Belinda Lee. Image courtesy of Kate Gabrielle via Flickr.

The Budleigh Salterton school girl who became a screen goddess

Public talk at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre will tell the tragic story of beautiful Devon film star.

One of the most glamorous film stars of the 1950s, who became a by-word for ‘bomb-shell’ in the post-war period, was born and raised in Budleigh Salterton.

Film experts from the University of Exeter are to tell the story of Belinda Lee, the Devon actress who shrugged off her nice girl image in British film, to become a smouldering leading lady in Italian films, in the mould of Sophia Loren.

Exeter academics specialising in British film and Italian cinema are to tell the story of Lee, from her middle-class upbringing in Budleigh, to her affair with an Italian count and tragic death at the age of 25 in a car accident in California.

The talk, open to all members of the public, by Dr Phil Wickham, Curator of the University of Exeter’s cinema museum, the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, and Dr Danielle Hipkins, Professor of Italian Film, will describe how Italian cinema of the 1950s and 1960s had a reputation for glamour and sexual liberation that British cinema could only aspire to. They will explain how films like Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, starring Anita Ekberg, set the international standard for style in the conservative post-war years.

Belinda Lee joined a catalogue of glamorous female stars from the Italian post-war stable, including Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Giulietta Masini - who was married to Fellini - and Anita Ekberg. Though not all Italian by birth, they became the by-word for sensuality on screen.

The public talk on the stars of the Italian cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, at the Northcott Theatre precedes a production of a critically-acclaimed new stage adaptation of Federico Fellini’s La Strada.

La Strada won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 1954-55 and was a commercial hit across the world.

The film featured Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife, as the tragic heroine, with Hollywood actors Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart starring alongside her with their voices dubbed into Italian.

The Northcott stage adaptation of the Fellini film, which follows the talk, is directed by Olivier Award nominee Sally Cookson who received critical acclaim for her productions of Jane Eyre and Peter Pan at the National Theatre, and Hetty Feather in the West End.

La Strada revolves around a performer in a travelling carnival who is purchased by Zampano, a street performer, to join his ‘strong man’ act. When the mismatched pair stumble across a ragtag circus and a daredevil tight-rope walker, Gelsomina finds herself caught between the two men, not knowing which way to turn.

The talk by the University of Exeter film experts will explain the importance of productions such as La Strada at the time, and Devon’s own contribution to Italian cinema.

Belinda Lee is perhaps Devon’s most successful film star but her career was tragically cut short when she was killed in a car accident in 1961 on her way to Los Angeles from Las Vegas where she had been filming. Her ashes are kept at a cemetery in Rome.

Born in 1935 in Budleigh Salterton, Lee had a solidly middle class upbringing in the respectable seaside town. She enrolled at RADA where she was spotted by veteran filmmaker Val Guest and became part of the Rank ‘charm school’.

A natural beauty, she was cast in the mid-1950s in a number of films featuring popular British comedians, such as Frankie Howerd, Benny Hill and Norman Wisdom. These were undemanding roles and she swiftly became typecast as a beautiful love interest. Her nice girl image contrasted with that of Diana Dors, another Rank screen siren of the time, who once upstaged Lee at the Cannes film festival by wearing a bright pink mink bikini.

Lee married photographer Cornel Lucas and appeared in some more challenging roles, such as Miracle in Soho and The Secret Place in 1957. But it was a move to Italy that year to take part in the flourishing film industry that changed her life and relaunched her career.

A scandal ensued when she had an affair with Italian papal prince and there were rumours of an attempted joint suicide bid. This did nothing to diminish her star quality in Italy where her innate glamour and acting ability was recognised by European producers.

Dr Wickham said: “Lee appeared in much more overtly sexual roles than British producers had ever contemplated for her. In the Britain of the 1950s she was limited by a stereotype of demure and unthreatening beauty that fitted expectations of femininity at the time, at least for middle class young women like Lee. The British press disapproved of her Italian career and private life; condemning Lee for being open about her desires. If she had lived perhaps she would have better fitted into the changing ethos of the 1960s.”

Dr Wickham and Professor Hipkins will give the free talk to the public at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter on Wednesday 3 May 2017. 

It will take place before a stage performance of Fellini’s La Strada, which is in Exeter before moving to London’s West End.

An exhibition of Fellini memorabilia is also to be put on display at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum on the University of Exeter’s Streatham Campus, which is open to the public and free of charge. The museum has extensive collections on cinema around the world, from the optical media preceding film to the golden age of cinema and the age of digital. Collections on stars including Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, studios including Disney and modern block-busters like Star Wars are on display.

The talk is part of a series of collaborations between the Northcott Theatre and experts from the University of Exeter, and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. 

Dr Danielle Hipkins, Associate Professor of Italian Studies and Film at the University of Exeter, will describe how important films like La Strada were to Italian audiences – and still are. At its peak in the 1950s, cinema going was Italy’s most popular national pastime, accounting for 70 per cent of leisure spending.

Paul Jepson, Artistic Director of the Northcott Theatre, said: “We are delighted to be working with the Bill Douglas Centre for Film Studies and the University of Exeter to deliver this pre-show talk on La Strada and all things Fellini. La Strada is a wonderful new devised stage adaptation by Sally Cookson of the classic film. Bound for the West End, see it in Exeter first. It is our policy to create and curate exceptional performance for Exeter, the South West and beyond.”

The talk on Wednesday 3 May 2017 in The View, in the Northcott Theatre bar starts at 6.25pm. It is free of charge, but booking is advisable. Refreshments can be purchased.

Date: 28 April 2017

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