“Hey, has anyone heard the rumor that Mike Nichols is filming some night scenes for “Catch 22” down the hill in Trastevere?”

    Someone else speaks up, “Yeah, it’s tonight. Anyone want to go watch the proletariat get star-struck?”

    The Fellows and spouses dining in the Academy sala da pranzo tonight are trying not to be interested in this less than intellectual event. But they are not particularly skilled at hiding their curiosity.

    I ask My Fellow if he’s game for an after dinner excursion and he mutters, “Sure, but let me play a little pool first before it gets dark. If it’s night scenes they won’t be doing any filming until it’s dark.”

    Several other couples and a few singles agree to join us. We finish the evening meal, retire to the adjacent pool room and the men play some traditional Academy “8 ball”. We wives are attempting to hide our interest and excitement about the filming but we’re getting giddy.

    “Who’s read Heller’s book?”

    “What did you think of it?”

    “Do you think the screen play will be faithful to the book?”

    “Do you think Nichols is the right director?”

    It’s dusk and we can’t wait any longer. We tell the men we’re leaving. They reluctantly join us for the walk down the steep winding path from the Academy, past the little temple on the hillside to Trastevere, a charming medieval neighborhood on the west bank of the Tiber River and south of Vatican City. We’re jabbering and noisy as we descend. The men are showing signs of excitement now, too. Snobs that they are, they’re wondering if Nichols will take proper artistic advantage of the Trastevere neighborhood; if he’ll honor the history of the place. Of course, being men, they wonder if they’ll see any hot babes. After ten minutes of this boisterous parade, we suddenly see overwhelmingly bright lights and notice that it’s dead quiet.

    We hear a male voice scream, “Cut! Cut!”

    It’s Nichols himself and he’s glowering at us. We’ve become marble statues. He pauses, looks us all over, then quietly says, “If you wish to watch, back up behind that low stone wall and do not speak. And stay in the dark.”

    Embarrassed by the scolding from a famous director, we stumble all over each other trying to do as he requests. Backing up as a group is difficult when you can see but it’s dark. We start a chain reaction falling backwards over the knee high wall. Our humiliation is compounded when we hear members of the crew laughing. We fail to right ourselves with dignity. We watch in silence.

    The process of filmmaking is at first, fascinating; and after an hour, repetitive, bordering on tedious. We watch as the crew of cameramen, grips, technicians, assistants to assistants, and extras mill around between takes. Nichols announces variations to be made on the last scene and the filming begins anew. He is patient and kind. He never raises his voice.

    Nichols calls for a break. We decide this is a good time to sneak away and go back to the Academy for some more wine and pool.

    As we’re turning to climb back up the hill, I feel a light brush on my sleeve. I pull away assuming it’s an annoying Italian man performing a brush-and-touch hoping for a positive response. Without a glance I yank myself away and spit out, “Va via! Che schifo!”  (Go away! How disgusting!)

    I look over my shoulder. It’s Mike Nichols.

    He clears his throat and says in a soft kind voice, “Would you be interested in being in this movie?”

    I can feel my face flush and my palms are sweaty. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry. I thought you were hitting on me.”

    He smiles and says, “Well, maybe in a way, I was. I am serious, though, about you being in the movie. You’d be an extra in two particular scenes. For three days. And pay would only be 16,000 lire per day. ($10)

    I look up at My Fellow. His eyes are bugged and he’s mute.

    I look back at Nichols, “What would I have to do?”

    “Ahhh, well, you’d be playing a prostitute. A Lady of the Evening. You’d be among a group of them in the street.”

    My mind races quickly to the ample breasts that I’ve owned since I was 15. That must be what inspired this offer. My thick long red hair probably didn’t go unnoticed either.

     To this day I don’t know what got into me. I answer this famous movie director by responding, “Sure, why not? I don’t have anything else to do for a few days.”

    I don’t have anything else to do for a few days. Did I really just say that?

    My Fellow slaps his forehead and grimaces. This might be too low brow for him. I don’t care. I didn’t consult with him. He says nothing.

    Mike Nichols grins and says, “Great. If you can, we’ll need you to return to Cine Città studio on the bus with the other extras tonight. You’ll meet with the costumer. Tomorrow afternoon be back at Cine Città by 4 p.m. to get makeup and into costume. We return here to Trastevere by bus at dusk.”

    I nod my acceptance, we smile and shake hands; he returns to calling out directions now that the break is over.

    I bid my incredulous husband and the others goodbye as they leave and begin to ascend the hill. My life as an actress begins. So much for the star-struck proletariat.

    Mingling with the other extras is easier than I expect. No one is competitive. There are many different English speaking ex-pat’s doing this extra work to finance their next excursion; a few are doing it to pay the bills; and some, like me, are doing it just for the thrill. The best part is meeting local Italians. I get to practice my Italian and they get to practice their English.

    The bus trip to Cine Città takes an hour. It’s crowded, hot, and people are crabby. People are tired. I don’t yet understand about the boredom: that boredom is exhausting. I wonder why they all aren’t tittering with excitement about being in a movie. I would learn.

    Since I don’t have transportation back to Rome tonight from Cine Città, one of the Italian guys, Enzo, who I’ve been practicing language with, kindly offers to drive me home. We gossip and laugh all the way. I get a different feeling about him. He hasn’t hit on me in any way all evening. Very unusual. Unnatural for any age Italian male. But I ignore the feeling.

The next three days:

Day 1: I drive the VW Bug to the Cine Città studio singing as I go. I’m exuberant about this gig. The costume I was given last night is scant and High Tart. The makeup is luscious, over-the-top, and full pucker. I’m engaged in the process and eager to do what we’re directed to do. I arrive home after midnight with energy to spare.

Day 2: I drive the Bug to the studio. I’m a little tired but still interested in the process. The costume isn’t as fresh as yesterday and the makeup seems thicker. It seems we stand around and wait more than we “act”. Fortunately, we’re still enjoying each other in varied conversations. My Italian friend, Enzo, is good company. I arrive home at midnight.

Day 3: I drag myself into the Bug and drive to the studio. I’m already exhausted and bored. The costume smells like an old Grandma and the makeup is itchy and causes my eyes to constantly water. My fellow extras are rarely animated as we wait. And wait. And wait. I had no idea how unglamorous “acting” would be. I arrive home at midnight beyond exhaustion. The thought of returning to the studio tomorrow to get paid is stultifying.
    But I love it. I had something to do that wasn’t part of the Academy. Something that was just mine. No other spouse has something this exciting to talk about. Even the other Fellows are interested. This makes me feel almost like an equal, of sorts. Not in the intellectual realm, but in the socio-cultural sphere.
    When “Catch 22” comes out, and my Hollywood afterglow has waned, we all go to see it. None of my scenes are in it. Despite ending up on the cutting room floor, I look back at the last few months with smug pleasure. It was a memorable experience. Plus I made $30. And I now join my gay friend Enzo to discover some of the less famous and historical Roman sites.

Authors Note: This is excerpted from a chapter in my memoir, Travels With My Fellow, about adventures experienced in the late 1960’s during two years of living in Rome, and traveling throughout Europe, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, and North Africa. My then-husband had received The Rome Prize Fellowship in Architecture, hence my Fellow.

One thought on “Would You Like to Be a Prostitute? by Leslie Sittner

  1. I love reading about your adventures. I can hear your voice and laughter sharing the experience and clever language like “High Tart” tells me all I need to know.

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