Forbidden Divas: The Four Angels of the (Eurotrash) Apocalypse

The return of David Melville Wingrove —

“To me, you aren’t a man. You’re therapy!” – Ursula Andress, Anyone Can Play

If somebody told you they had seen a film starring Honeychile Ryder, Queen Catherine de Medici, the Goddess Minerva and Eva Kant, you might be forgiven for thinking they had lost the plot. But the key to understanding Italian films of the 60s is to realise that anything could happen and – at some point – probably did. A sort of Desperate Housewives all’italiana, Anyone Can Play (1968) is a gaudy and camp-tastic bauble of a sex farce about four friends who go to colourful and eccentric lengths to get a slice of la dolce vita.

According to the credits, our four leading ladies have other names. One of them is Ursula Andress, the archetypal Bond Girl from Doctor No – and star of later masterworks like Stick ‘Em Up, Darlings and The Mountain of the Cannibal God. Another is Virna Lisi, an Italian sex bomb who proved her mettle some decades later and won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for La Reine Margot. A third is Claudine Auger, a former Miss France who was cast in Le Testament d’Orphée by Jean Cocteau – largely if not entirely for her resemblance to an Ancient Greek goddess. (She too became a Bond Girl, to lesser effect, in Thunderball.) Last but by no means least is Marisa Mell, the star of Ken Russell’s first movie French Dressing and the sexy sidekick to a master criminal in Danger: Diabolik.

A dazzling array, I grant you. The question is…what are they actually to do? Not one of these ladies was used as much more than window dressing in the 60s. (Or, in the case of Andress, as a living and breathing work of art who seemed to be forbidden to act on pain of death.) It feels heartening – perhaps even vaguely subversive – to see them all cast together in a film that trades not only on their looks (which are breathtaking) but also on their sly wit and deadpan humour, their campy flair for self-parody and drop-dead sense of style. It is a rare achievement to make a frivolous and wholly inconsequential movie.  Especially one that does not insult its audience or the people who appear in it. But that is what Anyone Can Play contrives not to do.

It starts with Auger as Esmeralda, a strait-laced provincial housewife whose husband is constantly away on business. She works off her frustrations by racing cars at high speed and has her eye on the Monte Carlo Rally. It would be lying to say she did not also have her eye on a hunky mechanic – but then many a successful marriage is founded on lies. Bored with her spouse and his inattention, she decides to go to Rome and pay a call on her three close friends from way back. All of them live in sumptuous apartments that have a panoramic view of the Colosseum out the window. (In fact, it looks suspiciously like the same one.) Yet otherwise, their lives are in a truly parlous state…

Anna (Andress) is suffering from insomnia because she has a Nightmare on Elm Street-style terror of falling asleep. Every time she does, she has visions not of Freddy Krueger but of a hairy, muscular brute who chases her through a psychedelic glass labyrinth while she is naked apart from a long grey chinchilla coat. Hers is the sort of conundrum that Freud never encountered or, at least, never had the imagination to write about. One afternoon she is driving and falls asleep at the wheel. The traffic cop who comes to fine her (Mario Adorf) is – BINGO! – a dead ringer for the man in her dream. She is happily married to a handsome husband (Brett Halsey) but what’s a girl to do? As Oscar Wilde said, “the one way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

Her pal Luisa (Lisi) has fallen prey to blackmailers due to her extramarital indiscretions. A petty crook (Lando Buzzanca) has an audio tape of her making love to a strange man in a car. (Fear not, the car was parked this time.) The challenge she faces is twofold. First, to come up with some hush money before her husband (Jean-Pierre Cassel) can find out. She resorts to staging a burglary of her own home. Second, to work out which of her multiple lovers the man in questions actually was. For a lady with such a hectic sex life, that is more easily said than done. Lisi’s acting is by far the most polished of the four; she proves herself a high-style farceuse in the mould of Carole Lombard or Myrna Loy.

The most miserable of the four is Paola (Mell) who is married to a stuffy conservative politician (Frank Wolff). Her husband forbids her to have fun in any form – which is why, perhaps, she jumps at a chance to perform a striptease at a high-class charity concert. In a scorchingly erotic sequence, she parades about in a voluminous white mink cloak while unseen men reach out their arms from backstage and peel off her gloves, her stockings, her shoes. It is all in a good cause, naturally. But what will her husband say when her antics threaten to open up a whole new career? Mind you, even he cannot pretend the money would not come in handy…

The one weakness in Anyone Can Play is that its director Luigi Zampa – who also made the temptingly titled Tigers in Lipstick – does not show enough of these formidable women together as a team. Just think what might happen if they met up on the Via Veneto to knock back some Negronis and swap stories about the general inadequacy of men. This feels like a missed opportunity and it all plays a shade too much like one of those portmanteau films that enjoyed such a vogue in the 60s, only one where the editor dropped some LSD and accidentally spliced their four stories together.

Yet the film is still a delight. Given half a chance, any one of its leading ladies could knock out the cast of Desperate Housewives or Sex and the City with one elegantly gloved hand tied – with a Bulgari bracelet, naturally – behind her shapely Fendi-clad back. They did not let just anybody become a star in those days.

David Melville


4 Responses to “Forbidden Divas: The Four Angels of the (Eurotrash) Apocalypse”

  1. Bill Shaffer Says:

    Fascinating! I’ve heard of this film, but never seen it. Seems like there was an English-dubbed version, but it’s disappeared. Is this available in an Italian or English version anywhere?

  2. Bill: A Donna Summer fan seems to have posted a copy to YouTube.

    I have a nagging recollection of having seen this back when Netflix’s offerings were a lot more diverse.

  3. I recognized the name Marisa Mell as she starred in “Mata Hari”, a legendary Broadway-bound 60s musical directed by Vincent Minelli and produced by David Merrick. It’s legendary for being a fiasco, closing out-of-town after an impossibly long, glitch-ridden performance before a VIP audience in Washington D.C.

    Mell was not the problem, but reportedly she didn’t really help matters either.

  4. Yeah, Mell is a sexy screen presence but was rarely called on to carry a show. I’m sure she’d do better on stage than Pia Zadora’s legendary Anne Frank though… (“She’s in the attic!” cried audiences, reputedly.)

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