Franca Valeri : Italy’s Liza Minnelli comes stateside

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday February 3, 2010

Ever hear of the Italian Liza Minnelli? That's the term a PR person gave me when they pitched a story about Franca Valeri. It piqued my interest, and what I learned is although the work of this nearly 90 year-old multi-media satirist has yet to inspire gay men to dress up like her and create a nightclub act, the comparison to Liza is nevertheless a sharply observed one.

"In Italy, Franca Valeri is an icon for what and who she is." That's the assessment of Laura Caparrotti, of Kairos Italy Theater. Through February 21, Kairos will present Franca Valeri's play Tosca and the Two Downstairs. Caparrotti directs and co-stars (along with Marta Mondelli).

Caparrotti, who first met Valeri after writing a thesis on her (while at the University of Rome circa 1990), notes that the artist has been talking about gay-specific issues since the 1950s. It was a time when the mere mention of gay sexuality in theatrical monologues, TV shows and movies caused a stir (if not a scandal).

A pioneer

Valeri’s pioneer spirit, Caparrotti says, cemented the icon status she currently holds in Italy: "If you think of the 50s and 60s, being gay meant you were sick. She started to talk about gay issues in a subtle way; not political, but always putting in her shows something."

The bravery, defiance and conviction Valeri brought to her work from over 60 years ago is all the more remarkable when, Caparrotti notes, "you think about Italy now. Being gay is still not so easy. There have been a lot of beating of gays in the streets. We are a Catholic country, and the church is always against the concepts of homosexuality."

Homos may be sinners, according to Catholic doctrine. But according to Valeri, they also make great pals! Asked to explain her icon status, Valeri sheepishly but sincerely admits: "It’s true, I am a favorite of the Italian gay community and, when I was acting in France, of the French one. The reason is simple. First of all, I have never seen being gay like being a ’problem,’ I always had a lot of gay friends, great and important. The admiration I get from the gay community is kind and intelligent. When there are gays in the theater I feel it at once as they react with perfect timing to the sharpest and most subtle jokes."

Now is the guilt creeping in that you don’t know her work? This humbled reporter only learned during the course of research that Franca Valeri has starred in over 50 movies and done a slew of radio, plays, and theatrical monologues. Quite a few of them, she also wrote. While not out hobnobbing with her gay friends, she’s also found the time to teach. Story continues on the following page.

Watch this clip of Franca Valeri from Italian television in the 1960s.

Queer appeal

Caparrotti’s take on Valeri’s enduring appeal to gays is the fact that no matter the medium she’s working in at any given moment, "She talks about anything and everything, and she never tries to give her opinion as if she is right." As for the material itself, "She’s using satire in a very sophisticated way so you have a thought or opinion.

"She has a monologue where a mother talks about her son, raving about him, but saying ’I would like to see him with a wife, he’s 37.’ Slowly, you understand her son is gay. At the end, you don’t know if she knows and she’s afraid to say it, or if she doesn’t know. Here is a mother with a gay son dealing with it, and having the audience decide if she knows or doesn’t know."

For pure queer appeal, there’s Parigi O Cara (Paris O Dear). Written by and starring Franca Valeri in 1962, it’s now a cult movie.

Caparrotti explains that the movie concerns, among other things, "this girl who’s a prostitute who decides to change her life by going to Paris. Her brother is there. The brother picks her up, and one question the sister asks is ’Are you homosexual?’ He says yes. At that time, to put that on the screen was a big deal." It was also timely social commentary, because the situation for gays in Italy was so bad, "many were going to France to have a normal life."

"I don’t think she did this film to make a political point. It was just a fact that a lot of gays had to emigrate."

2010 finally sees a Valeri work in a NYC theater. Why should queers beat feet over to Chelsea to see this American premiere? Valeri offers one good reason: "With Tosca e le Altre Due (Tosca and the Two Downstairs), I am speaking to the big Opera lovers, and we all know that gays love Opera. Here though, the great and unforgettable icon is Maria Callas."

Tosca e le Altre Due (Tosca And The Two Downstairs), written by Franca Valeri, directed by Laura Caparrotti, is performed in Italian with projected English supertitles from a translation by Natasha Lardera. February 3 through 21, 2010 at The Cell, 338 West 23rd Street, NYC. For tickets, call 800-838-3006. For more information, visit the .

Watch this clip of Franca Valeri from Italian television in the 1960s.

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.