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 February 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.
["Dead at 78: Iconic, Groundbreaking Brazilian Actress Norma Bengell" continues on the next page. See link below.]
Norma Bengell quote via estadao.com. Photo of Norma Bengell and John Herbert in As Cariocas: A.A.S. Filmes.