This article on Isa Miranda was written by Chiara Ricci, author of the newly released book “Anna Magnani. Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore.” It has been translated from Italian.
Trying to explain what Isa Miranda means to Italian cinema is not easy because of her life-long sensibility, her professional choices, and her unique and rare gift of versatility and being able to adapt under every circumstance.
Isa Miranda worked in Italy, in Switzerland, in France, in the United Kingdom, and in the USA. She is the first Italian actress – after Rodolfo Valentino and Francesca Bertini – to be called to Hollywood to sign a contract with Paramount.
Isa Miranda was born in Milan as Ines Isabella Sampietro, a humble peasants’ daughter. She managed, only with her strength and her ambition for a better life, to become one of the most important actresses during the period 1934–1944. In 1934, her true entrance in the world of cinema came with her performance in La signora di tutti, directed by Max Ophüls, where she is Gaby, a young femme fatale. After becoming a star of Italian cinema, Isa made her way to Hollywood.
In 1937, with producer Alfredo Guarini (who she will marry in 1939 in Tucson, Arizona) Isa traveled to the USA to get away from a fascist cinema. She was considered an antagonist of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. The star system worked on her image and attitude, creating the appearance of an unattainable woman, much like the other female stars of the day.
Miranda does not consider herself a diva, but an actress. In the USA, she takes part in two films: Hotel Imperial (1939) directed by Robert Florey with Ray Milland, and Adventures in Diamonds (1940) directed by George Fitzmaurice, the same director of Mata Hari. But these films are not successful. The relationship between Miranda and the American star system is not idyllic. Adding to this stress is the outbreak of the war, and more importantly, the illness of Isa’s mother. This brings an end to Isa’s American adventure, and in 1940, she returns to Italy where she finds many surprises. Because of her antifascist opinions, Isa runs into a lot of problems with the regime and with other actresses. The press receives orders from higher-ups, forbidding them to talk to, write about, or advertise Miranda. In fact, her return to Italy is completely unpublicized and her career comes to a halt. Her husband tries to help by producing and directing three of her films between 1940 and 1942, without success: Senza cielo, E’ caduta una donna and Documento Z3.
Finally, things begin to turn around. It is 1942 and Mario Soldati wants Isa Miranda to be Marina in Malombra, a film inspired by Antonio Fogazzaro’s novel of the same name. This is a great success! The same year, Renato Castellani chooses her for the title role in Zazà. In this film, a singer falls in love with a married man, so she decides to leave him to his family, sacrificing her love. This is another success and the public discovers a new Isa Miranda.
These films are two gems in Miranda’s filmography where she is in her maturity as an actress, finding the perfect balance between herself and her characters. In fact, she loves to study, to create her roles, but she wants to live them, to have them, to build them, and to cry and to laugh with them, too! She wants to be the character, and she wants to give it life by inserting her vitality and her temper.
Then Miranda divides herself between Italy and France where she makes other films, though they pass almost unseen: La carne e l’anima by Wladimiro Strichewsky (1943), Lo sbaglio di essere vivo by Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia (1945) and L’avventura comincia domani by Richard Pottier (1947). But in 1949, things change. René Clément directs her with Jean Gabin in Le mura di Malapaga. In this film, she is Marta, a hostess who falls in love to a man who is wanted by the police for homicide. She hides him, but in the end, he is arrested. Thanks to this part, Miranda wins the International Gran Prix as Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival and the New York filmgoers vote her the Best Foreign Actress of 1949–1950.
In 1950, she again works in France with director Max Ophüls. She takes part in La ronde, inspired by the namesake piece written by Arthur Schnitzler. It is a choral film and tells how love is like a merry-go-round. After this film Miranda will have only little parts, short presences in film that are unimpressive, for example: Cameriera bella presenza offresi (1951) directed by Giorgio Pàstina, I sette peccati capitali directed by Eduardo De Filippo (1952) in the episode Avarizia e ira and in the forth episode of Donne where she is directed by Luigi Zampa. This last performance is one of her most intense; she tells about the pain of not having children and her deep feeling of motherhood.
Miranda is almost completely forgotten in Italy and decides to work abroad: in France with Prima del diluvio (1954) directed by André Cayatte, Il tradimento di Elena Marimon (1954) directed by Georges Combret; in the USA she takes a part alongside Katherine Hepburn in Summertime (1955), directed by David Lean.
In Italy, she has only a few short roles in Arrivano i dollari! (1957) directed by Mario Costa with Alberto Sordi, Nino Taranto, Riccardo Billi, Mario Riva and in Gli sbandati directed by Mario Costa.
It is hard to understand and to explain why her career is so varied. She is not stereotypical because she gives life to so many different women; to think differently would be to misunderstand her work. But it is true that she chose to play all these women after 1946, to help her husband following a financial breakdown. So she appears in La corruzione by Mauro Bolognini (1963), La noia by Damiano Damiani (1963), Lo chiameremo Andrea by Vittorio De Sica (1972) and Il portiere di notte by Liliana Cavani (1974). These are Miranda’s last performances and we see the same professionalism and seriousness as she had at the beginning of her career.
Finally, she decides to live in England. It is difficult for her because she has to start over with nothing. She works as babysitter and as secretary. But she has no regrets; she has a perfect inner-balance, and she is happy about what life has given her. Even today, Isa Miranda is the representation of Italian (and international) cinema and of an era. She is the girl from Milan and the perfect diva; she is the femme fatale, and the mother she never became in real life; she is the secretary and the muse of the most important painters of last century. She is Isa Miranda. She is always Ines Isabella Sampietro, La signora di tutti.
I would like to thank Chiara Ricci for the hard work that went into writing this article. Please take a moment to visit Chiara’s website at www.riccichiara.com and purchase a copy of her new book!