In memory of Franco Zeffirelli, who just died at the age of 95, I’ve decided to excavate two of my old epinions about movies he directed. The one that knocked me out when I was 18 was “Romeo and Juliet’ (with a very memorable musical theme by Nino Rota). My review of “Forever Callas” is primarily a tribute to the great Fanny Ardant who played Callas in her twilight years:
I’m not sure that admiring the artistry of Maria Callas is necessary for enjoying Franco Zeffirelli’s mighta-/shoulda-been tale in “Forever Callas.” Someone who dislikes Callas’s voice or opera in general would probably not like the movie, despite the splendid acting of Fanny Ardant as Callas and Jeremy Irons’s deftest performance in years. “Forever Callas” is operatic, not just a film about a great opera star in anguished retirement.
The premise of the movie is that, in 1977, a gay music producer, Larry Kelly (Irons), who used to work in opera but has found the antics of rock groups easier to deal with than the demands of opera divas, jets into Paris, and, taking time off from his new line of musical performers, visits Callas, the prima donna assoluta of the 20th century. She is a despondent wreck, a recluse popping pills and drowning her sorrows in liquor. Her devoted housekeeper begs Kelly to find something to get Callas out of her wallow.
In a scene that should be wrenching to anyone who has ever watched the puzzled despair of someone with great gifts and a keen awareness of having lost them, he sees Callas on her apartment floor intently and despairingly reliving the agonized final aria of “Madame Butterfly” to her own recording (conducted by Karajan and oddly missing from the closing credit). Ardant in this scene is a match for Callas the actress, and Callas was a very great actress (as she showed in the non-singing role of Medea in Pasolini’s adaptation of Euripides’s ancient tragedy). This Callas is not like Norma Desmond, because she is painfully aware of what she has lost: her instrument more than her career. Worse still, it was not simply lost but squandered, so guilt is mixed into the mourning.
Kelly has an idea, though no confidence of being able to convince la Callas. The idea is to film her and to use her recordings from before she destroyed her voice (lip-synching). She eventually consents to try doing “Carmen” for the cameras, Carmen being a role she had recorded by had never performed on stage (and therefore had only worked out the vocal part of performing the role). The production of the movie within a movie is a bit overripe, and I’d question the intimacy of the motion picture camera recording a 50-something actress in the role of the fiery young woman. Would I want to see Callas lip-synching Callas in “Carmen”? Well, yes. Indeed, I find Ardant lip-synching Callas pretending to lip-synch Callas’s Carmen pretty fascinating. Ardant even has the Callas lip tremolo down (not that this is the most important part of the impersonation, but it is an impressive impersonation). I’d prefer “Tosca” or one of her Bellini roles, but “Carmen” is probably the most commercially viable one (one that was very well filmed in 1984 with Julia Migenes Johnson in the title role and Plácido Domingo as Don José).
Ardant’s Callas throws her weight around, making the film director (Manuel de Blas) hellish. Larry quells her insecure rages and she is warmed by the adulation of her coworkers, particularly the very obviously endowed leading man playing Don José (the former “Mr. Italy,” Gabriel Garko). Meanwhile, Larry is embarked on a relationship with a white South African painter (and Callas fan) named Michael (Jay Rodan). Larry’s amours and, indeed, existence are subordinate to rescuing and bringing to new audiences the legendary diva Maria Callas.
Knowing going into the movie that there are no movies of Callas lip-synching her old recordings, I don’t think that it counts as a plot-spoiler to note that as Kelly is preparing to begin a movie of “La Traviata” backed with his own money, the perfectionist Callas backs out and asks that “Carmen” not be released. She does this on a beautifully filmed picnic in a park with no histrionics. Again, Ardant is extraordinary making a plea to protect her integrity as an artist. Callas died in 1977 without making any feature film except the aforementioned nonsinging, despairing, and electrifying “Medea.” Her recordings continue to sell briskly.
I don’t understand why this movie, released in Europe in 2002, has not had a general theatrical release in the US and is not available on videotape or DVD. I thought that Ardant gave the most impressive performance in “Eight Women” and has been memorable in many roles since François Truffaut starred her as “The Woman Next Door” and “Confidentially Yours” (for instance, her Duchesse de Guermantes in “Swann in Love” and Madame de Blayac in “Ridicule”). Ardant conveys the fiery temperament, the terrors beneath the flamboyant diva tantrums, the artist’s steely perfectionist resolve, the aging star’s flirting, and the great artist beseeching her friend to suppress something with which she is not satisfied (not all at the same time!). And Ardant looks great in the dresses (Chanel ones, I’m told) and hats.
I’ve thought that Jeremy Irons was becoming quite stale playing one devastated obsessive lover after another, and his slyly witty performance in “Forever Callas” is a welcome relief (I mean for the viewer, but probably for the actor, as well). The other parts are well-played (with the tough but tender Joan Plowright reprising various of her roles), and there is a massive infusion of the real Callas’s recordings. And the tragedy is genuine, especially since Callas was a great actress and a great teacher and had much to give when her never-reliable voice gave out (and her heart was trampled by the caddish Aristotle Onassis… in what could make another opera if there was another Puccini around to write the music for it).
©2004, 2019, Stephen O. Murray
(From the NY Times obituary of Callas: Dario Soria, former head of Angel Records, the label on which Miss Callas’s recordings have been issued in this country, and now director of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, had remained a steadfast friend. He said yesterday that he had talked by phone to the singer last summer, and that she sounded remote in spirit. In response to a query as to what she was doing, she told him in a flat voice, “Nothing.” “Without being able to perform,” Mr. Soria said, “she apparently had nothing left to live for.”)