ICDN member Lilia Hartmann-Trapani remembers her mother, casting director Isa Bartalini, one of the first Italian women to work in cinema.
In Italy, the casting director’s craft started in the 1960s, very slowly and almost incognito. In Italy, casting had always been left partly to pure chance, partly to the personal relationships between directors and producers, and partly to the assistant directors, who found themselves having to combine their already heavy preparation work with the search for actors, a process which rarely ended up being exhaustive.
Not surprisingly, the opportunity that kicked off the casting director’s profession in Italy was the arrival of important Hollywood productions at the Cinecittà studios. The Americans were used to hiring a casting director for their productions so it was natural that they wanted to do the same in Italy; they began seeking out those most knowledgeable about the local talent pool.
As far as I could find, the first Italian professional to work as a casting director was Isa Bartalini, who did the Italian casting of The Pigeon That Took Rome in 1961. Directed and written by Melville Shavelson and starring Charlton Heston and Elsa Martinelli, the film is a comedy set during World War II. It was based on the novel The Easter Dinner, written by a former spy named Donald Downes. In Isa’s archive, I found a photo of the film’s wrap party labeled “Easter Dinner, my first movie as a casting director.”
Isa had grown up in France and Turkey. Because her father was an engaged antifascist, he ended up being forced to escape Italy with the whole family. But Isa returned to Italy with her mother at the beginning of the war, in order to attend university; she graduated in mathematics. After the war, when she was in need of a job, some friends introduced her to Alessandro Blasetti, one of the most important Italian directors of the day. In 1947, Blasetti was prepping the historical drama Fabiola, the first big co-production after the war. Many extraordinary writers were working on the screenplay, including Jean George Auriol, the co-founder of the Revue du Cinèma.
Due to her international background, Isa spoke English, French and Turkish fluently. She was initially hired to take notes during script meetings; later on, she translated the screenplay into French and acted as a liaison with the French co-producers. When the film went into production, she was asked to work on set as an assistant to the director. One of her main tasks was to serve as an interpreter between Blasetti, who did not speak French well at all, and the film’s French stars Michèle Morgan, Henri Vidal and Michel Simon.
Isa had just become one of the first Italian women to work in cinema. From that moment on, there was no stopping her.
In fact, Alessandro Blasetti retained Isa as AD for all his subsequent films. Through this work, Isa befriended Cesare Zavattini, an extraordinary Italian writer and screenwriter; she began working with him, and was credited as a co-writer on two screenplays herself.
Sophia Loren starred in three of the films that Isa worked on, and they became very close. Sophia desperately wanted to have a baby, but was unable to do so at that time because her partner, the legendary producer Carlo Ponti, was married. Divorce was nonexistent in Italy back then, and extramarital affairs carried criminal penalties. Sophia was very affectionate with Isa’s little daughter Lilia, whom Isa often brought to the set.
In fact, the part of her job that Isa loved most was the relationship with actors. She found deep fulfillment in finding the best actor for each role, which is of course the essence of casting. I remember her telling stories and anecdotes about exactly how she discovered a particular actor or how she managed to convince Blasetti of the best actor for a particular role. I guess it was thus quite natural for her to switch from assistant director to casting director.
After The Pigeon who took Rome, Isa worked as a casting director on a few other US productions, including The Shoes of The Fisherman, directed by Michael Anderson and starring Anthony Quinn and Lawrence Olivier; Rod Amateau’s films Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You and The Statue, with David Niven. In 1968, she did the Italian casting for Franco Zeffirelli’s masterpiece Romeo and Juliet; in that case, she was credited as “Assistant Director” because “Casting Director” was still not accepted as a credit in Italy.
But the film she adored working on most was Avanti! by Billy Wilder. Wilder had always been one of Isa’s favorite directors, and I still remember her deep joy when she was offered the job. Besides the two stars, Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills, the entire cast was Italian. Isa did the casting in advance of production, of course, but also supervised the local Sorrento’s casting during the entire shoot, ensuring that high quality was maintained across the small roles and featured extras. She used to say that the dedication Wilder wrote on a photo he gave her at the end of the shoot was her greatest award: To Isa Bartalini, the very best I ever worked with, my thanks and my love, Billy Wilder.
The other Italian pioneer in casting was Guidarino Guidi, a multifaceted and humorous Tuscan count who had been Fellini’s AD on La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. His first job as a CD was for The Bible, directed by John Huston (1966). The most famous film he cast was Roger Vadim’s cult hit Barbarella, with Jane Fonda. But Guidarino’s work was not limited to casting. He also worked as an actor (Isa cast him as a maître d’hotel in Avanti!) and finished his film career as an agent. Other pioneer casting directors in Italy included Paola Rolli, Francesco Cinieri and former actress Rita Forzano.
I myself started when I was a student, in the 70s, first as an assistant to Isa and then freelancing, working mostly for commercials at that time. After graduating, casting became my principal activity and I founded my own company, Studio t, in 1985 with the support of my husband.
It shouldn’t be surprising that in Italy the figure of the casting director initially took hold in advertising. Advertising is a choral product, even at the decision-making level. Everyone wants to participate in choosing the performer who, within just a few seconds, must grab the attention of the viewing audience and instill interest in the product, which he or she must also embody in some way. The process of selecting this performer involves the client who finances the campaign, the ad agency that conceptualizes it, the producer who brings it to fruition and the director who actually shoots it. It is therefore logical that advertising production companies started to entrust the process of seeking out these performers rather early on to others: they needed a specialized professional who was capable of gathering a range of options wide enough to answer the often-discordant voices involved. The advertising sector thus gave a strong boost to the development of the CD figure in Italy.
It took ages for the CD to become a regular and appreciated professional figure within the Italian film industry, though. After some time, the CD’s name began appearing in the credits: first in the end scroll and then, at long last, in the main credits. In recent years, with the strong upswing in television series for which a large cast is fundamental, the involvement of a good casting director has finally been recognized as indispensable. Our number has significantly increased and our professional association, the UICD (Unione Italiana Casting Directors) now has 60 members. However, we are still fighting for recognition by the Italian Film Academy – and still waiting it to catch up with other international film academies in creating an awards category for casting.