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Norma Bengell: First Actress to Go Full Frontal in Mainstream Films Dead at 78

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Norma Bengell naked As Cariocas John HerbertNorma Bengell dead at 78: Iconic (and controversial) Brazilian film, stage, television, and recording star made history as the first actress to be seen naked (full frontal) in a mainstream film (image: Norma Bengell and John Herbert in 'As Cariocas')

Norma Bengell, a sort of Brazilian Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Bardot, and Jane Fonda rolled into one, died of lung cancer in her hometown of Rio de Janeiro on October 9, 2013. She was 78. Best known internationally for her leading-lady roles in several Italian-made cult classics of the mid-'60s, Norma Bengell was known in Brazil as a controversial show business veteran and for being the first "name" actress (purportedly anywhere in the world) to be seen fully naked – full frontal – in a mainstream film.

Note: Hedy Lamarr, then billed as Hedy Kiesler, does swim and run around in the nude in Gustav Machaty's 1933 Czech drama Ecstasy. However, Lamarr's naked swimming was disguised by the water, while her naked running was shot from a distance. Also, Lamarr/Kiesler, then a minor actress, was nowhere nearly as well known in Central Europe as Norma Bengell was in Brazil in the early '60s.

Norma Bengell: Early career and groundbreaking Brazilian movies

Born Norma Almeida Pinto Guimarães d'Area Bengell in Rio on Feb. 21, 1935, Norma Bengell started out as a model, later branching out as a performer – or vedete – on Teatro de Revista shows, the Brazilian version of stage revues. In 1959, Bengell recorded her first album, singing – in slightly accented English – Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell's "Fever." (Among the song's American performers are Peggy Lee, Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, Madonna, Bette Midler, and Beyoncé Knowles.)

Bengell's first movie appearance was also in 1959, in Brazil's popular comedy genre chanchada (pronounced sort of like "shun-SHAH-duh"): Carlos Manga's O Homem do Sputnik ("The Sputnik Man"), about an UFO that lands in the hencoop of an enterprising hillbilly – and that may or may not be the remains of the Russian satellite Sputnik. In the film, Bengell plays the Brigitte Bardot parody BêBê.

Three years later, Norma Bengell turned into a national sensation after being featured fully naked in Ruy Guerra's crime drama Os Cafajestes (literally, "The Jerks," or possibly "The Crooks" or "The Thugs"). A classic of the Brazilian New Wave, or Cinema Novo, Os Cafajestes follows two small-time Copacabana crooks out to get some easy money by way of blackmail. Things, however, don't go quite as planned.

According to Bengell, her full frontal nude scene was filmed in one take. Not long before her death, she would also recall being told that because of her role in Os Cafajestes "I'd be lynched and thrown out" in the state of Minas Gerais.

Also in 1962, Norma Bengell proved she was a capable dramatic actress, playing a world-weary prostitute in Anselmo Duarte's classic Keeper of Promises / The Given Word / O Pagador de Promessas, a merciless critique of both the Catholic Church and religious obsession. In the film, Leonardo Villar stars as a peasant from Brazil's Northeastern hinterlands who is prevented from carrying a gigantic cross into the St. Barbara cathedral in Salvador, Bahia – his vow to the saint in question for having saved the life of his donkey. Winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Keeper of Promises became the first Brazilian movie to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.

More Norma Bengell movies: European cult classics

In 1963, Norma Bengell married Italian actor Gabriele Tinti and moved to Italy. According to her own recollections, she lived in the same building as Brigitte Bardot, Rod Steiger, and Cyd Charisse, while Pier Paolo Pasolini was a frequent nightlife companion.

Internationally, the Norma Bengell movies from this period remain her best remembered efforts. Key roles included:

  • Alberto Sordi's wife in Alberto Lattuada's Sicilian-set comedy Mafioso / Il Mafioso (1962), in which Bengell helps Sordi's young Sicilian sister get rid of her mustache;
  • an astronaut stranded with Barry Sullivan, Ángel Aranda, Ivan Rassimov, and others in Mario Bava's Spanish-Italian horror sci-fier Planet of the Vampires / Terrore nello spazio (1965);
  • a saloon hostess embroiled with renegade Confederate soldier Joseph Cotten in Sergio Corbucci's Spaghetti Western The Hellbenders / I crudeli (1967);
  • one of the women – along with Elsa Martinelli, Edwige Feuillère, Rossana Ghessa, and Geneviève Grad – somehow or other involved with Luc Merenda's French spy OSS 117 (later to be spoofed by Jean Dujardin) in Pierre Kalfon's OSS 117 prend des vacances ("OSS 117 Takes a Vacation").

Norma Bengell in Brazil during the military dictatorship

Back in Brazil, now a military right-wing dictatorship whose leaders were firm believers in "traditional family values," Norma Bengell was notably cast in sexually charged and/or psychologically complex roles, such as in the 1966 omnibus dramatic comedy As Cariocas ("The Cariocas" or [female] Rio de Janeiro natives); as a wealthy woman victimized by three burglars in Alfredo Sternheim's 1971 drama Paixão na Praia ("Passion on the Beach"); and, through marriage, as a new member of a highly dysfunctional family – the gay son is kept locked up in a room, hidden from the world – in Paulo César Saraceni's The Murdered House / A Casa Assassinada. For her efforts in the last title, Bengell was chosen as the year's Best Actress by the São Paulo Association of Art Critics.

