Australian Biography

Diane Cilento - full interview transcript

Tape of 9

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You were very young, you were away from home and you were spectacularly successful. What effect did that have on you as a person?

Well it was actually, I think probably very, very difficult to handle, and I don't know whether I did it very well, but I'm still here, I survived just about. But there were enormously ... you know people talk about learning curves. That was a sort of ... It just wasn't really very easy to handle in that I still thought of myself as the sort of little kid down the end of the line who ... and suddenly I was this sort of person that everyone was deferring to and rushing around and I could throw my weight around if I wanted. But, I knew that I didn't know my part properly, really. And I really didn't want to be stuck in films in the same sort of copy roles that they put you in, in British Lion. All girls were immediately sort of made into sort of tidged [sic] up creatures that were ... I mean it was true that films at that time, the love scenes came on and you thought, oh no, here we can have a little sleep here. Really the girls' parts in films, a lot then, were very much token, so I didn't really like films. And I got into the Royal Court, where I did a lot of plays and got to know the really mover and shaking world in the theatre. I just had my finger on every pulse at that time, and I had the facility to do it. So in some ways it was a balanc[ing] act between dealing with the big shots, who had all the money, who were actually quite boring and you were fighting them off a lot, and the other sort of Royal Court type of person who was trying to do plays like Look Back In Anger and stuff like that, and they were, they were completely different. And I preferred that world a lot. And I did, I did stay in that world as much as I could. And I was rather sort of snooty about the other one.

How did you relate to the men in your life at the time?

I don't know how you mean: the men in my life. I kept, I, I sort of kept as far away as I could from all those sort of touchy, feely film people, who never stopped sort of groping you, whenever they got a chance. And I found that anathemic, but you know, it just happens. You spend a lot of time fighting people off. And I really didn't ... I had a lot of good friends, young guys and that, and girls, but I didn't want to be attached to any of them as a sort of singular relationship. A lot of actors find someone - actresses - find someone that ... They get a protector sort of, that's my boyfriend, so don't come near, but I still didn't want that. I didn't want someone that I carried around in tow in that way. So I was ... I've always been a bit of a loner. I'm a bit of what Tennessee Williams used to call the fugitive kind. I do a few bolts every now and again, rush off. And I suppose that's what you'd call here, a very large run. But it's because I don't really want to get stuck in a very cliched situation where I can't extricate myself. And that's why I didn't form up those sort of relationships like people do now, where they've ... that's my boyfriend and that's my girlfriend, and now it's not, but I've got another solid relationship. I didn't have that sort of thing if I could help it.

Tell me about your first husband.

Well, I met him in the street. He was Italian - is Italian. His name is Andrea Volpe. And he's, he had run away from his family, which was a sort of Roman patrician family. And here I know that it does have that connection with my father and everything like that, because I had been taught a lot of poetry of Dante, my father being the head of the Dante Alighieri Society, and I had been the little thing that was brought out when Italian boats came into town, and brought out to speak a bit of, you know, oh things like ... [ITALIAN] ... It's sort of like Shakespeare in English. But it's classical Italian, and that's what I think, I had this romantic image in the back of my brain somewhere, and this sort of beautiful looking young man walked up and said ... and I remember it, he said, 'Dove? Una piscina', which is Italian ... and I didn't look very Italian, come on, so I knew he'd said, 'Do you know where there's a swimming pool?' Which is a pretty. So I told him and then I noticed that every time I went anywhere - a restaurant - he's standing outside the door. And then I'd go out there he'd be across the street. If I went at six o'clock in the morning, he'd be there. It was frightfully sort of Romeo and Juliet. I mean he stood under my balcony as it were. And finally I went swimming with him, because that's what he'd asked for really: a swimming pool, and we, I sort of really thought he was ... I just fell madly in love for the first time in my life, and I'd never really had that sort of feeling. And I think it did have to do with all that backlog of all the romantic part of my upbringing and my father's stories of his family. And I just sort of ... He was virtually the same age as me too. We were both ridiculously young. And we sort of got married without telling anyone much, not my mother or anyone, and they were all rather surprised.

