Monday, August 26, 2013

The Empty Canvas (1963)

U.S. One Sheet Poster

The Empty Canvas (original title La Noia), based on a novel by Alberto Moravia, features Horst Buchholz as Dino, the son of a rich, American ex-patriot from New Orleans, played to the hilt by Bette Davis.  Dino is a twenty-something artist, who has lost his way in life and no longer feels inspiration to paint, or inspiration for life in general, so it seems.  Dino resents his mother and her money, and he interacts with her as little as possible.  It seems that he blames his mother for the lack of attention from his late father, who Dino believes stayed away from their home in order to avoid Dino's mother.

Dino's life changes when he meets Cecilia, an amoral teenager played by the ravishing Catherine Spaak.  Cecilia has been carrying on a torrid affair with a much-older married painter, who became obsessed with her and is Dino's neighbor.  Upon the painter's death, Dino and Cecilia slide into a torrid affair of their own.  As their affair progresses, Dino, suddenly filled with feelings and purpose in his life, becomes obsessed with obtaining commitment from Cecilia.  In the film's penultimate scene, Dino covers Cecilia's nude body in lira notes in an effort to win her commitment.  Cecilia, on the other hand, is just out to have fun and do whatever makes her feel good.  Dino is in danger of letting his obsession with Cecilia destroy his life, just as his neighbor's life was destroyed by his obsession with Cecilia.  At the film's conclusion, we see that Dino has come to his senses with regard to Cecilia and is ready to move forward with his life again.

Filmed in gorgeous black-and-white around Rome in the summer of 1963 by director Damiano Damiani, The Empty Canvas provides Catherine with the opportunity to expand her acting chops.  As Cecilia, she is more "bold young woman" than "precocious teenager."  After having given birth to her first child (a daughter, Sabrina, with husband Fabrizio Capucci) only a few months before filming began, Catherine had a much fuller and curvier figure than she had shown on-screen to-date, and it suits her well.  In many scenes, she displays a smoldering, sensuous look that leaves the audience with no doubt as to how a man of any age could become obsessed with her charms.  Of the "money" scene, Damiani was quoted as saying that "It was the most important scene of her career in her first English-language picture, one that would either make or break her as an international star.  And she was cold as ice."

I believe that Catherine did some excellent acting work in this film, often with just expressions and body language.  For example, in a scene where Dino is toying with her and demanding that she repeatedly get up and do mundane tasks before making love, Catherine, through her expressions, body language, and minimal dialogue, gets across her growing sense of frustration and hesitancy about the situation. A clip of this scene from the Italian language version is on Youtube:


A perfect example of Catherine's ability to portray a womanly sensuality occurs about 20 minutes into the film, in a scene set at an outdoor cafe overlooking the city.  As Rita Pavone sings "Now That You've Gone," Cecilia dances seductively while Dino watches attentively from a swing.  Without a word being said, you can see Dino's resistance falling and his obsession budding.  Not only is this one of my favorite scenes from any of Catherine's films, it is one of my favorite scenes from any film.  It is simply fantastic.  A clip from the Italian language version is on Youtube:

Apparently others were also impressed with Catherine's performance.  It earned her a special Targa d'Oro (Golden Plate) award at the David di Donatello awards in 1964 (those awards are presented by The Academy of Italian Cinema).

In Rex Reed's N.Y. Times profile of Catherine in 1966, he quoted her as saying:  "I acted with Bette Davis in 'The Empty Canvas.'  Everyone in Rome was terrified of her.  I said only one thing to her: 'Hello'."

