At a time when Italian actresses were big in Hollywood and coming from Europe by the barrel full, Valentina Cortese was one of the few to stand out with her sensitive character portrayals and her smart choice of films. Not only did Cortese do well in America, but when she returned to the foreign market, she continued to make classic films still seen and loved today. Beginning in Italy, Valentina got her start in films at the age of eighteen in 1941. In her native land, Cortese appeared with such notables as Clara Calamai, Michel Simon, Viviane Romance, and Rossano Brazzi (soon to be a Hollywood star too), before headlining her own movies by the middle of the ‘40s. The more ambitious Italian film movement of the late ‘40s allowed Cortese to star in such films as Les Misérables (1948). Cortese moved to England, where she worked in The Glass Mountain (1949), and soon began working with Orson Welles in Black Magic (1949), one of his films where his directing work went uncredited due to not finishing what he started.
Cortese, on the other hand, found a temporary home in Hollywood when she starred in the wonderful Jules Dassin picture, Thieves’ Highway (1949) with the ever-handsome Richard Conte. The two made one of the finest (and most underrated) couples of film noir history with their chemistry being believable and sexy without being turgid and trashy. The two gave class to a director who always required it and the film has its legion of fans (us included). One of the most memorable moments of the film has Cortese seductively playing tic-tac-toe on Conte’s bare chest. That’s a game I want part of! Some of Cortese’s follow-up films were worthy of such a fine start, such as Malaya (1949) with Spencer Tracy and James Stewart, but they got all the best scenes. Cortese does, however, get to perform “Paradise”. She also made another very entertaining noir, The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), which remains intense and compelling thanks to the fine performance by her and Richard Basehart. Cortese and Basehart would marry off screen as well.
While Cortese made some good films in Hollywood, she never abandoned her European roots, and made such remarkable foreign pictures as Women Without Names (1950) and Angels of Darkness (1953). She also worked in England frequently, taking advantage of her bilingual talents. Basehart joined her in her excursion to European cinema, which led him to being cast in classics by Federico Fellini. Cortese, though, didn’t do too badly when she was cast in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Le Amiche (1955). While the film is an ensemble picture of talented ladies from Italy, Cortese is very poetic and realistic as a woman in a relationship with a scoundrel of a man who loves him too much to let him go. By this time, Cortese’s American films were less consistent. While she was in the fine film, The Barefoot Contessa (1954), she was wasted as her old leading man, Rossano Brazzi’s, sister. The part could have been played by anyone.
Into the ‘60s, Cortese made some more stand-out films that combined Hollywood and European markets, such as Barabbas (1961) and The Visit (1964), while working with such royalty as Fellini in Juliet of the Spirits (1965). Cortese received her most international acclaim by playing an aging movie star who is constantly forgetting her lines and having a hard time on set in Day for Night (1973). The film garnered Cortese an Oscar nomination, but she lost with grace to Ingrid Bergman for Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Bergman, however, memorably stated in her speech that she expected to lose to Cortese as her performance was phenomenal. She also said that she was confused how Cortese’s 1973 film was nominated with films from 1974. While Cortese didn’t get the award, she got the respect of Ingrid Bergman. Cortese’s wonderful film portrayals can all be described as earning our respect. No matter how big or how small the part was, Cortese gave her all and made it remarkable.