How a Baton Rouge girl became an Italian movie star
It might have been my mom who spotted the article on the financial page of the State-Times. “Italian Movie Firm to Shoot Film in Area,” it announced. A crew was in Baton Rouge shooting scenes for The American Wife, a movie about “an Italian traveling in the United States on a ten-day visa who is seeking an American wife so he can remain in the country permanently.”
The search was on for a girl to play a feature role, “the daughter of a southern family.” Auditions were being held at Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge on Airline Highway that very evening.
The idea of an Italian movie being shot in my town was mesmerizing. I had been dazzled by Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which my friend Alan and I had seen at a local drive-in theater. I rarely missed a new release at the Varsity Theatre near LSU, which showed all the latest “art films.” Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and their ilk were gods and goddesses to me.
A student at LSU, I had played Emily in Teen Town Theatre’s production of Our Town and had a couple of meaty roles in Baton Rouge Little Theatre productions. I had no film experience, but I figured 'What the Heck.'
It was November 1964, and I was decidedly out of step with most of my peers at the university. Bouffant was de rigueur then, but I went for a European look, wearing my auburn hair long and straight. I yearned to get to Europe, an obsession since grade school. I hung out with a bohemian crowd of poets, artists, hippies—we were what the Godard movie called a Band of Outsiders.
When I showed up for the audition, one of the aspiring actresses waiting to talk to the producers was Margaret Ann Rodriguez, another Teen Town and BRLT regular, who had edged me out for Teen Town’s Best Actress award a couple of years earlier. Uh-oh.
Director Gian Luigi Polidoro was a tall, skinny, slightly goofy-looking man with a mustache and a kind smile. I showed “Igi” some still photos a friend had taken of me. We chatted a bit, and he asked me to return the next day, Saturday.
Back I went. I don’t recall being asked to read lines from a script, although that may have happened. I do remember being asked to stand near the pool while a photographer took pictures of me squinting into the sun.
Among the crew members on hand that day was the young production manager John Avildsen, who would later win the 1977 Oscar as Best Director for Rocky. He was skateboarding around the pool while his pretty wife Melissa cautioned him to “Be careful on that thing.”
As auditions go, it was all pretty casual, but I was eventually advised that I had the role. Igi introduced me to Maurizio, the wardrobe man, and told me Maurizio would go home with me to look through my closet and select appropriate “costumes” for the movie. (Can you say low budget?)
My somewhat bemused parents ushered Maurizio into my bedroom, where he pawed through the closet and chose outfits—a red-white-and-blue-plaid skirt and white sweater; maroon and white hounds tooth knickers with a maroon sweater.
I wore the knickers, with knee socks and loafers, the next day at the Laplace drag strip, where they shot my first scene. The place was loud and wild. Evidently the Italians were thrilled with this slice of Americana, for they captured engines revving loudly, flags going up, and hotrods racing in pairs. On instructions from Igi, I cheered wildly for “Johnny”—my “boyfriend,” who won his race—then dashed across the infield to give him a congratulatory kiss.
Monday, I was back in class at LSU. That evening’s State-Times ran a photo of me and a story about my landing the role. Friends and family members started calling. My aunt and uncle sent a telegram: “Telephone too busy. Congratulations.” Soon the Morning Advocate and the Times-Picayune ran stories, too. Even LSU’s student paper The Reveille carried the news. It was all a bit surreal.
Tuesday, I was back on set, this time at the Howard Johnson’s restaurant on Airline Highway. We shot the scene in which I meet the film’s star, Ugo Tognazzi. He played Riccardo, who wants to marry an American so he can stay in this country. He is best known today for the French comedy La Cage aux Folles, but although he was a big star in Europe then, few people in this country had heard of him.
In that first scene, we sat at a lunch counter at a ninety-degree angle from each other. He was drinking coffee and I was sipping at a straw stuck in a chocolate soda in a gigantic goblet. The concoction looked as big as my head. Broke, Ugo realized he couldn’t pay his bill and began quietly crying. I observed his distress, grabbed my wallet and offered him money, which he eventually accepted, even letting me add a tip.
In our next scene I was driving a yellow Mustang convertible, with Ugo in the passenger seat. I blithely drove through a police checkpoint without stopping. As a motorcycle cop pulled alongside of us, Ugo pointed to me and said, “She’s my daughter.” The cop nodded and drove away. (Although we shot it on Airline Highway, according to the script, this scene took place in Texas. I was playing an unlicensed fifteen-year-old running away from home in her daddy’s car and headed to her grandmother’s house in Louisiana.)
