After 60 years in film, actress Claudia Cardinale reveals that cinema saved her life

No plastic surgery, no silicon.. nothing, just a God masterpiece.

In a career spanning more than six decades, the enigmatic Claudia Cardinale lit up the screen with her breathtaking presence.

Not planning on becoming one of the greatest actors of the golden era, Cardinale followed the path to stardom, that was oftentimes paved by trauma.

Outliving the now-deceased Hollywood giants that she once shared the screen, and still going strong at 85, she says “cinema saved my life.”

As an iconic actress, Claudia Cardinale has left an indelible mark on Italian and international film. Her talent, beauty, and versatility allowed her to portray a wide range of complex and memorable characters throughout her career.

Cardinale’s iconic status as an international film star is not only due to her talent but also her distinctive Mediterranean beauty and her ability to captivate audiences with her charismatic presence on screen.

And what is even more impressive is that this 85-year-old actress is still going strong and remains active in the movie industry.

The Tunisian-born Italian, who grew up in a multilingual family, was studying to be a teacher when she was discovered at 18.

The glossy-haired, French-speaking young woman was taken in by the pageantry of an Italian film festival, when she was pulled from the crowd and crowned Most Beautiful Italian Girl in Tunisia.

“I was helping my mother and people from the Italian government organize an Italian film festival in Tunisia. I was looking at the girls on the stage and I wasn’t supposed to be there. Someone pushed me out on the stage and I was named the Most Beautiful Girl in Tunisia,” she said.

The prize was a trip to the Venice film festival, a foretelling adventure for the young woman, who received many offers from producers.

Initially turning down the offers, Cardinale explained in an interview, “It’s like a man. When he’s going after you, if you say yes immediately, after a little time he goes away. If you say no, he desires you for a long time.”

The reason she rejected most offers, was because she was pregnant.

But there was one producer whom she couldn’t refuse. Franco Cristaldi, a prominent Italian producer, credited with feature films from the 1950s to the 1990s, captured the interest of the young Cardinale and signed her under an 18-year contract.

There was also a personal contract, the pair married and Cristaldi, sculpting her into an Italian Brigitte Bardot, took full control, dictating her movie roles, hairstyle, weight, and social life.

Her pregnancy, Cristaldi demanded, be kept a secret.

Cardinale in Pietro Germi’s Un maledetto imbroglio (1959)

As for her son, it was announced that he was her younger brother.

Under Cristaldi’s management, Cardinale had a few minor roles in Italian films, and noticed for her performances, she was referred to as “Italy’s sweetheart.”

In 1958, she had her big break with a leading role in the romantic comedy, Three Strangers in Rome. Working seven months into her pregnancy–which under Cristaldi’s direction she continued to keep a secret–Cardinale became depressed and had suicidal thoughts, pleading with her manager to terminate the contract.

Claudia Cardinale wearing the stage costume and revising the script before the shoot of a scene of the film ‘The Pink Panther’ / Wikipedia / Pierluigi Praturlon

Instead, Cristaldi shipped her to London, away from the press, falsely saying she was away learning English for a role.

In 1975, her baby Patrick was born, a child she said was fathered by an unidentified man, who raped her. Patrick’s identity as her son, was kept a secret until he turned 19.

In 2017, Cardinale opened up to Enzo Biagi, an Italian journalist, and shared with him the violent truth behind her pregnancy, “A man I didn’t know, much older than me, forced me to go up to car and raped me. It was terrible, but the most beautiful thing is that my wonderful Patrick was born from that violence. In fact, although it was a very complicated situation for a single mother, I decided not to have an abortion.” She continued, “When that man learned of my pregnancy, he came back, demanding that I have an abortion. Not even for a moment did I think of getting rid of my creature!”

Speaking of Cristaldi, who controlled her life, Cardinale said, “With him I was practically an employee, a subordinate who was paid a month for the four films I made a year: I didn’t even call him by name, but by surname. I felt hostage, my father and mother were furious…Because I wasn’t in love, he was the one with me. In short, Cristaldi was certainly a great producer, but on a private level… better to overlook it.”

Her dysfunctional relationship with Cristaldi, whom she left in 1975, didn’t slow down her career.

The natural beauty, who made her debut in the French-Tunisian film Goha with Omar Sharif, quickly earned the reputation as one Italy’s best actors.  She then had leading roles in Rocco and his Brothers (1960), and in 1963 she starred in the Oscar-winning film  with Marcello Mastroianni, and The Leopard with Burt Lancaster. Both films, where she played a seemingly unattainable object of desire, are praised by the award-winning director Martin Scorsese as two of his top 12 favorites.

Gaining traction in Hollywood, she starred alongside David Nivens in The Pink Panther and then shared the screen with legends like John Wayne and Rita Hayworth in 1964’s Circus World.

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Lauded for her portrayal of a prostitute in the U.S.-Italian film Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Cardinale co-starred with icons Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Charles Bronson.

But audiences enjoyed seeing Cardinale, dubbed the Italian Brigitte Bardot, with the real Bardot–her friend and rival–in 1971’s The Legend of Frenchie King. What set her apart from Bardot? She said she never appeared nude in a film, “I always thought it was more erotic to leave some room to imagination, hinting at things rather than showing everything.”

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Working in Hollywood was both successful and stressful. In a Life article, that referred to her as “the most admired international film star since Sophia Loren,” Cardinale revealed that she wanted out of the patriarchal Hollywood system. Speaking to the lower salary in Europe, Cardinale said, “If I have to give up the money, I give it up. I do not want to become a cliché.”

Though her career slowed down, Cardinale said she is happy to have stepped away from the sexualized spotlight.

Claudia Cardinale at the Women’s World Awards 2009 in Vienna, Austria / Wikipedia / Manfred Werner

“When I was young, my dream was to explore the world. And I did it. I was never naked and I never did anything to change my face. I don’t like that at all. I like to be what I am, because you cannot stop time,” Cardinale said.

Cardinale married Italian director, Pasquale Squitieri in 1975 and was with him until his death in 2017. The pair have one daughter, Claudia.

In 2022, Cardinale addressed rumors that she was involuntarily hospitalized. Living in France, she said “I’m next to my family, I’m in full health. And I wish everyone a happy summer.”

Today, Cardinale is heavily involved with UNESCO as the goodwill ambassador for the Defence of Women’s Rights.

Claudia Cardinale had quite a life, filled with trauma and successes.

It’s great to see that she’s empowering other women with her story, and we hope that she continues in good health. What’s your favorite Cardinale film?