no home and no money, probably contemplating returning to her dusty town humiliated.  He makes off with the loot, and after beating the ground with her fists and crying to God to help her, she sinks to sleep in a pile of leaves.  When she wakes up, it is nighttime.  Making her way through a dark wood, she emerges on a side street in the midst of a roaming party filled with strolling musicians, dogs, children, and happy couples circling on Vespas.  She walks through the parade with a tear smudging her mascara.  But as she walks on, she starts to crack her crooked smile, and looks down coquettishly at her feet.  A pretty stranger wishes her buono sera, and the strings swell to composer Nino Roto’s “Ma La Continua” (But Life Continues).  Her tear-filled eyes take in the whole display of life before her and suddenly they are tears of joy.  For a moment, she looks directly into the camera and smiles, and we know Cabiria will be OK.

Because it jumps too quickly from a moment of total despair to buoyancy again, Nights of Cabiria is not pure comedy. Rather, it walks the line between comedy and tragedy, without a sentimental lesson or huge turn of heart.  In the end, Cabiria never learns her lesson, and will continue to live as an ornery, lovelorn yet stubbornly singular woman.  Fellini and his team of four male screenwriters celebrate her obstinate optimism rather than making a morality play out of her foolishness.

Nights of Cabiria inspired the saccharine Broadway musical Sweet Charity, which reduces Masina’s role into a hooker with a heart of gold, who Cabiria is not.  She’s selfish and unctuous, pugnacious and noodley-limbed silly. And though she trades in sex (even though we see her climb into the passenger’s seat of a client’s car only twice in the whole movie), she’s not exactly sexy.  Masina herself said, “It is not as if you feel like a woman in [Fellini’s] films, the way he presents women.  But that is not important.  The success of my roles as Gelsomina (La Strada), Cabiria, or Giulietta (Juliet of the Spirits) with the public and the critics was so great that I didn’t have a problem putting aside my own ambitions to appear larger than life.  Personal vanity did not play a role.”  In otherwords: she got to be funny, but not sexy.  Ironically, Fellini’s next film La Dolce Vita, featured Anita Ekberg in the role of Sylvia, an unattainable dream girl who sighs, giggles, and splashes in fountains.  She is a predecessor to the archetype of the manic pixie dream girl, coined by film critic Nathan Rabin to signify the bubbly chick with no inner life who exists solely to show the brooding male protagonist how fun things can be.  She is whimsical, she is gorgeous, but she is patently not funny.  She doesn’t need to be.  She’s hot.

Ekberg got to be sexy; Masina got to be funny, neither got to be both.  But perhaps this might not have been such a bad thing.  To be a comedic actress in a widely distributed film now, she must be not only hilarious but also porno-chic gorgeous.  And this does not bode well for comedic female roles in Hollywood, because only bland, one-note actresses like Cameron Diaz and Katherine Heigl are called on to play these characters.  The expectations that a comedic actress must be both sexy and funny result in charmless acting, and the same goes for handsome men like Brad Pitt and George Clooney, who are always vaguely funny in their Coen Brothers roles, but they can never wriggle out of the mold of the leading men they are always destined to be. As evidenced in the retaliatory Vanity Fair photo shoot, our comedic actresses must adopt the outlaw personas of their male counterparts while in push-up bras and six-inch tranny heels.  And look like they don’t care.  Masina in saddle shoes would not stand a chance today.

So what do we do?  It is an undeniable fact that there aren’t as many comic roles in film for women, and with the twin criteria of sex appeal and actual comedic chops as a gold standard, it seems like they are drying up.  Maybe there’s a reason for the common conception that women aren’t funny, at least in movies, because we’ve been forced to endure a hot girl farting as our Hepburn, our Lombard, our Masina. So do we, like Mindy Kaling, ignore the question?  Do we pray for mainstream cinema to catch up with TV?  One panacea might be to revive Cabiria and emulate a character who wouldn’t care a fig because she cannot help but be herself-- ridiculous, arrogant, goofy, shaking her fists and dancing.