Apart from the 2002 short O Banquete ("The Banquet"), Norma Bengell's last film appearance was in Paulo Thiago's 1993 comedy-drama Under One Roof / Vagas Para Moças de Fino Trato (literally, "Vacancies for Well-Bred Young Women"), in which she plays a piano teacher who sublets her apartment to two young women (Maria Zilda Bethlem and Lucélia Santos). Bengell, Bethlem, and Santos shared that year's Best Actress Award at the Brasilia Film Festival of Brazilian Cinema.

Norma Bengell movie Noite VaziaNorma Bengell controversies (image: Norma Bengell in Walter Hugo Khouri's 'Eros')

Norma Bengell found herself embroiled in numerous controversies throughout her life. For instance, besides her not infrequently "scandalous" anti-establishment screen roles of the '60s and '70s, she took to the streets to protest against both censorship in the arts and Brazil's military dictatorship.

At the 1985 edition of Rio de Janeiro's FEST RIO, Bengell got into a verbal match with American actress and fellow jury member Ellen Burstyn (Oscar winner for Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) following alleged improprieties at the festival's awards ceremony and Bengell's role in the jury. Presumably to justify her worth as a jury member, the native Portuguese-speaker Bengell bellowed in Spanish: "I am a great actress!"

Norma Bengell: Controversial filmmaker

In later years, Norma Bengell tried her hand behind the camera. In 1987, she directed the biopic Eternamente Pagu ("Eternally Pagu") starring Carla Camurati as artist and political activist Patrícia Galvão. Nine years later, Bengell directed and produced the film adaptation of José de Alencar's classic novel The Guarani / O Guarani, about the forbidden love affair between a Guarani Indian (Márcio Garcia) and a Portuguese woman (Tatiana Issa) in 17th-century Brazil.

Problems arose when the actress-turned-filmmaker was accused of appropriating funds destined for the production of both The Guarani and the unproduced Norma. Following a lawsuit, Bengell was eventually ordered to restitute $15 million reais, or about US$7 million. After years fighting in court and following the death of her close friend and housemate Sonia Nercessian, in 2007 Bengell suffered a nervous breakdown before going on stage for a sold-out performance of The Intimate Memoirs of Madame Shakespeare – her first theatrical role in two decades.

Bengell always maintained her innocence. Referring to the Guarani lawsuit, she would tell the Brazilian magazine Isto É, "They tried to kill me. But I'm still alive."

TV lesbian stereotype

A milder controversy was created by Bengell's bulldyke-ish lesbian character in the sitcom Toma Lá, Dá Cá, as some found her characterization – mannish, vulgar, predatory – a tasteless stereotype. Bengell remained unfazed, telling the media that her character was inspired by a stage manager with whom she had worked.

Of note, Norma Bengell had previously played a mannish plantation owner in Julien Temple's 1987 Mondo Bizarro Running Out of Luck, in which, according to the IMDb synopsis, "a rock singer goes to Brazil to shoot a video, but winds up getting kidnapped and turned over to the oversexed owner of a banana plantation." Co-screenwriter Mick Jagger played the rock singer / himself, with Jerry Hall in tow; Bengell was the oversexed, overbutch banana plantation she-lord.

Norma Bengell: Personal life

In 1969, Norma Bengell and Gabriele Tinti were divorced. Her reported lovers during her European sojourn included actors Renato Salvatore, Jean Sorel, and Alain Delon. Delon, she claimed, gave her a golden heart pendant for the key to their house – in case she would marry him. More recently, she described him as "very weird. What today we'd call 'bisexual.'"

At its 2011 awards ceremony, the Brazilian Academy of Cinema presented Bengell with an Honorary Award. Looking overweight and quite frail, she was enthusiastically applauded. Shortly before her death, however, the wheelchair-bound veteran actress complained that most of her friends had abandoned her now that she had lost all her earnings and was in poor health.

In recent years, Norma Bengell published a book of memoirs, Norma - As Coisas Que Vivi ("Norma - The Things I've Lived") and worked on a as yet unproduced screenplay based on her life: "Tudo por Amor" ("All for Love").

A year before her death, a teary-eyed Norma Bengell told those assembled at a recording of her recollections for the archives of Rio de Janeiro's Museum of Image and Sound: "It was worth it, the sacrifice to get here in my wheelchair. My life has been very beautiful. It still is."

Norma Bengell quote about The Guarani via Isto É; Bengell's quote about Alain Delon and about her "beautiful" life via estadao.com. Photo of Norma Bengell in Walter Hugo Khouri's Eros / Noite Vazia: Vera Cruz Studios.

Norma Bengell quote via estadao.com. Photo of Norma Bengell and John Herbert in As Cariocas: A.A.S. Filmes.

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