Why didn't you tell them?

Well, I didn't want them sort of muddled into it I suppose. And anyway, how could they have done anything from Australia. I was in London, and I didn't tell anyone much. And then I went into this play and went to New York and he was left in London. So he had a job with Korda. I got him a job. Well I didn't really, but Korda employed him as a translator, even though he could hardly speak English, which was quite odd. But he worked there with the Baroness Bugburg and all those people who Korda has as a little stable of people to translate things and get on with people from other countries.

Why did his mother come to New York with you and not him?

Ah, the machinations of the Romani, the Roman people. Yes, she came because I think she could get into America easily, easier than him. And she same to sort of keep, see that I was okay and wasn't shacked up with some black fella or something, you know, down in the Village. And I think really she came to sort of get to know me in a way. She was a very smart woman. Her name was the Contessa Elsa Volpe di Smale, and she was very smart, sort of blue headed aristocratic lady who had a business that made very smart clothes, that she didn't have to do. And she was in gamba as they say in Italian. And also she was ... I think her son being her favourite son ... I think she was a little bit ... we had a bit of a...

But having just got married...

Yeah.

And then you went away for a year, and you were separated. How did you cope with that?

Not very well. I mean we used to send each other these long tapes and we used to have these incredibly long telephone conversations, and it was a bit of a wrench. It was a stupid way to begin a marriage - very, very silly. And it really didn't work at all. So when I came back, I mean everything had changed a bit. We'd all sort of phut. And I was put into a musical, and his mother was still there and she was now ... she'd come to stay with us for good. And that's when I really began to sort of get a bit ... didn't like it at all.

What was the musical?

It was called Zorieka, and that had a bad end. I got out of it in the end. But it was really because of the ... they had a clause in the contract where the producer could veto ... now am I getting this right ... any director. I know. It wasn't the producer, it was the two writers, who were Oxford guys and they could veto any director. So we went through nine directors, including Peter Hall. And they turfed him out too. But they never wanted ... they really wanted to direct it themselves. That's why they did it. And every time they turfed out a director you had to start to learning it again, new, because in fact you couldn't keep that director's work, otherwise they would have had to pay him. So it was a nightmare.

So you'd come back to a marriage that was sort of difficult, because of the separation, a mother-in- law moving in with you ...

Yes.

... and a musical that was a nightmare?

Yeah.

What happened?

Well, everything happened. I sort of ran away, skipped off. And he and his mother went back to Italy. And I ended up in Sicily, and then I sort of ... well I can't remember what really happened after that.

When was your baby born?

Then. After that. After that. And I went to Australia to have Giovanna with my mum, because she wanted me to and she was ... that was her job.

But before that, before you were pregnant, there was a crisis. Would you tell me about that? What happened? With all this pressure on you.

Well I suppose, and I really have never talked about this, I just couldn't see any way out of any of it. I just thought I can't, just can't cope with any of it. And so I sort of made an attempt to get help by trying to kill myself. And it was all rather dramatic and mad and then I ran away, with my Italian maid to Sicily. [laughs] And then somehow - I don't know how - my husband found when I came back, he was waiting at Naples for me. So it was very strange. And then we went back to Rome and then things sort of settled down for a bit, and then I really couldn't stand that sort of incarceration of the Italian wife. I was in that sort of world of where the moglie is supposed to be totally encapsuled in the house. I sort of went off to Australia. I couldn't take it, living with all these servants and everybody was ... everybody played a role all the time. I think the Italians are the most genuine hypocrites in the world. They're genuinely hypocritical. They know how to do it. And I just didn't want that, so off I went to Australia.

What do you mean by they're being hypocritical? How did you experience that?

Well, for instance, in that household of my mother-in-law and father-in-law lived the father's mistress's daughter and the mother's sort of adopted son [and] nobody quite knew how he'd been adopted or why, but he counteracted the girl that was there, who was called Moona, and then there were his real children and their real children, and they all kept this extraordinary game going all the time. It was very sort of difficult to ... I didn't particularly like the play I was in, but I understood Pirandello immediately after that, because ... and I actually translated a Pirandello play after that. Because they did have positions that they took and roles that they played and drama that happened in a very essentially formalised way. And I, being an Australian, that sort of world is very foreign. Doesn't bear thinking about much because it doesn't really go anywhere. It just goes up its own orifice, you know.

