British film rivals in race to tell Maria Callas’s love story
Two British screenplays are competing for the chance to be the first to tell the compelling life story of the opera star Maria Callas on film.
This summer, as guests attending the Cannes film festival gathered for cocktails on the terrace of the exclusive Martinez hotel to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Pier Paolo Pasolini's acclaimed film Medea, with Callas in the non-singing title role, the soprano's close associations with glamour and the cinema were never more evident.
On display at the hotel was a selection of jewellery from Callas's private collection, including her white diamond "La Traviata" necklace, showcased alongside unseen photographs of the singer with stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly. But what the guests at the Martinez did not know was that, just along the Croisette, producers were busy with plans to bring the full life story of the adored singer, known popularly as La Divina, to the screen as quickly as possible.
This weekend the secret is out. The British production house Future Films has announced it is about to start work on Callas, a feature film with a screenplay based on the best-selling Callas biography So Proud, So Fragile, by the Italian author Alfonso Signorini. A-list stars Anne Hathaway and Penélope Cruz are rumoured to be in talks about taking the lead role in a joint British and Italian venture that will focus on the singer's tempestuous relationship with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. The screenplay has been written by Niall Johnson, who wrote the 2005 Rowan Atkinson comedy Keeping Mum, and it has been delivered to the film-makers in the past few days.
Producer Stephen Margolis hopes that Callas will take a similar shape to the recent, acclaimed BBC4 film about the life of ballerina Margot Fonteyn, a drama that placed an equal emphasis on the star's dedicated artistry and the emotional impact of becoming internationally famous.
"There is a real fascination with this kind of biographical work," said Margolis. "People may well know the name of Callas, but they do not know what drove her on. We are hoping to tell the kind of story that films such as La Vie en Rose and Amadeus have told."
Margolis added that, while the soprano's beautiful voice was far from a curse, her talent was a burden. "There was an implied obligation to deliver. She had to struggle not only with myopia that left her almost blind on stage, but also to compete with her great rival, the Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi. The two singers were pitted against each other constantly."
The impetus behind the film came from Italian film producer Nicola De Angelis and his team, who own the rights to the Signorini biography, said Margolis. They first approached Future Films this year with a project that will concentrate on the effects of the singer's relationship with Onassis and on her transformation in mid-life from "quite a heavy woman into a svelte and glamorous woman".
News of a second British film project to chronicle the life of Callas came in the summer. Greek Fire is to star the American Eva Mendes, and will have a screenplay by the Oscar-winning Julian Fellowes. The script is based on Nicholas Gage's biography. "I'm currently working on the second draft," said Fellowes this weekend.
The writer, who also scripted Robert Altman's Gosford Park, confirmed his screenplay covers the ground laid out in Gage's biography. Like the rival film, Greek Fire focuses on the love affair between Callas and Onassis. Gage sees them as two kindred spirits who found a genuinely romantic partnership until Onassis betrayed Callas by marrying the widowed Jackie Kennedy in 1968.
Part of the singer's life has already been filmed, in 2002 by Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, and in 1995 American playwright Terrence McNally wrote Master Class, a piece for the stage that celebrated her extraordinary presence and won the Tony award for best play the following year.
Source: Guardian Online