Yet the film left me wondering whether Zeffirelli ever knew the truth, or whether he simply can't bear to tell it now.
On the evidence of Callas Forever, Zeffirelli wonders guiltily if he couldn’t have done something to save her or (at the very least) to make her lonely last days more pleasant. He uses the movie as wish fulfillment, rewriting the past, fantasizing. What Callas really needed, he posits, was to get back to work. Though her voice was shot, she was still a great actress and wonderfully photogenic: a movie career should have been available to her. Couldn’t Zeffirelli have found a project for her? (Callas’ participation in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Medea, from 1969, is never mentioned.)
Thus Callas Forever presents the intriguing spectacle of Callas coming out of retirement to film a role she never performed onstage, miming Carmen to a soundtrack of her own EMI recording, from 1964. She’s played by Fanny Ardant, the French actress who starred in the Paris production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class. Jeremy Irons plays the fictional Larry Kelly, the producer of the Carmen film, a longtime associate of Callas’ who, when we meet him, has forsworn opera. But instead of merely secluding himself, like Callas, Larry has stooped to managing a punk band.
The film falls apart before it even gets going. Making Larry a punk-rock impresario creates an easy, unrewarding target. (His band, Bad Dreams, never seen in the film, has gained notoriety for mooning its audience, something we are to infer that a true artist, such as Callas, never, ever does.) Though Zeffirelli’s co-screenwriter, Martin Sherman, wrote the Janis Joplin fable The Rose, it’s obvious these guys know nothing of punk: Bad Dreams is depicted as playing stadium concerts in an era when punk bands didn’t play venues bigger than basements. (Not playing stadiums was the point of punk.) Such mistakes challenge one’s willing suspension of disbelief — a real problem, because in any work of fantasy, whether Callas Forever or Tolkien’s The Return of the King, the audience must believe in the world you’re creating, or you can’t tell your story.
But this movie is full of puzzles that stop a viewer short. For example, almost every man in the film, from Larry’s lover (Jay Rodan) to Don José (Italian pin-up Gabriel Garko), is extravagantly good-looking. Zeffirelli’s longtime penchant for casting attractive men sometimes makes sense: Romeo and Juliet (1968) is about hormonal overdrive, and the actors illustrate that. Here, however, Zeffirelli uses men as set decoration, and it’s baffling. Is he trying to say something about gays and Callas? (If so, McNally did a better job, in The Lisbon Traviata.)
More curiously, Zeffirelli and Sherman name Irons’ character after the founder of Dallas’ opera company, who often worked with Callas (and Zeffirelli) and who died three years before the diva. The film’s Larry Kelly is self-absorbed, petty, manipulative and the engineer of Callas’ final, humiliating concert tours; he’s also one of Irons’ least convincing characterizations. Yet these multiple offenses may not be intended as insults: after all, this Larry Kelly is nothing short of a miracle worker, able to produce an entire film, from financing to final cut, in the few summer months before Callas’ death. Talk about fantasy!
Such shortcomings might be excused if the film developed any of its themes (youth/age, art/trash, truth/fakery, love/career, memory/immortality) or presented its heroine in a more interesting light. Ardant is a fine actress, and she’s up to the job: one sometimes has the feeling that one is watching the real Callas portray a character named Callas. Her physical transformation is stunning, her wildness and determination beautifully played. But here — as in Master Class — we’re given the unsettling image of Callas as stereotype.
See the diva mope. See the diva rage. See the diva make a grotesque play for the much younger tenor. See the diva play her own records in a fit of morbid self-pity (not unlike Tom Hanks in Philadelphia). Even if the real Callas did such things, we don’t want to watch it — not because it tarnishes our idol, but because it tells us nothing about why Callas was Callas. (After all, if acting out to Callas records made one a great artist, I’d be Henry James by now.) Zeffirelli’s personal knowledge of the singer avails him few insights that can’t be gleaned from a magazine article; the average episode of VH1’s Behind the Music is more enlightening — and more original. Zeffirelli gorges on clichés, including some of his own making. Almost shot for shot, he recreates the scenes from his own La Traviata film in which the lonely, peignoir-clad heroine roams her Paris apartment, while a man (Renato Cestiè’s young porter in Traviata, Irons in Callas Forever) spies on her. Violetta, Maria: what’s the difference?
Ultimately, Callas herself shatters Zeffirelli’s fantasy. The entire movie is a game of “what if,” and in the closing scene, Callas firmly, irrevocably ends the game, as if the memory of the real woman is so powerful that it permits Zeffirelli to go no further. He can’t imagine her letting him rescue her.
She’s a daunting figure for anyone to contemplate, but perhaps particularly so for Zeffirelli. Callas is remembered (inaccurately) as pouring all her creative gifts into a brilliant, brief career; Zeffirelli has been coasting for decades, drowning his inspiration in crowd-pleasing but meaningless décor. Look at his most recent Traviata for the Met: why should Violetta sell her jewels, when she could make more money selling off the furniture and the Fiestaware in her vast country mansion? Certainly Callas was conscious of the visual dimension of her art, and that’s why photographs of her onstage are often more communicative than other singers’ entire performances. But Zeffirelli seldom gets beneath the surface appearances of anything. It’s not even clear that he tries — even when the story is as personal as Tea with Mussolini (his disappointing film from 1999) or Callas Forever.
So far as Larry is a self-portrait, the glimpse we get of Zeffirelli in Callas Forever is pretty sad, and not only because of Irons’ wan performance. Zeffirelli once gave himself co-screenwriting credit with William Shakespeare, but that erstwhile brio is absent here. Larry and Callas are the same age, but they’re not peers. Larry isn’t an artist at all. He merely creates opportunities for artists, some of whom (Bad Dreams) he openly disdains. Callas never compromises; Larry negotiates. She lives alone with the memory of a passionate love affair; he has a lover, but treats him indifferently. And so on. The appropriate rock reference here is from Neil Young: “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.” If that’s how Zeffirelli sees himself, no wonder his fantasy Callas defeats him.
At every point, he’s undermined by Callas’ voice, which he uses extensively on the soundtrack. Perhaps Zeffirelli can be pardoned for not creating art that stands up to that voice — still compelling, decades after the recordings were made, long after one has listened to them over and over. In Callas Forever, I heard her Carmen and “Un bel dì” as if for the first time; in Master Class, the finale of La Sonnambula proved similarly revelatory. What was happening on screen or onstage was irrelevant and (by comparison) uninteresting; in both cases, I grew impatient with the writers, the directors, the actors, anyone who prevented me from listening more. Neither script could explain (or compete with) the voice itself.
Callas was a great artist and a glamorous personality. It’s only natural that other artists would be drawn to her. They want to explain her, understand her, possess her. But she resists. She won’t be pinned down. Mourning Aristotle Onassis doesn’t explain her last days — not entirely — just as no single circumstance explains the coloring of a phrase in the Habañera. Perhaps only another artist of her stature, one as able to grasp multiplicity, one who sees every color in the spectrum as brilliantly as she did, could do her justice. Callas will always contradict pat answers — and Zeffirelli, of all people, should know that.
This essay was originally intended for Opera News, but tabled pending general release in the U.S. of Zeffirelli's film. Since Callas Forever went direct to DVD in America, in 2005, my article never ran in the magazine, and it appears here for the first time.