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The Millionairess

The Millionairess(1961)

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teaser The Millionairess (1961)

The idea of turning George Bernard Shaw's 1937 play The Millionairess into a film had begun when Katharine Hepburn enjoyed a stage success in the title role in New York and London in 1951. Mentioned as possible collaborators in a proposed movie version with Hepburn were Charles Boyer, Jose Ferrer and Louis Jourdan as costars, Preston Sturges as screenwriter and Nicholas Ray as director.

As the years passed and it became clear that Hepburn had grown beyond the age to attempt the role in front of the cameras, 20th Century Fox, which had become the film's financier, wanted Ava Gardner to play the world's wealthiest woman. Executive producer Dimitri De Grunwald thought this casting idea to be "terrible" and insisted that the actress with the beauty and "buoyancy" the role required was none other than Sophia Loren.

Peter Sellers, reportedly considered by Loren at the time to be "the funniest man living," had been cast in the leading male role -- that of the humble East Indian doctor who unexpectedly wins the heart of the millionairess. (The character had been Egyptian in Shaw's original, causing The Millionairess to be banned in Egypt because the change was deemed an insult to national pride!). Such well-thought-of actors as Alastair Sim, Dennis Price and Gary Raymond were cast in supporting roles, and a brief part was even found for Loren's longtime friend and mentor Vittorio De Sica.

The screenplay, by Sellers' friend and associate Wolf Mankowitz, took liberties with Shaw but marked the first time onscreen that Loren was allowed to deliver literate, intellectual dialogue. She was promised and got the full glamour treatment from Oscar®-winning cinematographer Jack Hildyard and production designer Paul Sheriff, with costumes especially designed for her by ultra-chic French couturier Pierre Balmain. At a cost the Fox publicity department set at $75,000, Balmain created a parade of delectable low-cut gowns, sleek suits and elaborate hats, not to mention a knockout black satin merry-widow corset.

The thing that most drew Loren to the project, however, may have been the distinguished director Anthony Asquith, who had made a specialty of filming the works of Shaw (Pygmalion [1938], The Doctor's Dilemma [1958]) and Terence Rattigan (The Winslow Boy [1948], The Browning Version [1951], The V.I.P.'s [1963], The Yellow Rolls-Royce [1964]). Loren knew his reputation as a man of exquisite taste who took loving care of his actors.

Like Cary Grant before him who starred opposite Loren in 1958's Houseboat, Sellers became madly infatuated with Loren upon first meeting and pursued her passionately throughout the filming of The Millionairess. As she had been with Grant, Loren was kind to her costar and didn't discourage his attentions. It was also Loren's inclination to fall a little bit in love with every leading man. But observers felt that she would never let things get serious enough to pose a challenge to her marriage to producer Carlo Ponti.

By all accounts, however, Sellers was madly in love and remained obsessive about Loren for the rest of his life. Years later he would state, "All I can say is that I don't think I have ever been in love with anyone the way I was with Sophia." Needless to say, these feelings did little to endear Sellers to Anne Howe, his wife at the time, and they were divorced the year after The Millionairess was released.

Together Sellers and Loren recorded a novelty song, "Goodness Gracious Me," to promote The Millionairess. Although not heard in the movie itself, the song became a surprise Top 10 hit in the U.K., selling 200,000 copies. It was incorporated into a long-playing album entitled "Peter Sellers & Sophia Loren: England's Gooniest Meets Italy's Loveliest."

The Millionairess was a box-office hit in England but performed less well in the U.S., where at the time many of Sellers' fans were art-house patrons who may have been put off by tepid critical response to the film. Even Bosley Crowther, Loren's ardent fan at The New York Times, complained that she "postures and swivels through virtually every scene... When she isn't rolling her hips, she rolls her eyes."

Producer: Pierre Rouve, Dimitri De Grunwald (executive producer)
Director: Anthony Asquith
Screenplay: Wolf Mankowitz, Riccardo Aragno (adaptation), from play by George Bernard Shaw
Cinematography: Jack Hildyard
Film Editing: Anthony Harvey
Original Music: Georges Van Parys
Production Design: Paul Sheriff
Costume Design: Pierre Balmain
Cast: Sophia Loren (Epifania Parerga), Peter Sellers (Dr. Ahmed el Kabir), Alastair Sim (Sagamore), Vittorio De Sica (Joe), Dennis Price (Adrian), Gary Raymond (Alastair), Alfie Bass (Fish Curer).
BW-90m.

by Roger Fristoe

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