Valentina Cortese, an Italian film actress best known for her role as a fading, tippling movie diva in François Truffaut’s “Day for Night,” which earned her a 1975 Academy Award nomination and, remarkably, an apology from the winner, Ingrid Bergman, died on Wednesday in Milan. She was 96.
The Italian Association for the Performing Arts announced the death.
Ms. Cortese appeared in more than 50 films in her half-century career, which began when she was 16. She rose to stardom in Europe after playing both Fantine and Cosette in an Italian film of “Les Misérables” (1948), and went on to work with such titans of cinema as Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini.
In a crowded postwar generation of Italian actresses that included Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Anna Magnani, Ms. Cortese was the first to become a Hollywood star.
Yet her American movie stardom was short-lived. Three years into a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox, she returned to Europe in 1952 after making just a handful of well-reviewed and mainly successful Hollywood movies, including Richard Thorpe’s “Malaya” (1949), Jules Dassin’s “Thieves’ Highway” (1949) and Robert Wise’s “The House on Telegraph Hill” (1951), whose star, Richard Basehart, became her husband in 1951.
Ms. Cortese had returned to Italy with Mr. Basehart and their son, Jackie (who would become an actor in Italian movies in the 1970s), by the time she appeared with Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner in “The Barefoot Contessa” (1954), which the director Joseph L. Mankiewicz filmed in Rome.
Ms. Cortese’s name virtually disappeared from the American scene from the mid-1950s until her 1975 Oscar nomination, for best supporting actress, for her performance in “Day for Night,” Mr. Truffaut’s poignant parody of the movie world — a film about filmmaking featuring a fictional cast of fragile, vain and yet creatively devoted actors.
Ms. Cortese plays an aging but still glamorous star, Séverine, who has trouble remembering her lines, requires many retakes after getting her closet doors and exit doors mixed up, and drinks champagne to steel her nerves.
The movie received an Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 1974, the year after it was released in Europe. After its American release, Mr. Truffaut was nominated for an Oscar as best director, and Ms. Cortese, in addition to her Oscar nomination, was showered with accolades and prizes, including the best supporting actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle.
At the Academy Awards ceremony, Ms. Bergman, already a two-time Oscar winner, was among the nominees for best supporting actress — in her case for what she and many critics considered a minor performance, consisting largely of one scene, in “Murder on the Orient Express.”
After her name was announced, Ms. Bergman seemed baffled as she took the stage to receive her Oscar, making a gracious but awkward speech that seemed bent on rewriting the script on live television.
“It’s always nice to get an Oscar,” she said. “But in the past, he has shown that he is very forgetful and also has the wrong timing. Because last year, when ‘Day for Night’ won for the best picture, I couldn’t believe that Valentina Cortese was not nominated. Because she gave the most beautiful performance.”
She spotted Ms. Cortese in the audience a moment before the television cameras did. The two exchanged smiles. Ms. Bergman ended her speech with a direct apology just shy of abdication: “Please forgive me, Valentina!”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences changed the rules for foreign films soon afterward, consolidating nominations into a single year instead of spreading them over two.
After leaving Hollywood, Ms. Cortese continued working, concentrating on Italian theater and European films; she never fully explained her departure. Over the years she alluded to problems in her marriage, which ended in 1960; disillusion with commercial filmmaking; and sexual harassment by film executives. In a 1974 interview with The New York Times, Ms. Cortese blamed a lack of conventional ambition.
“Darling, it’s my fault, because I could have done much more for myself,” she said. “But I never followed the rules. I was a nonconformist.”
“I’m in rebellion,” she added.
Her ambition as an actor was never “to go up, up, up, up and own villas and yachts,” she said; it was to be an actor who achieved a connection with the audience, “and he does it with truth.”
Valentina Cortese was born in Milan on Jan. 1, 1923, to an unmarried woman who left her in the care of a family of poor farmers in Lombardy. In her 2012 autobiography, “Quanti Sono I Domani Passati” (roughly “Many Tomorrows Past”), she said she had been about 6 when she was sent to live in Turin with her maternal grandparents. They educated her and sent her to study in Rome at the National Academy of Dramatic Arts when she was 15. She became a protégé of the academy’s director, Silvio D’Amico, a well-known film critic, who helped her start her career in movies almost immediately.
From 1941 to 1948 Ms. Cortese made dozens of Italian movies, including “Les Misérables,” in which she acted opposite Marcello Mastroianni’s Jean Valjean. It brought her wider attention and her first English-speaking role, in a 1949 British film, “The Glass Mountain,” with Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray.
The Hollywood producer Darryl F. Zanuck signed Ms. Cortese to a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox in 1949 after seeing her portrayal of a Gypsy in Gregory Ratoff’s “Black Magic” (1949), an adaptation of an Alexandre Dumas novel, starring Orson Welles. (Mr. Zanuck tweaked Ms. Cortese’s surname to make it “Cortesa,” to sound an aristocratic note; she reverted to Cortese when she left his stable.)
Early reviewers described her gamine beauty and enigmatic Mediterranean charm as perfect for ingénue roles. She was cast in three films in quick succession in the first two years of her contract, all of them opposite top male stars.
She was the wary but softhearted saloon singer in “Malaya,” with Spencer Tracy and James Stewart as rubber smugglers in the Japanese-occupied Pacific islands during World War II, and she played a truck-stop fortuneteller in “Thieves’ Highway,” opposite Lee J. Cobb and Richard Conte, enemies in a cutthroat world of California produce truckers.
In her best-known film from the period, “The House on Telegraph Hill,” she portrayed a Polish concentration camp survivor who enters the United States with the citizenship papers of a camp internee who had died and soon learns that she has come into a large inheritance. She then meets and marries a man (Mr. Basehart) who she comes to believe wants to kill her for her money.
After returning to Italy, Ms. Cortese performed for many years at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, in highly regarded productions of works by Chekhov, Shaw, Pirandello and other European playwrights.
She and the theater’s founder, Giorgio Strehler, entered a long-term relationship after the collapse of her marriage, she said in her autobiography.
Besides the theater, she appeared often on Italian television. Her other film credits include Antonioni’s “Le Amiche” (1955), Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits” (1965), Franco Zeffirelli’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972) and Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988).
Ms. Cortese’s son, Jack, died in 2015. No immediate family members survive.
Ms. Cortese was the subject of Francesco Patierno’s “Diva!” (2017), a biographical documentary based on her book. In the film, intermixed with archival footage and clips from her work, eight actresses portray her at various stages of her life.
“Every morning, I wake up and surprise myself that I’m still alive,” Ms. Cortese told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in 2014. “I do not know if God exists or does not exist. It is a mystery before which I prefer to remain silent. An actor must summon the divine from the deepest part of himself. If you have it, let yourself be possessed.