Dolce Vita Confidential by Shawn Levy, 464 pp. W.W Norton & Company, Inc. $27.95. Review by Ron Steinman
In the early 1960s I worked on several documentary films for NBC News that took me to Europe. Over the many weeks abroad, I always spent some time working in Rome. I remember vividly the nights after shooting and dinner. We would wander over to the Via Veneto, Rome’s busiest and most fashionable good time street. After a few drinks while looking for a celebrity or two among the so-called beautiful people, and sometimes after a late snack of Roman pastry and an espresso, we would walk back to our hotel to get a night’s sleep and prepare for our next day’s activity.
Those markedly innocent nights, especially in the warm Rome weather when sitting on the Via Veneto in the hustle and bustle of the city’s nightlife, were just that — innocent. I knew much of the role Italy played in the world’s popular culture. but I took that history for granted. Because today we spend most of out time in the present, we often forget the past and its impact on how we think, how we act and if it is in us, and we have the capacity to do so, how we create. Case in point is the remarkable part Italy played in our artistic life in the last century, especially the years after World War II and how the world of cinema, of literature and fashion still resonates today even if some do not recognize what it has given us.
Now comes a new book, “Dolce Vita Confidential,” by Shane Levy, Norton, that puts 1950s Rome into perspective. Replete with solid history and enough gossip to fill even an incurious mind, Levy writes with ease, expertise and with confidence about an important era and the men and women, the power brokers, producers, writers and directors who masterfully created art forms that have influenced much of movie making in the 20th Century and into the 21st. The worlds of film and fashion dominate the book. Levy even has time for critical appraisals of many of the movies cited in his work.
Reading the book you will learn much about life in Italy before World War II as the precursor to the 1950s after the war ended. There are stories about romance, love, love affairs, murder, heavy drinking and drugs, divorce, and scandals galore. There are stories about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and the making of “Cleopatra.” We get insight into Anita Ekberg, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, Gary Grant, Tyrone Power, Gina Lollobrigida, Anna Magnani, Sophia Loren, and even King Farouk of Egypt, just to name a few of the players who grace these pages. In the world of fashion, the author has stories about Pucci, Valentino and Brioni, among others.
There are profiles of Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paulo Pasolini, and Vitorio DeSica, Luchino Visconti and other great directors who changed forever how anyone makes films. Immediately after World War II, Italian filmmakers, often because of small budgets and a deep-seated social need, gave us films dominated by naturalism, realism and impressionism. In time small budgets gave way to bigger budgets. Major stars emerged. Movies were box office hits. But social commentary still dominated movie making even though life grew better for the average Italian.
In the mix is the often tawdry story of the growth and rise of the paparazzi, and the way those daring and sometimes unprincipled photographers changed forever how the world of popular culture was covered by the press.
In reading this book you will get profiles of the famous and the infamous, snatches of life before and after in 1950s Italy, plenty about life inside that world, all the bold face names you could handle, and hopefully, lead you on a journey to view the great movies of that era. It will be worth the trip.