“Exposure to Sophia Loren is a shattering experience,” Life magazine once warned. Briefly dubbed the Italian Marilyn Monroe, she defied all expectations by having a 72-year-old career that defines extraordinary for its longevity and scope. From the late 50s onwards until the mid-60s, Loren was paired with Hollywood’s leading men—Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck and John Wayne. When working back home in Italy, she secured a best actress Oscar for Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women in 1961—a first for a foreign speaking language film—and then went on to co-star with fellow icon Marcello Mastroianni. The popular mythic duo made fifteen movies together and were directed by the likes of Dino Risi, Ettore Scola, Lina Wertmuller and then Robert Altman in 1994.
Loren, who won an honorary Oscar in 1991, didn’t just straddle both worlds—a feat that no other European movie star has achieved—but there were all her personal dramas. Her avid fans lived through Loren turning down Cary Grant’s marriage proposal—Sophia was the one who got away. When her producer husband Carlo Ponti was accused of bigamy by the Roman Catholic Church—the Pontis plus his ex-wife Giuliana Fiastri had to move to France and change nationality. And there was the business of Loren spending 17 days in a Neapolitan prison, accused of tax evasion. Afterwards, an inefficient accountant was blamed.
Recently, when asked about the secret of her professional success, the 86-year-old
Sophia Loren described herself as a survivor who approached every new film project as her first and was born in Rome but felt 100% Neapolitan. “It comes naturally to very much like the comic side of life,” she told Edouardo Ponti, her director son. The 2020 interview was promoting their Netflix film, The Life Ahead. Candid, Loren highlighted the toughness of her early years, spent in the slums of Pozzuoli. At the age of fifteen, she’d left school for Rome and an unwelcoming Cinecittà. Regarding influences, she cited De Sica, a fellow Neapolitan and acting colleague who became her favourite director. “I learnt from Vittorio De Sica to be myself and not be afraid,” she stated.
If Marlene Dietrich had Joseph von Sternberg, Sophia Loren had De Sica. “I looked at that face, those unbelievable eyes, and I saw it all as a miracle,” the director said. But what he could not have predicted was Loren’s way and relationship with Hollywood and the American media that became a lip-locked love affair. During her career, everything has been accepted about Loren whether she was a starlet ingenue—photographed next to an almost indecent Jayne Mansfield—or hawking her books like Recipes and Stories in 1998, presenting her 64-year-old self, as sizzling in the kitchen. Her trick, armed by her face and hourglass assets, is that she was the Italian fantasy woman who laughed yet remained old-fashioned chaste suiting the puritanical Americans. “A woman’s dress should be like a barbed wire fence, serving its purpose without obstructing the view,” was one of Loren’s wise dictums. A case of, ‘nothing is up for grabs, guys.’ Her banter with Bob Hope at the Academy Awards in 1958 demonstrates this. Clearly surprising Loren, the comedian suddenly suggests filming a movie in the Italian Mediterranean. “You and I on the beach, making love together,” Hope says, ogling her cleavage. Without missing a beat, Loren replies, “and if it worked out, we could even get a camera.” The entire audience laughs and Hope wryly admits, “You catch on fast, honey.”
Behind the exuberance and broad, winning smile, the self-respecting Sophia was refreshingly upfront. “Many people think they want things, but they don’t have the strength, the discipline. They are weak,” she opined on several occasions. “I believe that you get what you want if you want it badly enough.” Just as she had a stage momma—the Garbo-like Romilda Scicolone—her unmarried mother’s existence reminded Loren of what she wanted to avoid. Even though the actress’s lasting regret is never marrying in a white dress.
Meanwhile Loren’s earthy appeal was wrapped in charm, warmth and Italian self-deprecation. Before meeting Mervyn LeRoy, the director of Quo Vadis—her first paying job—Loren had been instructed to say yes to everything.
Have you read Quo Vadis?
What’s your name?
How old are you?
This greatly amused LeRoy who burst out laughing and gave her a small, non-speaking part.
