Rossana Podestà dies: 'Helen of Troy' actress later featured in sword-and-sandal spectacles & risqué sex comedies
Rossana Podestà, the sensual star of the 1955 epic Helen of Troy and other sword-and-sandal European productions of the 1950s and 1960s – in addition to a handful of risqué sex comedies of the 1970s – died earlier today, Dec. 10, in Rome according to several Italian news outlets. Podestà was 79.
She was born Carla Dora Podestà on Aug. 20, 1934, in, depending on the source, either Zlitan or Tripoli, in Libya, at the time an Italian colony. According to the IMDb, the renamed Rossana Podestà began her film career in 1950, when she was featured in a small role in Dezsö Ákos Hamza's Strano appuntamento (“Strange Appointment”). However, according to online reports, she was actually discovered by director Léonide Moguy, who cast her in a small role in the 1951 drama Tomorrow Is Another Day / Domani è un altro giorno, starring Pier Angeli and Aldo Silvani.
Her rise was swift. By 1952, Rossana Podestà was playing Ophelia (as Ofelia) to Erminio Macario's Hamlet (Amleto) in Giorgio Simonelli's Hamlet spoof, Io, Amleto (“I, Hamlet”); the following year, she was the female lead in Emilio Fernández's Mexican-made – and mostly silent – Rossana / La Red, playing the homonymous Rossana, a woman who becomes the object of desire of two friends/ex-cons. Her next big film was the English-language spectacle Ulysses / Ulisse (1954), directed by Mario Camerini (who replaced G.W. Pabst), and starring Kirk Douglas in the title role, alongside Silvana Mangano as Circe and Penelope and Anthony Quinn as Antinoos; Rossana Podestà, for her part, was cast as Nausicaa.
Rossana Podestà as 'Helen of Troy'
For Helen of Troy, which never quite became the mammoth blockbuster it was intended to be, Rossana Podestà was cast in the title role as the Face That Launched a Thousand Ships. If online reports are to be believed, contenders for the part included Hollywood stars Lana Turner, Elizabeth Taylor, Rhonda Fleming, Ava Gardner, and Yvonne De Carlo, but director Robert Wise selected Podestà – who had to take a crash course in English – while attending the Cannes Film Festival. Stanley Baker co-starred as Achilles, alongside Jacques Sernas (dubbed by Edmund Purdom) as Paris, Cedric Hardwicke as Priam, and Torin Thatcher as Ulysses.
According to reports, the Helen of Troy production was beset with problems, including a fire that ravaged much of the film's Italian set, and injuries to both crew members and actors. Rossana Podestà herself didn't escape unscathed, hurting her foot and developing an eye problem. (Diane Kruger would play Helen of Troy in Wolfgang Petersen's 2004 international blockbuster Troy, starring Brad Pitt as Achilles and Orlando Bloom as Paris, and featuring Peter O'Toole as Priam and Sean Bean as Odysseus a.k.a. Ulysses. Additionally, Sienna Guillory played Helen in John Kent Harrison's 2003 TV movie Helen of Troy.)
Rossana Podestà: Sensuous star of sword-and-sandal spectacles
Following Ulysses and Helen of Troy, the Rossana Podestà previously seen in smaller, neo-realist Italian dramas and comedies – e.g., Valerio Zurlini's Le ragazze di San Frediano (“The Young Women of San Frediano,” 1955) – was replaced by the sensuous star of several peplum (a.k.a. sword-and-sandal) spectacles. Those included Sergio Grieco and Franco Prosperi's Slave of Rome / La schiava di Roma (1961), in the title role opposite Guy Madison; Antonio Margheriti's The Golden Arrow (1962), with Tab Hunter; and Robert Aldrich's superspectacle Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), also starring Stewart Granger, Pier Angeli, and Stanley Baker.
During that period, Rossana Podestà could also be seen acting sensuously in (or out of) modern dress, whether supporting Esther Williams and Jeff Chandler in the Richard Wilson-directed misfire Raw Wind in Eden (1960), or frolicking with Magali Noël, Dawn Addams, and Christian Marquand on a deserted island in Edmond T. Gréville's Temptation / L'île du bout du monde (1959).
Later years: Marco Vicario's sex comedies & off-screen relationship with Walter Bonatti
From 1953-1976, Rossana Podestà was married to film multitasker Marco Vicario (88 last September 20), whose credits as director and screenwriter include Seven Golden Men / 7 uomini d'oro (1965), a caper movie starring Podestà at her sexiest and the winner of the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalist's Best Producer Award (equivalent to Best Film); and the psychological sex drama Wifemistress / Mogliamante (1977), starring Laura Antonelli in the title role and Marcello Mastroianni as the husband/voyeur. Podestà and Vicario had two sons, television directors Francesco Vicario and Stefano Vicario.
Podestà's film career began winding down following the Seven Golden Men sequel Il grande colpo dei 7 uomini d'oro (“The Big Swindle of the Seven Golden Men,” 1966), also directed by Marco Vicario. In the 1970s, she was seen in only a handful of movies, most notably in two sex comedies directed and co-written by her husband:
- Homo Eroticus (1971), featuring Rossana Podestà as the wife of a businessman (Luciano Salce) whose errand boy (Lando Buzzanca) has three testicles – an “enhancement” that makes him irresistible to every woman and a boundless source of enjoyment to one voyeur husband;
- The Sensuous Sicilian / Paolo il caldo (literally, “Paolo, the Hot One,” 1973), in which Podestà is one of the women in the life of the sexually insatiable nobleman Paolo (Giancarlo Giannini).
Rossana Podestà's last film appearances were in supporting roles in Luigi Cozzi's neo-sword-and-sandal box office dud Hercules (1983), starring Lou Ferrigno and Sybil Danning; and, as the mother of a terrorist, in Giuseppe Bertolucci's well-received drama Segreti segreti (“Secrets Secrets,” 1985), also featuring Mariangela Melato, and veterans Alida Valli, Stefania Sandrelli, and Lea Massari.
Since 1981, Rossana Podestà's off-screen companion was mountain climber and journalist Walter Bonatti, a superstar in Italy. He died in September 2011. At the time, Podestà complained of being mistreated by the staff of the hospital where Bonatti was receiving care, for she was not officially his wife. A year after Bonatti's death, she published Walter Bonatti: Una vita libera (“Walter Bonatti: A Free Life”).
Rossana Podestà death
Rossana Podestà's passing is the latest in the film world, following the recent deaths of The Fast and the Furious' Paul Walker, British actress Jean Kent (Trottie True), French filmmaker Edouard Molinaro (La Cage aux Folles), and, yesterday, three-time Best Actress Oscar nominee and The Sound of Music co-star Eleanor Parker (who, coincidentally, also co-starred with Ulysses' Kirk Douglas in Detective Story; Douglas turned 97 yesterday).
Jacques Sernas and Rossana Podestà Helen of Troy image: Warner Bros.