The film's set was a linguistic adventure.  Damiani spoke English to Bette Davis, German to Buchholz, French to Spaak, and Italian to others.  What a talented guy!  It had to have been interesting to watch Bette Davis try to reign supreme over such an eclectic mix of talent.  Here are some other interesting facts concerning the film:
  • The nude paintings of Cecilia were commissioned from Titta (Giovan Battista) Salerno, one of the leaders of Italy's expressionist school of painting.
  • The last scenes were filmed at Marino, on the outskirts of Rome.
  • An 18th century castle, renovated by Sophia Loren at a cost of nearly $2,000,000, was loaned by her to represent Bette Davis' villa.
  • The filming of the garden party, which provides the setting for the "money" scene, included the participation of more than 150 leaders of Rome's cultural set, who were there to honor Bette Davis' first film in Rome.
  • Catherine's salary had reportedly grown to $250,000/picture by the time that The Empty Canvas was released.  It is not clear whether or not that was her price for making The Empty Canvas.
  • Producer Joseph Levine was quoted as saying "She will be the biggest new star of the 1960's.  This girl will be the Bardot of her generation.  Ten years from now there will be girls billing themselves as the new Catherine Spaak."
Capping off a whirlwind and turbulent year for Catherine, The Empty Canvas premiered in Italy in December 1963.  The year started with a January civil wedding in Paris to Fabrizio Capucci (which her parents did not attend), followed in February by a church wedding in Rome and the premiere of La Parmigiana in Italy.  The fact that Catherine was seven months pregnant at her wedding raised a few eyebrows.  Although she had converted to Catholicism in an effort to fit-in with the Capucci family, she incurred Fabrizio's ire by ignoring his pleas and those of her Catholic advisor and taking the role of Cecilia, which was considered to be much too racy for her.  It did not help matters any when she did even more "nude" scenes while filming La Calda Vita in Sardinia in the Fall of 1963 with Fabrizio.

Here is some news footage of Catherine and Fabrizio's wedding:

During that summer, Catherine's cover of Francois Hardy's "Quelli della mia eta" (Those of My Age) sold one million copies in France and Italy and topped the Italian hit parade.  By December, Catherine and Fabrizio split up in a very public manner, when he had Catherine detained at the border as she tried to leave Italy by train with Sabrina.  After being escorted back to Rome by the authorities, Catherine was awarded custody of Sabrina.  The Empty Canvas also provided Catherine with a new romantic interest as, immediately upon her separation from Fabrizio, she became the constant companion of Sante Achilli, a 29-year-old cameraman on the film.  The press had reported during filming that Catherine and the married Buchholz were flirty, but it looks like they should have been looking elsewhere for her romantic interests!

On a curious sidenote, Bette Davis biographer Charlotte Chandler recounted an odd incident concerning Bette's arrival in Rome for filming.  She was greeted at the airport by Buchholz, who wanted to get things started off on a good note with the notoriously persnickety Davis.  Buchholz leaned forward to kiss Bette on the cheek, as custom would dictate, whereupon Bette proceeded to put her tongue in Buchholz's mouth in a more-than-friendly kiss!  Buchholz never knew whether she was just trying to shock him, or whether she had other intentions.  Regardless, I can't help but imagine that bizarre airport encounter as I watch her on-screen with her less-than-flattering hair-style and odd make-up. 

The film premiered in the USA in March 1964.  As Catherine had been rising into a major star in Europe, it appears that The Empty Canvas was filmed with an eye toward gaining traction for her in North America.  Catherine was quoted as saying that she believed the role could help her become an international star.  The film was shot with the actors speaking their dialogue in English, which Catherine learned for the film.  She already spoke French, Flemish, Italian, and German.  The film was distributed in the USA by Joseph Levine and his Embassy Pictures and gained mixed reviews.  Boxoffice Magazine, Time, Film Daily, and the Hollywood Reporter gave the picture fair to positive reviews, while The New York Times and Variety provided poor reviews.  Not surprisingly, the film was panned by the Legion of Decency and Parents' Magazine.  Below are some review excerpts.

The New York Times, May 16, 1964:

"The acrid, sexual flavoring of Alberto Moravia's pen coils through 'The Empty Canvas' like a dank, synthetic mist.  That's about all there is to the screen version of his best-selling novel. ... Co-starred are Horst Buchholz, Catherine Spaak, and, probably to her eternal regret, 'Miss Bette Davis.'...[H]ow Miss Spaak escaped catching pneumonia is about as profound a question as the picture ever raises. ... On the whole, though, its wise theatricality keeps it an 'Empty Canvas.' 'That's all there is,' says Mr. Buchholz in one scene, showing a blank space.  He's right."

