Valentina Cortese, Oscar-Nominated Grande Dame of Italian Cinema, Dies at 96

Valentina Cortese - P 2019
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An icon of Italian cinema of the 1940s, Cortese was considered the last of the Grande Dames of cinema.

Academy Award-nominated actress Valentina Cortese died Wednesday in Milan. She was 96.

Cortese, born in 1923, was one of the leading ladies of Italian cinema of the 1940s, first gaining fame with the role of Lisabetta in the 1942 film La cena delle beffeby from Alessandro Blasetti. 

Her screen presence earned her international acclaim. She starred as both Fantine and Cosette in the 1948 Italian version of Les Miserables, with Gino Cervi and a young Marcello Mastroianni. After starring in the 1949 British film The Glass Mountain, she starred in numerous American films of the time.

In 1948, she signed with 20th Century Fox, joining films including Thieves’ Highway (1949), The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), and The Barefoot Contessa (1954).

She continued to work in Europe, starring in Michelangelo Antonioni's Le Amiche (1955), Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965), Franco Zeffirelli films including Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), the miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and Sparrow (1993), as well as Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988).

In 1975, she received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress for her role as Severine in Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night. Cortese was also nominated for a Golden Globe and ultimately won a BAFTA award for the role. Ingrid Bergman, who ultimately took home the Oscar for Murder on the Orient Express, announced her shock and dismay that she had won over Cortese.

“She gave the most beautiful performance that all we actresses recognized because, after all, we have all forgotten our lines and always open the wrong doors, and it was wonderful to see her do it so beautifully,” said Bergman in her acceptance speech. “Here I am and I'm her rival and I don't like it at all. Please forgive me, Valentina. I didn't mean to. Thank you.”

The Grande Dame was also a fashion icon throughout her life. As a young girl, raised in a farming family, she wore scarfs around her head to protect herself from the sun. She resurrected this fashion trend in the latter part of her life, almost always photographed with an elaborate headscarf.

In 2017, the Venice Film Festival celebrated Cortese with Diva! a documentary film by Francesco Patierno that honors her life and career. Eight contemporary Italian “divas” were cast to tell her story.

Cortese had one son, actor Jackie Basehart, during her nine-year marriage to American actor Richard Basehart. Jackie died in Milan in 2015.