And you experienced, I assume, in that atmosphere, a great loss of freedom.

Absolutely. I used to walk around the streets sort of trying to find anything to do. I mean, my husband and I, we had a Vespa and we used to zoom around here and there and we went to things, and that was all the time that we knew those people, like Fellini and all those people. They were great fun. Visconti. But they, again, they were in that extraordinary fixed world of attitudes.

But at the same time, Diane, as you were trying to live this life, you were conscious of the fact that you were in huge, huge demand as an actress at the peak of her ... of her sort of first flush of success.

Yes, that was very difficult and that's ... I mean I ... once I'd Giovanna here. And then I went back to England, I was ... and then, suddenly, everybody was on to me. Everybody. And I then ... suddenly when I was in New York one night I was with Hal Prince and all sorts of people. I had a haemorrhage and I had tuberculosis. And I had ... I thought at first something had happened in my throat, and then I went into what's called the Medical Arts Hospital. I didn't have insurance and I was there. I had to ... I mean I was nearly dead. My dad of course arrived. And I stayed there until I had to go back to Italy on a hospital ship. I went on the Andrea Doria, and I was down to sort of like four stone, five stone, four stone - between that. I looked at my arm and I thought, what's that? And then slowly I was put into the Vatican then, I lived in the Vatican for six months.

Why?

Because the family of ... knows ... knew Professori Morelli that ran it. And that was where you went in Rome if you had that disease. It was a very sort of beautiful place inside the Vatican, run by nuns, and with a very extraordinary man called Professori Morelli, who had white hair down to here and was very sort of ... But I know that when I was there everyone was trying to come and see me. My mother-in-law even came and lived with me in that hospital, and I had lots of people coming in there because it was very chic to go to the Vatican. She used to ... they used to give cocktail parties in my room even, and all sorts of mad things happened.

And what about your baby?

I couldn't see her. Because I might have given her something. I mean obviously that disease, which is very catchy. But when I came out of there I knew I wasn't getting better because I'd had my lung collapsed. And they took me to Cervinia, which is a place, Matterhorn, you know - under the Matterhorn, and that was where my father-in-law had a house. And my mother-in-law used to keep us apart: me and my husband, because I might ... he might catch that disease, you know. So I was sort of kept like a little nun in a room, and then every second day he had to take me to a place called Cervinia, the town, and I had my lung collapsed by a thing called premotoraja, and of course the doctor there was a friend of his father's, and I told him that this doctor was behaving very unpleasantly towards me. And he said, 'No, no. You mustn't say a word because he's a friend of my father's'. So I thought, oh, oh, here we go, and from that moment on I decided to get out of there. That's what I mean about attitudes, you see.

You were being harassed by the doctor?

Yes.

... And you weren't allowed to tell... your husband about it?

He was sitting outside, my husband. No, I told my husband and he said, 'Don't tell him because he's a friend of my father's'. So that's why I ... and I knew that was it. And I also wanted to take my kid, so I started plotting to get out. I didn't have any money. And I will tell you a story that is absolutely true. It's very funny. My father-in-law was a very tall man, who had a red beard and was, I think, a sort of neo-fascist. But anyway, he had mines and different things and lots of workmen that seemed to live under the house somehow, but up in those mountains, there was a lot of mountain streams - not very wide, but you could see trout in them. And I said, 'Oh it's funny 'cause none of your workmen ever go and try and catch trout'. He said, 'No, no, no. Nobody can catch them, nobody'. So I thought, well now. So I got a book from this doctor called La Vita della Trota, Life of the Trout, and I read, so I bet him that for every trout he would pay me some huge sum of money, like 20,000 lires or something. And then I learnt ... well I crawled up to the thing and I used to do this thing and I started catching trout. And once I ... he couldn't go against me because everyone had heard it. So I made enough money to ... I rang up my agent in London, got a taxi to meet us. I then told them I was going, and I got taken to Torino, and then I went to London and I never went back to that family again. And that's how I got out. Sounds mad. True though. Weird. But then ...

