Sophia Loren Profile
Sophia Loren is undoubtedly the only actor ever to play herself and her own mother in a film of her life. She's certainly one of the few with the large enough presence and image to pull it off. An award-winning actress, one of the all-time great beauties and sex symbols of world cinema, a recording artist (two top-ten UK hit duets with Peter Sellers and a Grammy-winning spoken-word album with Bill Clinton), a headline-making private life (including a love affair with Cary Grant, 18 days in prison for tax evasion in 1982, and a near bigamy scandal) - certainly a momentous life story for someone from such humble beginnings.
She was born in 1934, the illegitimate daughter of Riccardo Scicolone, who soon abandoned mother and child, and Romilda Villani, winner of a 1932 Garbo look-alike contest sponsored by MGM, a young woman whose ambitions of stardom were thwarted by her domineering mother and the birth of her daughter. Growing up in dire wartime poverty in the slums of Pozzuoli near Naples, Italy, the young Sofia (as her name was then spelled) was so far from her later voluptuous image that she was nicknamed "Toothpick" or "Stick." By her early teens, however, she had blossomed enough for her mother to begin entering her in beauty contests, and the two traveled to Rome to be extras in the big-budget American film Quo Vadis (1951).
It was during one of her many beauty contest entries that she was spotted by a judge, producer Carlo Ponti, more than 20 years her senior and much shorter than the statuesque young girl. He took her under his wing and began grooming her for a film career, first under the name Sofia Lazzaro. She graduated from bits to supporting roles and finally achieved top billing in a comic sex romp as both the title character and a slave girl in Due Notti con Cleopatra/Two Nights with Cleopatra (1953) opposite Alberto Sordi, star of Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni (1953). Her next big project was lip-synching to diva Renata Tebaldi's voice in a film version of the opera Aida (1953). But the movie that brought her to international attention was L'Oro di Napoli/The Gold of Naples (1954), Vittorio De Sica's tribute to Sophia's home city. As the wayward wife of a pizza maker, Loren displayed the high spirits and comic skills that would serve her well later in her career. And in a memorable brisk walk down the streets of Naples, she exhibited the physical aspects and sensual appeal that soon had Hollywood calling.
In her first major role in an American movie, Boy on a Dolphin (1957), she was required to emerge from the sea sopping wet and act in a trench to avoid dwarfing her diminutive co-star Alan Ladd. But none of this affected her rising international stardom, and if Hollywood tended to overglamorize her earthy charm, sometimes to the point of cartoonishness, it didn't stop her from winning roles opposite some of the biggest stars and under the guidance of many top directors: with John Wayne in Henry Hathaway's Legend of the Lost (1957), with Anthony Quinn in Martin Ritt's The Black Orchid (1958), and with William Holden in Carol Reed's The Key (1958).
She also made two films with Cary Grant during this period, each under very different circumstances. During production of the first, The Pride and the Passion (1957), he was, she later claimed in her candid autobiography, very much in love with her. But she soon married Ponti, and when the two stars were reunited for Houseboat (1958), it has been reported that the rejected Grant wanted to get out of the picture to avoid working with the woman who broke his heart (even though he initially had Loren cast in place of his own wife, Betsy Drake, who also received no credit for writing the film's original story). Loren and Ponti's marriage was not without its difficulties, however. Because Italian law did not recognize his Mexican divorce from his first wife, they were forced to have their marriage annulled in 1962 to avoid bigamy charges. It was only after four years, and rejection of their Italian citizenship in favor of becoming French citizens, that the two were able to remarry.
Loren might have coasted forever on her Hollywood success, but in the early 60s she returned to work in her native country with terrific result. Vittorio De Sica cast her as a young mother fleeing Rome during World War II in Two Women (1960). Loren stunned everyone with her heart-wrenching dramatic performance, earning an Oscar®, a New York Film Critics Circle Award, and Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. She was now able to alternate between big-budget American-produced international productions, such as Anthony Mann's epics El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), and smaller but no less interesting films in Europe, particularly the comedies she made with De Sica, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) and Marriage Italian Style (1964). She also starred in his international production of Sartre's drama The Condemned of Altona (1962), made the Cinderella-based romantic fantasy More Than a Miracle (1967) for acclaimed director Francesco Rosi, and another fantasy, based on a comic stage play, Ghosts - Italian Style (1968) with heartthrob Vittorio Gassman. During this time, she also returned for the occasional film with noted American leading men, including Paul Newman in Lady L (1965) and Gregory Peck in the thriller Arabesque (1966).
Her beauty and charisma undiminished by age, Loren's most interesting and varied work of her later career tended to be in European films, such as Ettore Scola's A Special Day (1977) and Lina Wertmuller's made-for-Italian-TV Saturday, Sunday and Monday (1990). When she worked in American-produced movies, it was often as little more than a glamorous cameo in all-star international productions: Operation Crossbow (1965), The Cassandra Crossing (1976), Brass Target (1979). In recent years, however, she has enlivened several productions with the earthiness, humor and class for which she is justly celebrated: with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in Grumpier Old Men (1995) and paired with frequent co-star Marcello Mastroianni in Robert Altman's Pret-a-Porter (1994).
by Rob Nixon