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Sandra Milo played the diva game

Farewell to the Italian actress and muse of Fellini. Her effortless grace and cheeky exuberance were the secrets to one of the true divas of Italian cinema, who taught us a lesson in life and style.

Sandra Milo starring in Juliet of the Spirits by Federico Fellini, 1965


In 1974 Italian television channel RAI aired a documentary about the making of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord. In the 30-something-minute footage, a substantial chunk is dedicated to Sandra Milo, the muse (and secret-not-so-secret lover) of Federico Fellini who had previously starred in the famed director’s milestones 8 ½ and Juliet of the Spirits

She is filmed on her daily routine, that of a mother and housewife, surely not demised in her look and clothing but certainly far from the Lolita-esque diva the audience got to know only a decade before. 

Milo, actually, had already auditioned for Amarcord, for the role of femme fatale Gradisca. Some polaroids exist of her, posing in the 1930s costume that would later make the character memorable. She looks at the camera in her trademark gaze: the eyebrows are long and flicking backwards, the eyes at the same time naughty and pure. Her candid face is framed by the black feathers of the coat that would end up defining another actress, with a striking resemblance to Milo: Magali Noël.

In a twist of fate or, it is better to say, of love and faith, Milo ditched the gig last minute with a phone call to Fellini who, in return, had one hundred red roses delivered to her door in an as desperate as useless act of persuasion. It was Milo’s husband, Mario Ergas, to force her to drop the role, paranoid and jealous of her bond with Fellini.

The rare polaroids of Sandra Milo's audition for the role of Gradisca in Federico Fellini's Amarcord, 1974.

The rare polaroids of Sandra Milo's audition for the role of Gradisca in Federico Fellini's Amarcord, 1974. 

Milo – Born Salvatrice Elena Greco in Tunisi in 1934 –, though, had been a very different woman until then, and so would be later on, reacquiring the charme and flamboyance that always distinguished her. 

Her pin-up body gave her first prominence in the mid-1950s when she debuted next to Alberto Sordi in Lo Scapolo (1955), a film followed by a string of light-hearted comedies in which Milo would play the carefree blonde bombshell. Some of these are ingrained in the history of CAM Sugar too, including the likes of Frenesia dell’Estate (1963) with music by Gianni Ferrio, L’Ombrellone (1965) with music by Lelio Luttazzi, La Notte Pazza del Conigliaccio (1967) with music by Benedetto Ghiglia, and later on Riavanti…Marsch! (1979) with music by Piero Piccioni. 

Sandra Milo on the cover of the CAM 45rpm for La Notte Pazza del Conigliaccio by Benedetto Giglia, 1967.

Sandra Milo on the cover of the CAM 45rpm for La Notte Pazza del Conigliaccio by Benedetto Ghiglia, 1967.

This role stuck to Milo in popular culture and it is emblazoned by a mid-1960s cabaret sketch from TV show Studio Uno in which the actress playfully sings about herself. “Tutta bionda, per qualcuno sono troppo bionda [...] Per qualcuno sono troppo tonta  [...] Per qualcuno son la finta tonta  [...] Per qualcuno troppo tonda, per far la TV”.

(“All blonde, some say I’m too blonde  [...] Some say I’m too silly  [...] Some say I play dumb  [...] Some say I’m too curvy to be on TV”.)

Sandra Milo's grace also came through her immaculate sense of style.

Sandra Milo's grace also came through her immaculate sense of style.

She was way more than that, though. One could argue that Milo anticipated the bubbly eccentricity and seductiveness of 1960s yè-yè divas, of the Lolitas and Vittis to come. Equally foxy in her glance and seductiveness and naïve in her, only apparent, superficiality. 

Although she indeed played dumb, and played the game of the post-war curvaceous Italian vamp, Milo was a true diva in her effortless elegance, wit and – not to forget – wisdom. As Federico Fellini once recalled, Milo was charatcterised by a mixture of curiosity and passivity which made her face life with a pinch of salt. Indeed in the same creative and absurd way Fellini loved to look at things.  

She, Fellini explained, “laughed in a way that seemed as if she wanted to make fun of me. Only later I realised that that little laugh truly was the most authentic proof of her way of being a woman, a female, that is, the proof of a true, joyful, authentic kindness.”


Listen to the CAM Sugar 8 1/2 soundtrack by Nino Rota

The encounter with Federico Fellini in Fregene, on the coast off Rome, was indeed a life changer. When the two first kissed, Milo recounted, she fainted. He dismissed it but couldn’t help but fall for her too, starting a secret relationship which, however, Giuletta Masina was well aware of. Their intense love and professional story became a literary case, when in 1982 Milo published Caro Federico a scandalous bestseller which still stands these days as an amusing read. When Fellini proposed to her to run away to America, together, she turned him down. The reason? They had never shared the same roof, so what if Federico would be let down by seeing her in the morning, dressed down and without make-up?! That’s what we call class.

The Oscar-winning director used her ‘Sandrocchia’ as a simulacrum to exorcise his own life dramas. That is very evident in 8 ½, in which Milo de facto interprets herself  on and off the screen, as the mistress of Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), a fictional representation of Fellini himself. 

In Juliet of the Spirits, a similar role was elevated to something magical and whimsical, courtesy of the costumes designed by Piero Gherardi who had already bagged Fellini an Academy Award for his job on La Dolce Vita.

Sandra Milo in Juliet of the Spirits, by Federico Fellini, 1965.

Sandra Milo in Juliet of the Spirits, by Federico Fellini, 1965.

Those costumes seem to nail the self-definition Milo used to title her biography: The Child Witch, arguing that every woman at heart is both a witch and an innocent little girl. Her self-conscious acceptance of the coexistence of these two worlds seems to now acquire further value, in a highly polarised culture in which feminism is devalued in favour of social media frenzies and bodies are, at the same time, sold for a fistful of dollars (and likes).

Long after the storm, long after the memoir and Fellini’s departure, Milo kept professing her lasting love and esteem for the director despite them never getting married nor living together. Her life and career went on, never retreating – unlike many colleagues – past roles. In fact, the attitude is what made Milo a true diva, one loved by multiple generations, not only as a pillar of Italian cinema but also as a playful pop icon.

Aged 90 she did not step back from taking part in dating reality TV shows or to join in the social media craze, always eager to share memories, insights of life and dispensing heartwarming comments. It is perhaps for this reason, the fact she seemed able to transcend her times and live forever, as bubbly in her spirit and and flawless as ever in her looks until the very last bite of life, what left us in disbelief, saddened but after all happy for the lessons in joy and elegance Sandra taught us all.


Opening image: Sandra Milo in Juliet of the Spirits, by Federico Fellini, 1965.

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