Rare it is that opera singers making the transition to Hollywood films succeed on any level much less in the treacherous arena of comedy.
Opera stars are paid to be big, bold and broadly dramatic. It’s the voice, after all, not the acting skills.
Comedy demands subtlety, often wry understatement, especially in the movies where overstatement in any form is generally death. Mario Lanza and Ezio Pinza (who costarred with Lana Turner in the 1951 romantic drama, Mr. Imperium) certainly had their talents but they were not known as laugh-a-minute guys.
Thus, today, we salute two accomplished opera singers who very successfully graduated to mainstream Hollywood movies, providing some of the finest comic moments in memory.
Best known of the two in classic movie circles is Fortunio Bonanova (ne Josep Lluis Moll), a Spanish-born baritone (pictured above) who studied music in Madrid and Paris before making his opera debut in Europe in 1923. As the Spanish Civil War was geared up in the Thirties, Bonanova moved to the U.S. and found himself making movies in Hollywood.
Over a long career (he retired from the screen in 1964, and died five years later) Bonanova compiled an impressive record of more than 100 movies and tv credits. He was a reliable supporting actor employing his broad operatic acting skills to such officious types such head waiters, impresarios, police chiefs and nightclub owners of uncertain European origin.
His credits include 1943’s Five Graves to Cairo, 1944’s Double Indemnity and Going My Way, 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly and 1957’s An Affair To Remember. He was especially suited to a range of comedy parts on television on various shows including I Love Lucy and on Abbott and Costello. On the George Burns and Gracie Allen series in the Fifties, Bonanova played a character named “the Great Gazatti.”
We suspect you know Bonanova from what we believe to be his sharpest screen portrayal, in the 1941 Orson Welles classic Citizen Kane. The actor’s backround superbly informed his portrayal of “Signor Matiste,” the bombastic and frustrated vocal coach to Kane’s mistress played by Dorothy Comingore.
Who can forget the Signor’s repeated “no, no, no, no” in response to his pupil’s hapless operatic attempts. In the movie Charles Foster Kane angrily reacts, but audiences today appreciate the delicious comic aspects of the character’s hopeless predicament.
In any case, Bonanova acquits himself beautifully, handing us an unforgettable supporting performance.
Our other ex-opera singer-turned-comic stylist is of more recent vintage — George Gaynes, who died last month at age 98. He’s primarily remembered for his profuse late career tv work. Remember NBC’s Punky Brewster sitcom in the 1980’s?
Gaynes, born George Jongejans in Helsinki, studied opera in Milan, and performed in Italy and France and, after World War II, at the New York City Opera. Like Bonanova, he was a big-boned baritone.
Gaynes eventually migrated from opera and operetta to the Broadway stage and then Hollywood, often in supporting tv parts in a a broad range of tv series and soap operas. Along the way he appeared in such notable films as The Way We Were and Altered States.
Gaynes amply displayed his comedy skills in 1984’s Police Academy (and its six sequels) portraying the fulsome commandant of school for inept recruits. But it was in 1982’s Tootsie that Gaynes made his mark, providing a comedy performance every bit as memorable in its way as Bonanova’s “Matiste.”
He played a soap opera leading man who lusts after his leading lady, played in drag by Dustin Hoffman, an unemployed actor masquerading as a woman. Vincent Canby, then movie critic of The New York Times, found Gaynes priceless as the seedy but tireless lecherous leading man…so memorably funny in such memorable funny circumstances.
So there it is — two ex opera singers turned superb movie comedians. Real rarities.