Long before Cher, Sting and Madonna, a
one-named Italian comedian was breaking box-office records in
his native country.
Toto - real name Antonio de Curtis - was one of the most beloved of all silver screen stars in Italy; although many of his movies are barely known here, back home they were consistent hits. And "Toto Recall" - a BAMcinematek retrospective running Sept. 6-28 - showcases a dozen films that made Toto such a revered comic figure.
What contributed to Toto’s grand success as a comedian - he began in vaudeville, perfecting a physical brand of comedy that he carried over into movies - was his face, a rubbery visage that may have been the most sublime comedic "mask" since Buster Keaton’s. Toto was always recognizable: his slightly off-center features added up to a natural, singular work of art.
But Toto never simply cashed in on his face. As the 12 "Toto Recall" features show, he was an artist of extraordinary ability, who was at home in both slapstick and cerebral comedies. The series opener on Sept. 6, Mario Monicelli’s classic caper spoof, "Big Deal on Madonna Street" (1958), actually casts Toto in a minor role, as a now-retired robber who shows a bungling group of would-be thieves how to crack a safe.
While only in a few scenes, Toto virtually steals the movie from a formidable group of actors including Marcello Mastroianni and Vittorio Gassman. Monicelli’s masterly comedy has had its share of imitators - including last year’s Woody Allen gem, "Small Time Crooks" - but, thanks in no small way to Toto, it has never been equaled.
When Monicelli and Toto partnered again, the actor got one of the leading roles. "The Passionate Thief" (1960) - showing Sept. 27 - paired Toto with Anna Magnani, who had often played opposite each other in the theater, but never before in the movies. Toto and Magnani are unemployed actors who team with an American pickpocket to scam affluent guests at a New Year’s Eve party, a ploy that (couldn’t you guess?) derails.
Of all of Toto’s starring roles, it’s ironic that the one for which he received the most acclaim outside Italy was one of his last: in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s "The Hawks and the Sparrows" (1966) - showing Sept. 21 - Toto plays father to Ninetto Davoli’s youngster, both of them transported to a fantasy world where they learn "birdspeak." Pasolini’s funny Marxist parable was one of the director’s lightest, most accessible features, due in no small part to the presence of Toto, who won an award at the Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal.
By the time of his death in 1967, the 69-year-old Toto had appeared in more than 90 films. Unbelievably, he didn’t star in his first feature until he was 40 years old. By the time his career was peaking, Toto was so recognizable, so big a star in Italy that several of his pictures’ titles had his name inserted into them in order to ensure their success. Many of these flimsy flicks were quickly made, but lit up whenever Toto appeared onscreen.
A handful of these titles are included in the BAM Rose series. "Toto the Con Man" (Sept. 11) is an episodic 1961 romp that features our man as the title character, of course. The following year’s "Toto Diabolicus" (Sept. 13) allows the star to enact a half-dozen roles in finest Alec Guinness style, all of them heirs of a murdered nobleman who are then picked off one by one. It’s a comedy, naturally, and one of Toto’s greatest.
In the early ’60s, with the Cold War in full swing, Europe was on edge as much as the United States. The surprisingly contemporary "Toto and Peppino Are Divided by Berlin" (1962; showing Sept. 20) casts Toto and his oft-starring partner Peppino De Filippo as stooges for some ex-Nazis; to say more would spoil the blackly comic fun of this once-controversial hit.
Finally - and closing the series Sept. 28 - "Toto Versus the Four" (1963) gives our hero the chance to portray a cop (a bumbling one, to be sure) and team again with De Filippo in one of the most plotless, yet gut-busting of all his pictures.
"Toto Recall" shows beyond any doubt that Toto was such a consummate actor that he was able to get laughs as himself, with his own personality, even while ostensibly staying in character. Today, when we witness such meager talents as Jim Carrey and Chris Tucker being touted as mega-stars, it’s instructive to be reminded what true comedic genius actually is.
"Toto Recall" runs Sept. 6-28 at the BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place). Tickets are $9, $6 students and seniors. All films are in Italian with English subtitles. For more information visit www.bam.org or call (718) 636-4100.