MIO FIGLIO NERONE (My Son, Nero)
starring Gloria Swanson as Agrippina, Nero’s mother
Alberto Sordi as Nero
Brigitte Bardot as Poppea, Nero’s mistress (and later wife)
and Vittorio De Sica as the philosopher Seneca, Nero’s teacher and advisor
Directed by STENO; director of photography and of special effects, MARIO BAVA
I was fortunate to have grown up during a period when the great GLORIA SWANSON was still alive and well and part of the popular culture. She might appear out of the blue in a TV movie or in a feature film such as the outrageous AIRPORT 1975 or she’d turn up in a bold pantsuit to chat on the MERV GRIFFIN show—-always a striking and ebullient figure, still radiating the star quality that made her America’s most popular actress in the late teens and early twenties, some fifty (!!!) years earlier, talking about her travels and her business interests and her beauty-and-fitness regimen, along with reminiscences of her glory days in Hollywood.
In those pre-video/DVD/internet days, if you wanted to see something with Gloria Swanson in it, other than her comeback performance as Norma Desmond in 1950’s SUNSET BOULEVARD, you had to find a public television station that showed “classic” silent films and wait for a Swanson entry (there were film festivals devoted to silent film, but as a child of 10 or 12, I would not have been hip to those or able to attend them!). I’d seen one or two of her films that way, but I remember seeing a TV Guide listing as a child/adolescent for an Italian film from the 1950’s starring Swanson, given one-star in the movie rating, playing on my local UHF station at like 2:30 a.m. It was called NERO’S MISTRESS. For some reason, I was not able to see it at that time, and for decades the film had been in the back of my mind, and I kept watching for another opportunity to see it.
Recently, I acquired a grey market DVD-R of the original Italian film, in beautiful letterboxed form and with English subtitles. In a way, I’m glad that I never did see the English-language NERO’S MISTRESS way back when….it may well have soured me on the film. Evidently, Swanson did not do the voice for her character in the English-language dub, and the voice used has been described as girlish and ill-fitting. Next, the film was not even released in the US until 6 or 7 years after, to capitalize on the fame of Brigitte Bardot, and to highlight Ms. Bardot, some of Swanson’s scenes were cut down and/or totally edited out, to make the film’s focus on Bardot, who was clearly NOT the focus in the original (this technique was also done with films that Rudolph Valentino had made as a supporting actor before his major stardom, which were re-edited later to make him the featured player when he was not in the original films). Even the title was changed. The original title could be literally translated as MY SON, NERO. It’s the MOTHER’s story, from her perspective, from Swanson’s perspective. Now it becomes the story of the mistress, Poppea, played by Bardot. I would still like to see the butchered English-dubbed edit for comparison’s sake, but I’ve now seen the original, in Italian, and I’m here to tell you that it is a comic gem and an important piece of Gloria Swanson’s post-Sunset Boulevard career.
(poster for the edited US release, which minimizes Swanson’s role and builds up Bardot’s)
MIO FIGLIO NERONE (My Son, Nero), released in 1956, is a raucous comedy played very broadly, built around the ultimate over-bearing Mother from Hell. Anyone who has seen a number of Italian historical films (as I have) set during the Roman Empire can attest that one of the more entertaining elements in such films, even in a feature that is not so good overall, is the depiction of Nero. He’s often played as foppish, petulant, self-absorbed, childish, vindictive, and a glutton. As interpreted by the great Italian comic actor ALBERTO SORDI here, he’s many of those things, but most of all, devoted to his annoying lute playing and singing, which he tries to inflict on as many others as possible, but they always try to find ways to get out of hearing it. Although Sordi is more of a leading-man type than, say, Dom DeLuise, the performance would fit right into a Mel Brooks film and the overall tone is not unlike something by Brooks. However, instead of a Brooks film where we might see Cloris Leachman or Madeline Kahn in the role of an over-the-top, shrewish mother, here we get Gloria Swanson, pulling out all the stops in her performance. I’ve read that the film was shot MOS (without live sound), and thus all the actors are looped, but whoever did Swanson’s voice in Italian clearly was familiar with Swanson’s phrasing and mannerisms, and the voice is quite fitting for the character. If Ms. Swanson did speak Italian, this is the voice she would have had.
Throughout the film, Nero tries to have his mother killed in many ways—-a nest of vipers, a ceiling crashing down upon her, being clubbed to death, etc.—but she ALWAYS comes back, and then downgrades her son on what a failure he is in that he can’t even kill an old lady like her! They have loud arguments, she hits him and he holds his arms over his head like a baby would, they insult each other, etc. It’s classic lowbrow comedy (something Italians understand well!), and it’s Gloria Swanson unleashed!
Gloria Swanson always took chances with her career….choosing edgy projects like SADIE THOMPSON and QUEEN KELLY at the height of her fame….playing the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard with the risk of being typecast as a Norma Desmond-type by a generation or two who did not know the real Swanson and thus did not know she was acting (assuming she was “playing herself,” which she certainly was not). Doing this film, with an over-the-top performance and lots of physical comedy and an unglamorous (to say the least!) part, was not what one would expect someone concerned about safe career moves to do, as she tried to build on the comeback started with SUNSET BOULEVARD. However, Swanson never bothered with safe moves, and she surely had a ball playing this role. You can see in her eyes how much she is enjoying LETTING GO completely, and how she enjoyed the comic chemistry with Alberto Sordi.
MIO FIGLIO NERONE is not for everyone. Although beautifully shot and with fascinating production design (and in sumptuous widescreen and color), it IS a lowbrow comedy, and the best way to point that out is to observe that director STENO later did a number of the Bud Spencer “Flatfoot” comedies, which I happen to love, but which many film snobs would turn up their nose to. I found the film very entertaining and a wonderful missing-piece in the career of Gloria Swanson. If the above description sounds interesting to you, be sure to check it out if you ever get the chance to see it….the original Italian version, that is.