The name Giacomo Casanova conjures up scenes of debauchery, womanizing and sex. And down through the ages numerous books and films have tried to capture the legendary seducer’s persona. So as we celebrate the adventurer’s 290th birthday let’s take a quick romp through the good, the bad and the downright ugly screen portrayals of the man.
Born on the 2nd April 1725 in an anonymous backstreet of Venice to actor parents, the man who later gave himself the fictitious titles of Baron of Farussi and Chevalier de Seingalt, wrote several books including “The Duel”, “The Story of my Escape” and his famous “History of my Life” memoirs.
Few more extraordinary men have ever lived and few books give as vivid an account of Venetian life as Casanova’s memoirs so his the actors portraying him have a lot to draw upon. The one thing that they all need to have, though, is sexual charisma. I’ll leave you to reach your own conclusions as to who succeeds and who fails!
First in the line-up is Béla Lugosi, a Hungarian-American actor, who played Casanova in the first film about his life in 1918. Lugosi would go on to become famous for his depiction of Count Dracula.
A French film, The Loves of Casanova, followed in 1927 starring Russian silent film actor Ivan Mozzhukhin, nicknamed the Russian Rudolph Valentino so ideal to play the original seducer!
The first Italian to play Casanova was Vittorio Gassman, whose made his debut as a leading man in The Mysterious Rider (Il cavaliere misterioso) in 1948.
Next up was an Austro-Hungarian actor by the name of Felix le Breux in The Last Rose of Casanova, Poslední růže od Casanovy, in 1966. The film’s focus was on Casanova’s later life as a librarian at Duchcov Chateau, where he also wrote his memoirs.
Conversely Italian comedy Giacomo Casanova : Childhood and Adolescence, starring Leonard Whiting, tells of the young man who abandoned his first career as an abbot for the love of the first of a long line of women!
1971 saw the first British TV serialisation of Casanova’s life, written by Dennis Potter and starring stage, film and television actor Frank Finlay.
Legendary Italian director Federico Fellini’s 1976 film Casanova, followed shortly after. Shot entirely at the Cinecittà studios in Rome and featuring the first American to play Giacomo, Hollywood star Donald Sutherland, the film won the Oscar for Best Costume Design.
Another Italian icon, Marcello Mastroianni, featured in the 1982 comedy That night in Varennes, (La Nuit de Narennes), that tells the fictional story of a meeting between Casanova, a French novelist, an English political activist (played by Harvey Keitel), and the Lady in Waiting to Marie Antoinette. The characters are all travelling in a coach following King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as they fled to Varennes during the French Revolution.
Americans Richard Chamberlain and Faye Dunaway were the next up in the 1987 TV movie Casanova. Heart-throb Chamberlain was a great choice after his great success in Dr Kildare in the 1960s and The Thorn Birds earlier in the 1980s – his on-screen charisma was legendary and ideal to play the Chevalier de Seingalt!
Australian Heath Ledger was the penultimate Casanova in the 2005 film that also starred Sienna Miller. The film captured the spirit of the Venetian but was only very, very loosely based on Casanova’s real life, preferring instead to chase him through fictional encounters set in and around Venice, but filmed in part at least in nearby Vicenza.
For me, though, the two best Giacomo Casanovas were played by Scottish actor David Tennant and British-Irish screen legend Peter O’Toole in the 2005 TV mini series. The series plays fast and loose with the truth, again, but arguably captures the nature of the man. A gentlemanly Peter O’Toole, plays the old librarian recounting his life story to a curious young girl captivated by Casanova’s fading charm.
And despite a few liberties with historical fact the series succeeds where others haven’t, highlighting Casanova’s one true love, the mysterious Henriette. He held a life-long candle for the lady but chivalrously concealed her true identity in his memoirs, challenging the lazy misconception that he was just a profligate sex-maniac!
Sadly Casanova never did get the lady he truly loved though, either in life or on screen, and never returned to his beloved Venice after being exiled. He eventually died alone in Bohemia in 1798, aged 73, just a year after Venice fell to French leader Napoleon. Who’s your favourite seducer from history, literature or the silver screen? Leave me a comment and let me know. And in the meantime, lets raise a glass to the man, the myth, the Chevalier de Seingalt – Happy Birthday Giacomo Girolamo Casanova (2 April 1725 – 4 June 1798)!