A Sperm-Filled Waxwork: Donald Sutherland as Fellini’s Casanova

When Donald Sutherland passed away at the age of 88 earlier this month, the first thing I thought of, God help me, was the description of him given by Italian auteur Federico Fellini: “A sperm-filled waxwork with the eyes of a masturbator.”

On the surface, that doesn’t paint the most flattering picture of Sutherland. But it was those qualities that convinced Fellini to cast the Canadian-born actor in the title role of his dizzyingly debaucherous 1975 historical opus, Fellini’s Casanova. In the wake of Sutherland’s passing, much attention has been paid to his more widely known work from that same decade (M.A.S.H, Don’t Look Now, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and over the subsequent 49 years (Ordinary People, JFK, The Hunger Games series), but his sojourn to Italy and collaboration with Fellini deserves its share of love, as it boasts one Sutherland’s most bizarre, most daring, and all-around best performances.

Loosely based on the real Giacomo Casanova’s autobiography Historie de ma vie (The Story of My Life), the film looks at the adventures of the 18th-century Venetian writer and intellectual, particularly his myriad carnal escapades throughout Europe. In death as in life, Casanova’s name became synonymous with sexual libertinism, which Fellini presents not as seductive life of transgression and freedom, but a hazy, grotesque, and hollow schlep towards anti-climax.

By 1975, Fellini had moved fully away from the neo-realism of his earliest pictures into full-blown fantasia, every one of his new efforts nothing less than a giant carnival. Yet these were not extravaganza’s made up of escapist entertainment, but warped-mirror reflections of the world Fellini saw around him that revealed ugly truths. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Casanova, a film which Fellini never really wanted to make.

The idea of Fellini doing a movie about history’s most famous lover seemed like an eventuality, which partially explains his reluctance to do it. He would often use the project as a way to entice financers into funding other projects, although he finally agreed to make it at the behest of producer Dino De Laurentis.

De Laurentis, as always, sought to make the biggest blockbuster imaginable, so he was determined to cast Robert Redford in the title role, not realizing that Fellini did not view his hero as an erotic dynamo, but rather as pompous ass and naked social climber who coasts through life (save a couple catastrophes including a brief imprisonment for practicing black magic and a half-assed suicide attempt following a nasty breakup) on a mostly unearned reputation as a lothario; his neurotic devotion to his libido always undermines his artistic and philosophical efforts, to say nothing of his personal happiness. (Knowing how much trouble Fellini’s own womanizing caused, it’s obvious that his personal disdain for Casanova stemmed not a little from seeing himself in the man.)

Fellini nixed Redford, along with other English-language stars suggested by De Laurentis, such as Micahel Caine and Jack Nicholson. He wanted to cast his go-to leading man, Marcello Mastroianni, but the scheduling just didn’t work out, even after De Laurentis walked away from the project and was replaced by fellow Italian megaproducer Alberto Grimaldi. Throughout this time, Sutherland’s name kept popping up, although it’s unknown who first suggested him. Per Sutherland himself, his involvement was entirely “built up from the simple repetition of the rumor.” But he desperately wanted the part, not because the role of Casanova spoke to him, but because, like every serious actor of the time, he wanted to work with Fellini, undoubtedly the most acclaimed arthouse director of the day.

Sutherland openly campaigned for the role, sending a letter to Fellini gushing about how much he admired him, along with a bunch of roses. This didn’t work at first, but after it became clear that Mastrioanni was a no-go, the director decided that Sutherland was his man, his reasoning bringing us back to the aforementioned description of the inhuman and oneiric qualities he found in the actor. Yet even with those qualities already at his disposal, Fellini chose to make Sutherland appear even weirder, having him shave the top of his head and wear a prosthetic nose and chin. The effect is… effective, with Sutherland’s Casanova looking like a cross between a cartoonist’s caricature and an early prototype of Pennywise the Clown.

(What makes all of this extra funny is that Fellini and Sutherland had not only met prior to this, they’d starred in a damn movie together. Granted, they only share a single scene in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland— an Americanized spin on 8 ½, in which Sutherland plays Mazursky’s fictional stand-in and Fellini plays himself—but it’s the best and most famous scene in the film!)

Fellini’s instincts proved correct, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise given Sutherland’s career trajectory up to that point. While it was true that the features which so singularly distinguished him—the tall, lanky, scarecrow’s frame; the equine facial structure housing those saucer eyes, beak of a nose, and The Man Who Laughed-like lips; and that voice, so unlike anyone else’s, intelligent, empathetic, capable of great gravitas and dignity even as it conveyed a sinister potential —would have relegated him to playing weirdos and villains in any other decade, he had the fortune to break through in the ‘70s, the only time when leading men could look like everyman.

Granted, Sutherland wasn’t exactly an everyman; he recalled being passed over for a boy-next-door role once because, in the producer’s words, “You don’t look like you live next door to anybody.” But still, he got in when the getting was good, and by the time he was starring as the patron saint of would-be playboys he himself was something of a surprise sex symbol, thanks mostly to his steamy onscreen tryst with Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant familial horror drama Don’t Look Now (which, like the first act of Casanova, memorably plunks Sutherland down amongst the shadowy canals and cobblestone streets of Venice). So stunning and realistic are the sex scenes in that film that the rumor persisted for decades—indeed, still persists to this day—that he and Christie are actually fucking (they’re not).

The same cannot be said of the sex scenes in Fellini’s Casanova, which play either like drunken circus acrobatics or dull missionary thrusting. This isn’t to say the film paints Casanova as a poor lover—he gets his partners off most of the time, although there are a couple of occasions where their pleasure (indeed, even their consent) is murky—but he’s more prolific than prodigious. What sets him apart is the sense of esoteric ceremony he brings to bed (most notably the use of a mechanical golden owl totem) with him. Those expecting an arthouse porno will be sorely let down, as Fellini’s Casanova takes after the director’s effort from six years earlier, Fellini Satyricon, which screenwriter Bernardino Zapponi, who co-scripted both with Fellini, accurately described as “chaste and anguished… like a funeral… [the characters] laugh when they should die.”

Meanwhile, Sutherland lets the pompous facade of his character gradually fall away, revealing Casanova’s true self: a petty, petulant, ultimately mediocre man who we nonetheless feel for because he at least never stopped dreaming. Indeed, Fellini’s Casanova concludes with a dream, one in which Casanova imagines himself sharing a dance with the love of his life—a plasticine automaton he once made love with. It’s a brutally devastating final image, but one that also contains a cruel kernel of humor, Fellini pairing off one sperm-filled waxwork with another.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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