Friday the 13th of December, 2013 was a lucky day for your humble correspondent Bobby Freudstein, being the day that my longest, most soul-destroying and hopefully final stint of conventional employment mercifully terminated. Invited to what was, doubtless, going to be an unseemly office-closing knees-up, I was prepared with the perfect pretext for non-attendance. “Can’t do it, mate… I’m interviewing Barbara Steele tonight” (talk about a reaffirmation of intent!) “Who’s Barbara Steele?”, came the philistine reply. Another compelling reason not to go… I mean, would you want to socialise, if you could possibly avoid it, with the kind of person who doesn’t know who Barbara Steele is?
To mark La Steele’s 80th birthday, the following is a potted, Italian-biased version of a career-embracing interview that originally appeared, in its entirety, over issues 158 and 159 of Dark Side magazine. The original data file having gone AWOL and my scanner being on the blink, I’m grateful to the lovely Mrs Freudstein for retyping the relevant passages… also to Calum Waddell for hooking me up… and of course to the Queen Of Horror herself, for her participation.
We pick up the interview at the point where Barbara has just stood up Elvis Presley on Flaming Star, occasioning a blazing row with its director, Don Siegel. Having burned her Hollywood bridges, she started over in The Land Of The Big Boot…
One of the memorable quotes that’s been attributed to you, so many of which seem to be apocryphal, is: “I went to Hollywood with very little and came back with nothing”.
I can’t remember what’s real or not myself, but that sounds about right.
And so, off to Italy… it’s said that Italian directors are more concerned with lighting the iconic face in the beautiful scene than they are with actually directing actors. Did you find yourself having to fall back on your Rank Charm School training?
Italian directors were, for the most part, so generous and enthusiastic and abundant and loving and you just felt it, felt you could do no wrong. When you are in this very safe place and you don’t have this sort of awkward, silent, critical eye around you, you can do something that you really wouldn’t otherwise think of doing. Now Mario Bava was a very conservative, shy and private man, didn’t get too involved with his actors because he was preoccupied as we all know with his camerawork and his lighting and the beauty of his films. He was very removed from his actors.
Did your own background in the visual arts make you more simpatico with Bava’s vision and better equipped to participate in it?
Well, we didn’t see dailies and you’re not aware of what anything is until you’ve seen dailies. It was only ages afterwards that you got an idea of what was going on. You didn’t see the slow motion, you didn’t see the high contrast, you didn’t see the whole German Expressionist look… you didn’t see it, you just felt it, you just felt the huge intelligence and focus and that he really cared about his framing and so on, that absolutely nothing was random.
Was it disconcerting to find yourself acting on a noisy set with an international cast, some of whom where spouting stuff like “rhubarb, rhubarb” and with all the dialogue being re-dubbed in post production?
Well I never actually heard anybody saying the rhubarb, rhubarb thing! (Laughs) Obviously direct sound is so much better. Italy was extremely noisy in those years, there was always somebody singing songs, repairing a church bell, people having all sorts of crazy arguments… I guess all the walls must have been very thin so they couldn’t possibly do direct sound. Not exactly a disaster, but sad for me because I never heard my voice on these films. By the time they got round to looping the film, I was usually making another one in another country and couldn’t do it and the voice to me is, you know, two thirds of the way or at least half the way there. It’s strange how patterns follow you, or it seems, in such a random way, all your life because my voice has barely been used and you know that’s extraordinarily frustrating.
It’s such a shocking waste of such a distinctive voice… your performance in the pre-titles sequence of Black Sunday is one of the most iconic cinematic moments of all time, but we heard that you remain displeased with it, find it too mannered and would have welcomed the opportunity to do it again and differently.
I’ve been thinking about that recently, you could really go one or two ways with it, when you’re paralysed with terror because someone is approaching you with death and agony, like the iron mask… your eyes are transfixed, you’re out-of-body and frozen in some kind of other worldly terror, or you can choose to do it the other way, which is to really go berserk! It would be interesting to see it both ways. Actually I think Mario Bava had a very firm idea of how he wanted it and he was right, I think it worked that way.
Well, Asa could afford to be sanguine about it because she was confident she’d return to do more evil deeds… I imagine that somewhat takes the edge off her ordeal (Barbara laughs). As an actress is it more satisfying to see yourself on the screen in moody chiaroscuro or the kind of lurid colour schemes favoured by Roger Corman, for whom you starred in the Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and indeed later by Bava himself?