There are many delightful Loren tales. Another favourite concerns a Parisian couple who invited her to Lasserre, a then 3-star Michelin restaurant in Paris, renowned for its ample helpings of truffles and Foie Gras. Ignoring the menu, Loren ordered pasta. And there’s my 1980 encounter that happened on the teak deck of Malahne—the Camper & Nicholson designed boat, then belonging to Sam Spiegel, the Academy-award winning producer. Goddess-like, Loren arrived on foot, accompanied by her short and roly-poly husband—Carlo Ponti. Leaving her signature wigs and showy jewellery behind, she was wearing the simplest apricot coloured peasant top and matching skirt that enhanced her figure and enviably tanned skin. Along with her height, deportment and grace—her long shapely calves were stretched out to ultimate advantage—there was the stunning 45-year face that looked exactly the same off screen. A pink bubble then appeared from her famous mouth. Sophia Loren was chewing bubble gum. After cracking it, she winked in my direction. Chuffed, I recounted my Sophia moment with Spiegel who sourly dismissed her as “a big girl trying to be a little girl.”
Thinking back, Sam, our ever-competitive host was annoyed but not by the irresistible Loren. It was her husband, Carlo Ponti. True, Sam had made millions and won Oscars for his two David Lean films—The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia—but Ponti would slip in and strike a financial bull’s eye when producing Lean’s Doctor Zhivago in 1965. It became the Italian producer’s most successful film but, unlike Sam, he didn’t have to deal with the Sri-Lankan jungles (Kwai) and Jordanian sandstorms (Lawrence.)
Strange as it might sound but Carlo Ponti was fairly famous in England due to El Cid, an epic picture co-starring Loren and Charlton Heston. During the 1960s and 1970s, School holidays came and went and so did Anthony Mann’s El Cid. The BBC never stopped showing the interminable film that began with Ponti’s name in enlarged letters.
Much has been written about Ponti being the first to recognize Loren’s magnetism. They’d met in Rome when he was judging a beauty pageant and he’d encouraged the 16-year-old Sofia Lazzaro to have a shot. She came second and won the title of Miss Eleganza. An affair began with the married Ponti who was 22-years older and the father of two children. Although Sophia resisted shortening her nose, she was put under contract and since he was reputed for his taste and innovation, she listened to his suggestions such as learning English—a rarity at Cinecittà.
During that period, Ponti was working with Dino De Laurentiis. Their partnership lasted from 1950-57 and they essentially became the Italian film industry. Every career needs timing and temerity. Pioneers, they were among the first to realise the potential of the international co-production. Essentially, Hollywood studios were breaking up because of a Justice Department anti-monopoly decree. This resulted in studio-groomed stars turning into freelance agents, being hired and shooting elsewhere. The studio’s back lots were sold off in favour of using location photography. This meant that the studios needed outside suppliers to keep up a steady stream of product coming in for their distribution apparatus and both Ponti and De Laurentiis delivered.
De Laurentiis wooed Anthony Quinn to Rome for Fellini’s La Strada—leading to their first Oscar—and Ponti convinced Quinn to star in Aida, Loren’s first movie to give her international recognition. Shortly afterwards, Kirk Douglas was cast in the title role of Ulysses, a spectacular epic that was directed by Mario Camerini. The film was then sold to Paramount. Their system became a profitable formula that allowed De Laurentiis and Ponti to pay large salaries to their imported stars while cutting costs by using local albeit exceptional technicians. Other films included Rossellini’s Europe ‘51 and Vidor’s War and Peace.
A few years after his split with De Laurentiis, Ponti produced Two Women/La Ciociara. Initially, Anna Magnani was asked to play the mother (Cesira) with Sophia as her daughter (Rosetta). Magnani would tempt a Hollywood director. After Italy’s screen genius refused, De Sica ended up directing. The film is uneven and often dismissed as old-fashioned and hammy. Nevertheless, when reading about the recent atrocities in the Ukraine, that rape scene comes to mind. Hearing the cries of your own child and being incapable of protecting; every mother’s horror. The compassionate Sophia was in her element—it brought back terrifying childhood memories of drunken soldiers knocking at her mother’s door—and she won her first Academy Award.