I have wracked my brain to remember if I actually drove that Mustang and concluded that it must have been towed, with the cameraman shooting from the hood of the car. I was extremely nearsighted and much too vain to wear my glasses, especially on screen, so there’s no way I could have driven that car!
We spent several days at San Francisco Plantation on the River Road near Reserve, about forty minutes north of New Orleans. The circa 1850 antebellum house was the home of my movie grandmother. The crew turned one of its sitting rooms into a bedroom for Ugo’s character, who was invited to stay by my “grandmother.”
This was probably the most opulent set in the film, and the company sprang for a wardrobe addition for me—a beautiful floor-length pink-lace nightgown and peignoir. In one scene, Ugo and I leaned on the second-floor balcony, I in my peignoir and he in a silk robe, while I told him about the ghosts that haunted the house.
It was while we were at San Francisco that I realized Tognazzi had a temper. One afternoon, a huge argument broke out in heated Italian, and Ugo jumped into his car and roared away. One of the crew members put on Ugo’s robe and filming continued, with the stand-in positioned so his back was to the camera.
Crew members called me La Bambina (the baby) or La Ragazza (the girl), but they also taught me a bit of X-rated Italian: “La Madonna!” “Porca miseria!” “La tua anima è morta e sei un figlio di una cagna,” which roughly translated to “Your soul is dead and you’re an SOB.” Much merriment ensued as I repeated these words, but they gave me a taste for the beautiful language. I would enroll in an Italian class the next semester.
Not all the crew members were Italian. Several had signed on in New York, including Vinny, the cheerful makeup man, and the unflappable Peggy, who coordinated the schedules. Everyone stayed at a motel across from the New Orleans airport, then called Moisant. At night, we gathered in the lounge to unwind and chat about the day’s shoot.
One memorable night, Igi took a large group of us to dinner at The Court of the Two Sisters on Royal Street in New Orleans. Afterward, I led them to Preservation Hall to hear Dixieland jazz by old timers like Sweet Emma the Bell Gal. They were so impressed that they later went back and shot some footage there.
At the end of that week’s work, I bade goodbye to the cast and crew, who were headed for Cape Canaveral to shoot scenes with actress Juliet Prowse. (Scenes with Rhonda Fleming had already been shot in Dallas.) So my first (and only) movie gave me my first airplane flight—back to Baton Rouge. Aloft, I barely had time to get nervous before I was on the ground, regaling my friends with tales of my meteoric movie career.
I settled back into life as an English major. The Reveille sent a reporter to talk to me about my movie experience, noting that the company “had interviewed girls in Hollywood, Los Angeles, New York, and Dallas” before picking—me!
I don’t remember signing anything as mundane as a contract, but I did get paid for my work. I socked away the money, and that summer I finally went to Europe, visiting Paris, Munich, Florence, and, of course, Rome, home of Sancro Film.
At the Sancro studios, the movie, Una Moglie Americana (An American Wife), was being shown to distributors in a small theater. I sat through it twice and estimated I was on screen for ten or fifteen minutes. The set photographer showed me dozens of black and white 8x10s and let me take as many as I wanted. I left with a bulging envelope containing every still I was in. (Alas, they were later stolen—a loss I have never gotten over.)
Una Moglie Americana, whose American title was Run for Your Wife, was released in this country about two years after the Louisiana shoot. By that time, I was living in New Orleans and saw it at the Plaza Theater on Magazine Street.
Inexplicably, the movie has never been released on either DVD or video.
One critic called it “One of the great neglected comedies of all time,” adding that it “[n]eeds to be placed on video and also shown at film festivals. It is a hilarious satire of 1960s USA, as the Italian hero travels to the main regions of USA seeking a wife. Polidoro captures the absurdity of each region, the customs, mores and styles of the time and place.”
As for poor Riccardo, the character played by Ugo, his search for an American wife ended unhappily with his return to Italy, where, according to one synopsis, “he awaits a gray existence.”
But Una Moglie Americana had added a lot of color to my existence—not to mention a trip to Italy.
Details. Details. Details. Clips of Una Moglie Americana can be found on YouTube. Ruth Laney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.