— Two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis is the star and protagonist of the new musical “Nine,” but you almost have to squint to make him out in the film’s pre-release hype. The selling point of the movie, it would appear, is the presence of its scintillating and high-profile cast of women, five of whom are Oscar winners themselves.
Look on the covers of magazines, or at the talk shows, or the print ads, and while Day-Lewis is often in there, somewhere, it’s Nicole Kidman and Penélope Cruz and Judi Dench and Marion Cotillard and Sophia Loren and Kate Hudson and Fergie looking back at us. They get the shimmering costumes and the big musical numbers and the juicy close-ups and the world press at their Louboutins, hyperventilating for another quote about how exciting it was to be part of this massive production.
In a way, that’s as it should be — going back to Federico Fellini’s masterwork “8 ½” (1963), of which “Nine” is a loose remake, this is a story that’s at least as much about the women orbiting a frustrated filmmaker as it is about the filmmaker himself. If anything, it’s the ladies in his life, and how he treats them, that reflect the truth about the man in the middle.
When Fellini made his autobiographical movie, he opened the door for subsequent generations of filmmakers to peer inside their own psyches and make movies about their own struggles with art and commerce, with personal creativity and audience expectations and, principally, with love and fidelity.
So while the distaff cast of “Nine” enjoys their moment in the Oscar-buzz spotlight, let’s take a look back at the actresses who paved their way by appearing in previous films that drew their inspiration from the same source.
Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” (1979): Acclaimed theater and film director Fosse wasn’t shy about tipping his hat to Fellini’s circus-like magical realism — “Jazz” ends with an extended dream sequence that takes place during open-heart surgery — or about acknowledging similarities between himself and his workaholic protagonist Joe Gideon (played memorably by Roy Scheider). Gideon pops pills and knocks himself out putting together a new Broadway show while furiously re-editing a black-and-white movie about a comedian. Fosse, as it turns out, had worked himself nearly to death in the process of bringing “Chicago” to the stage and “Lenny” to the screen just a few years earlier.
Letting art imitate life even further, Fosse went so far as to cast Ann Reinking — who had been Fosse’s girlfriend during that period — as Joe’s sweetheart. But there are other women in Joe’s life — his understanding ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer), his adoring tween daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) and, sexiest of them all, the Angel of Death herself. Memorably portrayed by Jessica Lange, she’s the woman who understands Joe more than anyone and guides him through his brush with mortality.
Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” (1980): Allen has always claimed that most of this movie is really a fantasy sequence, and that he’s not anything like his character of Sandy Bates, a director who resents his fans (who want him to make more movies like his “early, funny ones”) and is constantly falling in and out of love with beautiful women.
Whether or not you take Woody’s word for it, there’s no denying that this film features enough autobiographical angst to fit squarely into the “8 ½” homage arena. Sandy’s girl problems also match the profile — he’s haunted by a past relationship with a dark and troubled woman (played by Charlotte Rampling) and currently finds himself torn between nice, stable Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) and neurotic, messed-up Daisy (Jessica Harper).
As an added bonus, “Stardust Memories” even throws in the very first screen appearance by a sexy, 22-year-old Sharon Stone, playing “Pretty Girl on Train” in a nightmare sequence in Sandy’s latest movie.
François Truffaut’s “Day for Night” (1973): The French New Wave director’s affectionate look at the nonstop insanity and occasional triumphs of the filmmaking process includes a plum role for the young Jacqueline Bisset as an international movie star whose presence has made the film-within-the-film possible. When she has a love-related meltdown on set and demands “country butter,” the director and his crew run out and buy a bunch of sticks at the supermarket, which they then mold with their hands until it looks like something you might find on a farm.
Olivier Assayas’ “Irma Vep” (1996): A filmmaker (Jean-Pierre Léaud, who previously starred in “Day for Night”) remakes the French silent classic “Les Vampyrs” and casts Maggie Cheung (who plays herself) in the lead role. Naturally, he becomes smitten with her. What’s interesting about “Irma Vep” (an anagram for “vampire,” incidentally) in this context is that while “8 ½”–inspired films often feature directors casting women with whom they’ve already been involved, Assayas and Cheung met making this movie and then, two years later, got married.
Paul Mazursky’s “Alex in Wonderland” (1970): Lest anyone miss the fact that Mazursky, coming off his first big hit with “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” was paying homage to “8 ½” with a film about a director (played by Donald Sutherland) coming off his first big hit, Mazursky actually cast Fellini as himself in a supporting role. The female side is well represented by Ellen Burstyn, playing Sutherland’s wife, and by French star Jeanne Moreau, also playing herself. Mazursky clearly had a thing for Moreau; she starred in the French classic “Jules and Jim” — directed, incidentally, by Truffaut — which Mazursky eventually remade as “Willie and Phil” (1980).
Federico Fellini’s “8 ½”: It’s worth going back to the source to note that women play a major role even in the original. Surrounded by such legendary screen sirens as Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Barbara Steele and Sandra Milo, who can blame Marcello Mastroianni’s filmmaker character (standing in for Fellini himself) for having a hard time concentrating on his job?