Officially, Ponti worked with the likes of Jean-Luc Godard (Le Mépris) as well as being the producer of films such as Antonioni’s Blowup and The Passenger. “I don’t make deals, I make pictures,” he often said, comparing moviemaking to building a house, the difference being that “films give life to things that don’t exist.” But Ponti also guided his wife. Recognizing her authenticity and charisma, he was in the background, branding Sophia Loren and organising the press conferences such as the birth of Carlo Ponti jr.
Being naturally photogenic, Loren dazzled off screen whether hunched and smoking on set or standing in front of steaming pasta or laughing on the back of a speed boat. Still, one image captures her relevance. Having just given birth in December 1968, she’s sitting up in a hospital bed, with baby son and Ponti except that they are installed in a mini theatre, encircled by about thirty paparazzi photographers as well as nurses and medical students who are also snapping away. After eight months of bed rest, Italy’s most famous film star had become una mama and it was presented as a major event for her country even though the chosen maternity hospital was in Switzerland.
When working with Hollywood directors—even if the script was flat—the audience could count on the Sophia moments. Appearing from the sea in Negulesco’s The Boy on the Dolphin, Time magazine compared her to Botticelli’s Venus. Braless, Loren’s wet shirt left nothing to the imagination. When working with an old and miscast Clark Gable in It Happened in Naples, Sophia’s nightclub act adds pizazz. Her song ‘Tu Vuo Fa L’Americano’ continues to hold up. Chaplin’s A Countess from Hong Kong still disappoints. Loren couldn’t resist working with Il Genio del Cinema even if Marlon Brando became a pest when she resisted his advances. During love scenes, he loudly counted the hairs up her nose and later accused Loren of having dinosaur breath. El Sissy. Nor can anything save the TV version of Brief Encounter. Produced by Ponti, it’s a remake of Lean’s classic and has Loren and her equally over-sophisticated co-star Richard Burton sitting on the wooden bench of a British railway station. Completely incongruous, they look dressed for a lunch at Maxim’s, Paris. As for the famous eye scene—it just gets sillier and sillier.
In spite of making films with the very talented and handsome likes of Peter Finch, Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris, sparks only really flew between Loren and her fellow Italian, Marcello Mastroianni. Their extraordinary chemistry led to infinitely watchable movies on screen and should be forgiven for Loren’s occasional dodgy wig. They’d met as unknowns when making Too Bad She’s Bad in 1954. “From a few floors above, Marcello was watching me,” she wrote in her memoir Today, Yesterday, Tomorrow. “Ciao, he greeted me as though he were somewhere up in the air,” His attention made her feel shy. “We felt good together, Marcello and I,” she concluded.
Recognizing Mastroianni as a poet committed to craft moved the invincible Loren. Subtly, he worked around her. Mastroianni’s generosity—like his rumba lesson in A Special Day—led to ease and the occasional frisson that can happen within a platonic relationship. During De Sica’s Marriage, Italian Style, that scene when they briefly kiss and makeup, something stirs. Loren becomes bold and then steps back. It begs the question: what if Sophia suddenly ran off with Marcello? But realising that their romance was best left to the realm of cinema. As for Altman casting the duo together for the final time in Pret-A-Porter, he gave their fans the 1990s version of Loren’s striptease scene, made famous in De Sica’s film Oggi, Ieri, Domani (1963.) Glorious as the 58-year-old Loren looks, tricked up in Altman’s film, Mastroianni cat-calls but ultimately falls asleep. When promoting Scola’s A Special Day on Dick Cavett’s chat show (1977), the duo clearly lead different lifestyles: the bourgeois versus the bohemian. “He never likes to wake up early,” complains Loren, glamourous in green silk. While a smoking and unshaven Mastroianni grumbles about working in the morning. “Listen Sophia, I have a life that is very complicated. I need to use the night,” he replies. Smoothing the waves, she teases him about being a Latin lover. “You are handsome, you are beautiful, you are a wonderful companion for a woman,” she purrs. After more huffing and puffing and use of the F word, Mastroianni asks, “why you say this? It’s not true.” Gently laughing, Loren continues, “for me you are a Latin lover.” And Sophia Loren remains a Latin playgirl turned American film-star.