Your relationship with your husband?

Well, he sent a lawyer over there. But I didn't ... by that time I had totally ... I did take my baby obviously, but I sort of said to them before, 'Oh I'll come back'. But then I met Sean. I had met Sean when I was pregnant actually, and he was waiting there. I'd sort of rung him up too and a few other people, and alerted them that I was getting out. And I then was cured. I went to the chest hospital and I had a thing called isoniozide, which is the drug that cures, and I really started to get better. But I wasn't insurable for quite a long time. And so that's when the beginning of the whole of the next part of my life. It sort of came to its first, natural end then - when I got out of Italy. But then, it's a bit Perils of Pauline, but there it is, I'm sorry. The next part of my life was when I sort of was doing ... knew Sean and we were all working on all sorts of things at the Royal Court and the National Theatre and lots of films.

At that stage, when you'd decided that you would leave the family, you said that you already knew Sean Connery from earlier times.

What I knew him about was I did Anna Christie with him when I was pregnant with Trevano. I had gone to London to do that television with Leo McKern. He played my dad, Sean played the stoker, but I didn't have anything much to do with him. All I did was sell him my Vespa that I'd had in London because I was going back to Australia to have Giovanna. I did it when I was sort of six months pregnant. And then I came back to Australia, and that's really how I knew him. And he kept writing to me all the time when I was in Australia - very sweet. And then he did sort of help me quite a lot when I was ... I mean he used to drive me in my own Vespa that I'd sold him to the chest hospital. I used to have to go quite often. And it was a period when I wasn't insurable, and so it was a fabulous summer and we all ... a lady gave me a house. Lady Diana Duff Cooper gave me her house at Bognor and so all the actors used to come there. Giovanna was there and we were all there all the time. We had a magnificent, mad couple of months. And then I was better really.

If you had to sum up your first marriage and that relationship, how would you do it?

Well, it was everything that is romantic in Shakespeare. I sort of see it as a Romeo and Juliet thing, but I having played that part, I actually think that Romeo and Juliet would have had a dreadful marriage. Just like mine was in a way. It wasn't dreadful, it was just incompatible. Because I had a lot of things to do and he was a sort of playboy in a way, and had come from a very, very rich family in Italy: very spoilt, really was mummy's boy. But I met him when he'd run away from all that. So I didn't see that side. And you know, Italian mamas are very closely packed with their sons, so that's really what the problem was in the end, I think. You know, looking back on it now.

And was your relationship with Sean very different from that? Was that part of the attraction? What was your relationship with Sean like? What drew you to him?

Well, well I've always been the 'darling', I mean in a way. I mean that's what my husband always says to me, my husband of now, says, 'Oh you naughty thing, you're the darling'. I've never been the one who pursued, I've always been pursued, and so what's drawn me to people is them being drawn to me, more than anything. And he was very, very good to me when I was ill. And also we worked with the Laban method and he went to voice, voice production. I took him to Jusberry (sic), and he did a lot of work because he had a lot of work to do. Because I mean he was absolutely non-acceptable by all that crew of people as an actor on the stage.

Why?

Because he had a terrible accent ...[IMITATES ACCENT] ... and he was sort of huge and had been second mister, you know, he came second in Mr. Scotland, and always had lots of hairs on his back, and was very rough as far as they were concerned. And he was also working class, which at that time I think still, and I still think, England needs its class distinctions. They wouldn't know what to do without them. They like it. And he was really working class. And so until that person has proven themselves, which they can do much easier than they could then, they're unacceptable, really, basically.

And he was prepared to put the work in to prove himself?