I think black and white is more satisfying for horror, it reaches much deeper into the subconscious, just as black and white photographs have an appeal truer and more profound than a colour photograph. I don’t know if it’s just because the eye receives colour differently in a darkened movie theatre, I don’t know what happens to your peripheral vision but it always takes one time to accept the colour, however gorgeous it is, you know, however beautiful and well done it is…
We’re getting more used to it now thanks to colour television, which is really very good now in America, a lot of it so beautifully shot that it looks like Storaro on some of these series, but having grown up on black and white cinema and all the great imagery of the ’40s and ’50s and German Expressionism, etc, there’s nothing for me quite as spectacular as great black and white. I do think that Italian cameramen have a third eye and I can actually identify if a film is Italian, even if I don’t know, just by the way it is lit. The light of Rome, the light of Italy, this transcendental light with these glowing threads that kind of go through it, it seems to be absorbed by film and the Italian cameramen are so sensitive to light, fabulous, as they grew up in this. I think this is why they are so very conscious of light and they talk about it… I mean, even the guy who’s selling you peaches on the market will talk about light, he won’t just say it’s a beautiful day, he’ll say: “Oh it’s a beautiful morning, isn’t the light incredible?” and it is this kind of thing and yeah…voilà!
Another of your “gothic” directors was Antonio Margheriti… were you aware of the animosity that allegedly existed between him and Bava?
No I was not, though it may have well been the case between them in private.
Another of those myths that’s become associated with you is that you wouldn’t go on to the Black Sunday set one day because you feared that Bava had developed a “see through” film technique that would render you naked on the screen.
Bullshit! Yeah, this was published in that guy’s book about Bava, I couldn’t believe it! How could someone say something so profoundly idiotic? I mean I was just amazed, it’s the most whimsical and demented thing imaginable… “I’m not coming to the set today in case you’ve got X Ray film”? Just hilarious!
Bava’s secret “see through” film stock was working only too well…
Supposedly Bava tried several times to get a colour remake of Black Sunday off the ground and apparently he wanted you for The Whip and The Body (1963) in the role that eventually went to Daliah Lavi.
These are things that were never communicated to me, because I was really a gypsy and all over the place. But yes, that’s what I heard and they were films that the French director Yves Boisset really wanted me for and I never heard about. Sometimes you wouldn’t find out until two years after the event…
It would’ve been wonderful to watch the sado-masochistic sparks fly between you and Christopher Lee, though you did later work with him on Vernon Sewell’s Curse Of The Crimson Altar. Another male horror icon you appeared alongside, in Corman’s aforementioned the Pit and the Pendulum, was Vincent Price. How did that go professionally and personally?
Everyone who ever worked with Vincent Price will tell you that they just adored him. He was such an intelligent, civilised guy, he was just as beautiful a man as he appears to be on film, with his sort of edgy irony rather than cruelty. Very supportive, and of course he loved Art, was a great Art collector, we had a really good communication about Art and yes, I really liked Vincent Price very much. I always said that if he had been an Englishman, or if he had moved to England, he could and would have been one of those titled actors, the Gielguds and so on, he would’ve been one of the great classic actors. I think he had something of an ambivalence about not using more of his powers as an actor in great roles. I know your readers all love Horror and you’re thinking about great roles in that genre but I’m talking about really great roles.
When you had lunch with people like Price, Lee and Karloff (your other Crimson Altar co-star), would you compare notes on your experiences with people like Mario Bava?
I’ve had lunch with Christopher Lee on several occasions and I’ve taken tea at his house, I mean I’ve met him many many times and I can’t remember our conversations in that much detail frankly, but I just expounded over everything, I mean I don’t remember anything that he said particularly about Mario Bava but he’s very grand and very courteous and it’s marvellous, just too fabulous that he’s still working.
8 1/2 is just the most audacious, ostentatious display of creativity…. it’s about Fellini’s creative block but it’s like he’s saying that even blocked, his work is more engaging than that of others working at full throttle.
Well, what he actually said about this in the movie is in the scene at the press conference when Mastroianni is under the table and this is really true of so many artists, writers and so on. He says “I have nothing to say but I have to say it anyway”.
Didn’t you have a lot off scene cut from the film?
I did, it is still a very long movie about 3 hours but the first cut was something like 5 and a half hours long! Oh god I did, yes and I’m so upset about it, I think I had about the scenes cut, most of which are very sarcastic about the Vatican. Oh and there’s a little dig at Antonioni where I have a tiny dog called Michelangelo and I’m saying: “Michelangelo, you’re so slow! Faster please, please, come on! Come on!”
He was so slow with the horror film in which he intended to star you alongside Monica Vitti that it never got made!
Ah, that would have been great, would’ve been just marvellous, but fate for actors is like walking on a high wire of luck, you could have one thing that could turn you around completely. The thing about the horror films I did in Italy in those days, of course, they are always set in the past… and why? Because the past has a fairytale quality and they are always done, as we said, very elegantly, beautifully shot, but that feeling of the past, in a strange way…
It gives a film greater longevity, compared to e.g. the later films in the Hammer cycle which tried for a very “early ’70s” feel and look and just look incredibly dated now, whereas something like Black Sunday is completely outside of any temporal frame of reference.
