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,That Kind of Woman

That Kind of Woman

Paramount Studios and producer Carlo Ponti thought that the 1959 romance That Kind of Woman would turn Sophia Loren in a U.S. film star. They were wrong, though the fault seems to have been their own in trying to turn Sidney Lumet's atmospheric tale into something it wasn't and then marketing the film as something else entirely.

After a string of Italian successes, Loren had signed an agreement with Paramount to produce U.S. films, but by they time they started working on That Kind of Woman, her Hollywood career had stubbornly refused to take off. After adventure films, a western and a misguided adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms (1958), she and husband Ponti turned to an award-winning short story by Robert Lowry. "Layover in El Paso" dealt with the doomed romance of a flighty divorcee and a GI on leave during World War II. Hoping to improve Loren's standing as a dramatic actress, Ponti asked Sidney Lumet, who had broken into films from Broadway and television work with the acclaimed Twelve Angry Men (1957), to take on the project. He agreed on condition that the story be re-set in New York City and that he be allowed to use Boris Kaufman (Oscar® for 1954's On the Waterfront) as cinematographer. The Pontis had already tired of Hollywood filmmaking and, with their background in Italian Neorealism, were intrigued by the prospect of shooting almost entirely on location.

Lumet suggested Walter Bernstein to adapt the story but warned Ponti that the writer had been blacklisted. Ponti's only response was "who has to be fixed and how much will it cost." When Lumet explained that all it took was courage, the producer readily agreed. Bernstein's screenplay not only moved the story to New York, but turned the divorcee into a kept woman working to help a powerful munitions manufacturer identified only as "The Man" to attract clients. Some critics have even suggested the film was an unofficial remake of The Shopworn Angel (1928 and 1938), about a kept woman's flirtation with a soldier during World War I. Bernstein also had the GI Loren meets on a train from Miami spend his entire leave tracking her down in a variety of New York locations. Thrilled with the chance to present his wife as a glamorous object of desire, Ponti hired Bernstein to write two more films for Loren, Heller in Pink Tights and A Breath of Scandal (both 1960), ending his days on the blacklist.

Early on, Earl Holliman and Don Murray were announced as potential leading men. Instead, Paramount suggested borrowing teen heartthrob Tab Hunter from Warner Bros. in hopes of bringing Loren a younger audience than she had enjoyed previously. Lumet, who had seen Hunter's more dramatic work on television, was fine with the choice. In his memoirs, Hunter even says that Lumet asked for him. Concerned that Loren's powerful presence would blow him off the screen, as she had done to his lover Anthony Perkins in Desire Under the Elms, the actor went out of his way to befriend her. During breaks in location shooting, they sat in her air-conditioned limousine singing along with the latest pop hits on the radio.

For the part of Loren's traveling companion and co-worker in attracting clients, Paramount had wanted Shirley MacLaine, but Ponti was concerned that the powerful young actress would steal the film from his wife. Instead, Lumet suggested aspiring blonde bombshell Barbara Nichols, who had given memorable dramatic performances in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and The Naked and the Dead (1958). Rounding out the cast were George Sanders as Loren's boss, Hollywood character actor Keenan Wynn (whose appearance on I've Got a Secret during filming netted panelist Henry Morgan a cameo in the film) and, in her film debut, Bea Arthur.

Lumet insisted on rehearsing his cast before shooting, working out of Billy Rose's abandoned nightclub in the Paramount Hotel. Hunter loved the rehearsals, which he hoped would give him deeper insights into his character, but Loren preferred to work spontaneously. Lumet would later say he fell in love with her, despite her resistance to his psychological approach and the fact that she was married to his boss.

Nor could Lumet do much about the fate of That Kind of Woman. After creating what he thought was a small but intimate story in which New York was as much a character as any of the leads, he had to turn the film over to Ponti and Paramount for the final cut. In his opinion, they ruined the picture in the editing room, cutting all of the things that had made it distinctive and emphasizing weaker scenes that he had wanted to cut. Moreover, they sold the film as a sex-charged love story. Some of the ads were so racy, two Los Angeles radio stations refused to air them. Then they opened it in wide release, where it not only received disastrous reviews, but also failed at the box office.

Later biographies of Loren would put most of the blame on Hunter's casting, suggesting that his homosexuality made him an unsuitable leading man. Even Loren, in her memoirs, would call him her weakest co-star, describing their team work as "negative chemistry, if such a thing is possible." And Lumet, who supposedly had asked for Hunter, would later claim that the actor couldn't play the love scenes convincingly. Though stung by those after-the-fact assessments of his work, Hunter still felt good about his performance in the film, blaming its failure on studio mismanagement that tried to make the picture seem more like Houseboat (1958), Loren's first commercial hit in the U.S. He would write in his autobiography that That Kind of Woman was his favorite of all his films, both for the experience of working with Loren and for what he learned from Lumet.

Producer: Carlo Ponti, Marcello Girosi
Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Walter Bernstein
Based on the story "Layover in El Paso" by Robert Lowry Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
Score: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Roland Anderson
Principal Cast: Sophia Loren (Kay), Tab Hunter (Red), George Sanders (The Man), Jack Warden (Kelly), Barbara Nichols (Jane), Keenan Wynn (Harry Corwin), Bea Arthur (WAC), John Fiedler (Eager Soldier), Henry Morgan (Cameo).
BW-92m.

by Frank Miller

SOURCES:
Warren G. Harris, Sophia Loren
Donald Zec, Sophia
Tab Hunter, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star

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