Are you kidding? He was very, very, very ambitious, and he was very good with money. He'd been on tour in the chorus of South Pacific, and he was a sort of political animal then. And he'd sort of saved enough money - never spent any money - to buy himself a little mews house which we painted blue then, and ... It was sort of a working relationship really I suppose, much more than ... I mean I suppose we all have this dreadful thing called a work ethic. I mean, I don't know where it comes from - it must be some genetic horrific thing because Aborigines are wonderful at not having it, and I would love not to have it really. Sometimes I think I don't and I really like to loll about for a lot of the time. But I do, I am a very assiduously hard worker really, and he was like that too. But fun, you know, it can be. It's not really like work when it's nice and fun like that.

Were you a lot of help to him in showing him the ropes, because you were already established?

Oh yes, of course I was. And I mean I also thought it was a terrific joke. I loved it, that he was so sort of rough diamond compared with all those creepy actors that I knew. [laughs]

Not to mention the aristocratic Italian family...

Well exactly. Right, right you've got it. I probably went whoosh, straight round in 180 degree swivel, just to be out of all that.

How did he get on with Giovanna?

Terrifically well at that time. He just loved her. But you know, your ... the whole tapestry of your life is so interwoven with so many people that you can't just say, 'There's Andrea and there's Sean'. There were whole lots of people wandering in and out and being part of one's life - so many people that it makes it seem as though you go plop, plop, plop, but you never, never, never do. And you're never committed to anything, at least I wasn't then, in that way. Although, I mean Sean made it his business that I didn't see many other people [other] than him. But I did still have lots of other friendships. And that's when ... I think we're getting up to the time when I'd been at the Royal Court for a while and then done lots of things with Tony Richardson. I'd been to the Mexican Film Festival with him and we'd been off to Mexico and Chichén Itzá together with John Osborne and everyone. And then what happened was, they were doing Tom Jones, and all the people from the Royal Court were shoved into ... I was ... and we all went down to the country to have this rip roaring time with Albert Finney and Suzanna York and Tony Richardson, and all the really good filmmakers. And we were encouraged to sort of think up mad things for our parts and look in the book and suggest things. It was a great. It was the nicest film I've ever been on. They always had a huge American car, boot filled with champagne, and everyone was drinking away and having a good time and we had great big barbecues and great big ... And it was a summer film. So I was there all the time and that's when Sean came down sort of very ... and that's when he was thinking ... I mean he had shown me this book of Bond, and we had a big laugh about it and said, 'The only way you could play this part is if you're funny and say funny things'. Because it's so horrible and he's such a beast, and the thing is this: my mother, who was so funny about those films said, 'But dear', she said to me, 'Who gave James Bond permission to kill? Was it the Queen?' [laughs] I mean being very practical, those people of her generation were horrified by the possibility that there wasn't any ten commandments anymore. But when I'd done Tom Jones I was always very pregnant, actually, even though I played a pregnant lady and I had to wear a huge thing, I was pregnant. And I really didn't want to get married. But ... so I upped again and went to Spain with my sister. And I was an Australian citizen, and this is a bit complicated, but you couldn't go into Gibraltar, where I wanted to have the baby, more than three times as an Australian. You had ... you could only be British. So ... and then Sean arrived and I had done my three goes, and I was supposed to have a caesarian and I said, 'Don't be silly, I'm not having that'. So he decided and we ... that we were going to get married and then I'd have a British passport as well as an Australian passport and I could get across the border whenever I liked, but then there was an enormous fracas where I sort of did a bit of a skip again. I mean, I realise that what ... what we ... what I realise is that I probably am a person who skips off when things get a bit difficult and I can't hope to get them into order. I think I'm better at it now though. But I was a bit of a bolter. But then it all worked out, and we did get married and I did ... then I went and had this baby. And after that then Sean got to be very successful, but I was the one who was sort of left holding the baby, if you see what I mean, in a way. In the ... in that ... he suddenly, after we got married, said, 'No, no. You can't work any more. I don't want you to work', and suddenly reverted, as it were, to being, I suppose, the Scottish husband, who said you can't do anything ... because ... you know.

Did he say why? Did he say why he wanted that?

No, because that's not what they do. They don't talk in 'whys'. They just say no. And what's frightening is that at that time I suppose there was no equality of sexes and things. (TO CAMERAMAN That thing's going out all the time. Did you know?)

[end of tape]

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