Variety, March 11, 1964:

"Perhaps there's a niche for this inane, melodrama on the epidermis circuit, that shadowy off-shoot of the are house sphere where voyeurs and related oglers gather to contemplate maidens in the altogether.  For 'The Empty Canvas' is nothing more than a celluloidal peepshow pretending to be art.  It is the backwash of the new wave....[It] is totally devoid of the necessary quality to lure an audience to a respectable art theatre. ... For gifted thespians the likes of Buchholz and Miss Davis, the Carlo Ponti production is a sorry vehicle indeed.  Miss Spaak, however, is another matter.  She's the best towel-filler since BB, and has the looks to be a big star.  She even looks good as a money sandwich."

Boxoffice Magazine, in its April 27, 1964 issue reviewed The Empty Canvas as follows:

"Art houses will find this Joseph Levine presentation typical and Alberto Moravia's reputation in literary circles is well enough known to draw attention.  This is his eleventh story to be adapted for the screen but is his first English language film. ... Catherine Spaak is convincing as the amoral young artists' model.  Producer Carlo Ponti and Damiano Damiani have concentrated their efforts on adult patrons who will not be shocked by the scene where the desperate young lover covers the nude body of the model with paper money.  Actually there is less exposure than the oft-depicted bikini bathing suits but the novelty of such a bizarre romantic scene will have impact.  A more shocking scene is the canvas shown painted by the elderly painter rival in which both are nude, he on all fours and she riding him.  Yet while this is about immoral actions of amoral people, it is not an immoral picture for it does not present these as desirable.  The acting is excellent and the dialog natural without vulgarity.  The studio atmosphere and paintings add interest."

Time magazine, in its April 17, 1964 issue, concluded:

"Stretched too far to be believable, Canvas is the kind of overdrawn foolishness that frequently proves diverting.  Its existential blend of sex, symbolism and comedy reaches a bizarre climax when Horst takes Catherine to a party at his mother's villa.  In his mother's bedroom, crowning a marriage proposal to the girl whose favors can be had for the price of an espresso, he generously covers her nude body with some of Mama's 10,000-lire banknotes.  The door opens.  In sails Bette, rococo-eyed, jewels ajangle, a one-woman spectacular.  She sees her darling at play, drops into her deep-fried Southern drawl and issues what must be the last word in ultrapermissive Momism:  'Please put the money you don't want back in the safe - I don't want the maid to find the room in this curious state.'"

The Christian Science Monitor reviewed the film for its appearance at The Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge and gave a rather neutral assessment of the film's content, noting that "Catherin Spaak achieves a blend of shallowness and cunning, tempered by traces of decency, that keeps Cecilia moderately interesting as a person and not merely a crude symbol of promiscuity."

The September 10, 1964 Boston Traveler (for the same Cambridge appearance) gave the film a positive review, noting that "the best belongs to Catherine Spaak, a lovely young girl, who is the amoral Cecilia...Catherine spends much of her time divesting herself of clothes, yet managing to look like the girl Bobbsey twin all the while. ... It is a familiar story, dramatically told, which will stay with you."

Finally, the Record American, in Boston on September 12, 1964 talks about the plot in its review, without ever really giving much of an opinion on the film.  In regard to Catherine, it merely notes that she is "the current rage in Europe and what a dish all over."

While the reviews appear to have generally been mixed, the film was reasonably successful.  Boxoffice Magazine ranked The Empty Canvas as one of the "Top Hits for the Summer Quarter" with a score of 138 (versus an average score of 100).  The Carpetbaggers was the top-ranked film for the quarter with a score of 285.

Some of the advertising for the film was considered too risque for family newspapers.  The March 11, 1964 issue of Variety has an article discussing Joe Levine's anger at the L.A. Times and the L.A. Examiner for refusing to run some ads and for running a modified add in the Times where "a slip had been superimposed on Miss Spaak."  Levine was quoted as saying that was going to reroute what he could of the $25,000 local advertising budget into other media and to spend a minimum of money in L.A. newspapers in the future.  The writer wondered if perhaps the commotion might be more effective in promoting the film than the original ads.  Levine responded "I would rather have my ads.  We want to show them what we got, what's in the picture."  Apparently, the controversy spilled over into censorship for the lobby cards.  As you can see on the first and third lobby card images later in this post, a slip has been superimposed over part of Catherine's body.