Well yes, they are out of time, you’re absolutely right. They are timeless and it gave them a kind of elegance. It felt, in a strange way, as though it could be truer and more real, because then you step back a bit and you feel you can expect it more as opposed to something being contemporary. Those films are all deeply engrossed in the psyche and l’aldila, the other world… it’s not the horror of, you know, you suddenly see somebody approach you in the dark with a knife… it’s a different horror, it’s psychological. It’s anticipation of the horror that’s about to come, which is always worse than the actuality because in the actuality you can react and you’re caught up in your rage and your blood flowing and everything and you react, the anticipation of the act is always far worse than the act itself.
Another colour shot from the set of a b/w film… Fellini 8 1/2
Absolutely. In this age of DVD and Blu-Ray collectors’ editions, with all the extras you get on those, it would be nice to think that one day we’re going to see, for instance, your missing scenes from Fellini 8 1/2 or the stuff that was shot for his Casanova…
Well, nothing was ever shot of me for Casanova, whic is a great pity/ My sequence was completely cut before shooting started and it was a phenomenal role. I mean, this was before they invented Viagra and I was this kind of Venetian alchemist wearing this amazing head dress, sat on a throne in Venice, who came up with these marvellous bottles of stuff that would cure anybody of impotence, which would have been just the most spectacular, campy thing on the planet!
Wow! Were you ever connected to any Pasolini projects? That would have been another marriage made in heaven / hell…
No! I loved Pasolini, he used to live just three or five doors down the street from me, I saw him all the time and I just loved his poetry, all of his work, but no, our paths never crossed professionally.
That’s a shame, to me out of all those guys, he was The Master…
I think you’re right.
For a long time there was this dichotomy, a false one in my belief, between worthy Italian Arthouse cinema and that country’s populist “B movie” tradition. Do you sense that we are moving beyond that now when people like Scorsese and Tim Burton are rhapsodising about Mario Bava (and of course Fellini himself was a big admirer of Bava) and a Hollywood heavyweight like Quentin Tarantino is citing Antonio Margheriti and Enzo Castellari as his masters?
I do and I think particularly in American that’s the case, to me what is amazing that so many people are so conscious of the films, I cannot believe the amount of fans they have and the amount of fan mail I get for these films, which are ancient. This is even before there were DVDs, people were collecting videos, it’s just extraordinary because a lot of these films didn’t get any kind of release… just incredible!
What one hears about Ricardo Freda is that if he really cared about a project he was full on and involved in it, but if he wasn’t he would just phone it in and farm it out to his assistants to complete the picture… which indeed is how Mario Bava made the transition from DP to director.
I never knew that.
I guess Freda was “on it” for the two “Dr Hichcock” pictures he made with you…
He was very “on it”, he was a very theatrical, energised guy, always chomping on a cigar. He had his little tantrums, which actually I quite liked because I could have a tantrum back. It’s a form of communication, you didn’t have to take it as a disparaging thing and he’d have his little things with the crew and this and that but in the end everybody just loved him. To me he was like an Italian opera star, second lead! (Laughs) He was very operatic, in other words, I really liked his theatricality and energy, I really loved Ricardo Freda… he was great.
Another guy who developed a reputation for tantrums and became a horror icon in his own right, relatively late in his career, was Lucio Fulci. I gather you had a good time with Fulci, you must have caught him when he was young and relatively relaxed. He did subsequently develop this reputation for being crusty and difficult and increasingly eccentric…
Yes, I heard that and I was sorry to hear it.
I met him in the last year of his life and he was very charming but absolutely barking, thoough there was a suspicion that he was kind of playing up to that image.
You’re kidding! Dear, oh dear…
You played two roles in his 1964 comedy I Maniaci and very well, too… it’s a pity you didn’t accumulate more credits in that genre and that those in which you did appear never got any distribution outside of Italy.
I know, I love comedy, very few people can write it these days. I feel, you know, that somebody else had my actress career. I was just like living on the ceiling or something and these sort of things just fell in and I did them and it’s so strange that I’ve ended up with this collection of horror in my past.
Many of the gothic films you made in Italy deal with such taboo subjects… were you aware how the versions of them that got released in English speaking territories were tweaking to eradicate any suggestion of lesbianism, incest, necrophilia and so on?
It’s interesting because there we were in a highly Catholic country and that is where we were doing all that stuff, you’d think it would be the other way round, no?
So Many acerbic and startling statements have been accredited to you and most of them you probably never even said. “I never want to climb out of another freaking coffin as long as I live…”
No I never said that, I really hate that and that’s another one which I REALLY hate which I think was in a French magazine Midi Minute Fantastic or something, the magazine which I gather is now being republished in a series of books, but the one that really infuriates me…
I think I know what’s coming…
You’ve got to put this straight! I’m quoted as saying in several articles that, I wanted to “fuck the world” and that’s just a word that I don’t use. I probably said something like” “I want to have a love affair with the whole world”…
… or to embrace the whole world…
Yeah, which is completely different but that is just grotesque.
It is grotesque, it’s kind of ironic though that while you would obviously have never said such a thing, that is pretty much the plot of the David Cronenberg picture you appeared in, Shivers… libidomania!
Yes, well, he loved his bodily fluids, did Cronenberg!