The film garnered enough attention for Catherine that she was featured on the cover and in a story in the July 1964 issue of Cosmopolitan (previously posted on the blog).  She also received a feature story in the May 2, 1964 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.  Her picture graced the cover of the March 1964 Films in Review (see below), and an article entitled "Where Does the Money Go" was featured in the March 1964 issue of Pageant.  The Pageant article (see below) focused quite a bit on the "money" scene.  Interestingly, it noted:  "[N]ow that she is older (18 years) and a wife and mother, she has decided that more modesty is in order.  Wisely, Producer Carlo Ponti adapted the daring Alberto Moravia story of an artists model to comply with her wishes." Yet, on the page opposite that quote, is a picture of a clearly nude Catherine seated in a chair, back-to-camera, that is more daring than any of her "revealing" scenes actually in the film.  By the summer of 1964, with The Empty Canvas in American theaters (and 1962's Crazy Desire released hot on its heels), Catherine was well on her way toward earning a shot in Hollywood with "Hotel" in 1966.

The Empty Canvas has never been released on DVD in North America, but it was released by Embassy Home Entertainment in an English language version on VHS in 1987.  There has also been an Italian language version with English subtitles on Youtube.  After having watched both versions, I would recommend that fans of Catherine seek out the English language VHS version.  It is nice to hear her English-speaking voice, she did a very good job with her English, and it is much better to view the film with Bette Davis' own voice.  You also get the bonus of hearing Rita Pavone's song in English.

All in all, The Empty Canvas is my favorite Catherine Spaak film, and it is one of my all-time favorite films.  If anyone has additional information of interest concerning The Empty Canvas, please contact us.

Here are some on-set photos:

Now for some fun visuals...promotional material for the film.  A picture of the U.S. One Sheet poster is included at the beginning of the post.  Here is the U.S. 40 x 60 poster:

Here is the U.S. half sheet poster (there was no insert poster or window card), courtesy of the archives at
Here is a picture of the U.S. pressbook cover.

It appears that the U.S. lobby card set consisted of 4 cards, all of which are shown here.  Notice that, on two of the cards, the image has been altered rather crudely to try to mask the amount of skin that Catherine was showing in the picture.

Here are uncensored versions of the two lobby cards censored above:

Below are black-and-white promotional stills.  Apparently an on-set photographer snapped many of the stills, because (as I will note below) some of them depict scenes that are different than the way they appeared in the film itself.

There is no scene like this in the film with Catherine wearing sunglasses.  Note, however, that when Dino and Cecilia go to meet her parents, and the parents are preparing to leave and go for a walk, Cecilia's father puts on a pair of sunglasses that look like the pair in the above still.
Note that the above still shows a different angle than the scene as it actually appears in the film.
Note that the scene depicted in the above still is not shown from this angle in the film.


The U.S. press kit included a 4-page brochure about an art contest associated with the film:

Below is a trade ad from 1964
Here is the movie ad section from the September 28, 1967 Montreal Gazzette

Below are various foreign (i.e., non-U.S.) promotional items for the film, starting with some Italian fotobustas and Italian posters:

Here is a British quad poster:

A French poster:

Below is a Turkish poster:

Finally, here are some stills from various countries:

A German poster:
A German film program:

German lobby cards:

The March 1964 Pageant magazine article about the film:

March 1964 Films in Review cover:

Paperback book tie-ins with the film (in both English and Italian versions):

A candid magazine photo of Catherine and Bette Davis:

A Brazilian program:

Some Japanese magazine clippings:

Rita Pavone sheet music:

On-set photography included in a book:

As noted above, Catherine had a hit record during the summer that The Empty Canvas was filmed.  Here is her version of "Quelli della mia eta" as found on Youtube:

For those that may be interested in comparing the two, here is Francois Hardy's version as found on Youtube:

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