She has done more for Italy than Pizza and Pasta combined. That’s an exaggeration of course, but not much of one.
Sophia Loren is Italy’s most prominent international star, and has been for some time. She was born in a hospital ward for unwed mothers in Rome in 1934, and raised in a fatherless household in the tiny town of Pozzuoli, abutting Naples, a locale whose spirited vitality infused countless performances in Loren’s lengthy career (nearly 95 credits to date and counting).
As a young girl, Sophia recalls being shunned at least partially because of her appearance.
Because I was very dark and also really skinny, everyone called me Toothpick, Loren wrote in her most readable 2014 memoir, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life.
But just before she turned 15, I suddenly found myself living inside a curving, glowing body … Whenever I walked down the streets of Pozzuoli, the boys would turn around and whistle after me.
In 1949, Loren also found herself being judged in a beauty contest to pick Queen of the Sea and her 12 Princesses. The idea was to parade the winning ensemble throughout the local streets as a morale boost to Neapolitans still recovering from the devastation wrought by World War II. The newly curvaceous Sophia was chosen as one of the Princesses.
Other beauty pageants followed. In one Loren was ceremonially “godmothered” by another Italian actress with Hollywood ambitions, Gina Lollobrigida. (Lollo much later said that Sophia and her press agents started this “rivalry with me — and she hasn’t stopped for 50 years.”) We are skeptical of that claim.
By the early Fifties, Loren began working her way to the movies. At first by modeling assignments interspersed with fan magazine covers under the name of “Sofia Lazzaro” (the “Loren” came later, a variation on the surname of Swedish actress Marta Toren). She was fortunate in that Italian movie production was flourishing then — thanks to box office receipts racked up by Hollywood films playing in Italy.
The Italian government’s decision to freeze the earnings garnered by American films meant that Hollywood had to come to Italy to spend the proceeds on new, locally-filmed productions. The currency mandate sparked at least two decades of Italian film prosperity, the rebirth of the famed Cinecitta Studios outside Rome. The locale soon became known as “Hollywood on the Tiber.”
It was at about this time that the 17-year-old Loren first encountered a 39-year-old lawyer and film producer on the rise, Carlo Ponti. Both personally and professionally, it was the meeting of her life. Right from the start he conveyed a wonderful feeling of assurance and familiarity , as if we had always known each other, the actress recalled.
Despite Ponti’s earlier marriage still in force, the two commenced living together in 1957, setting off an enormous stink in an official Italy opposed to divorce much less bigamy. This was no joke. Loren and Ponti were for legal reasons forced to move to Paris for a lengthy spell and then to Switzerland. The pair finally tied the knot officially in 1966, and remained married until Ponti’s death in 2007.
After catching the notice of various Hollywood producers, Loren embarked on the Hollywood phase of her career in April of 1957. Among other things, she was greeted by the sight of a slightly inebriated Jayne Mansfield at an industry party sitting next to her and talking excitedly when suddenly, I found one of her breasts in my plate. I looked up at her terrified.
Then there was Alan Ladd, with whom she costarred in 1957’s Boy on a Dolphin and who was nearly three inches shorter than Sophia — so to shoot many of the scenes, he had to stand on a stool…it made him suffer.
Loren was proposed to by Cary Grant, and found herself transfixed by a “perfect” Clark Gable, her costar in 1959’s It Started In Naples.
So perfect that when five in the afternoon came around…it was over, and that he (Gable) could leave the scene midway through and just take off.
Besides Ponti, the man in her life who shaped her most creatively was director Vittorio DeSica, with whom she made 14 films including 1963’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow during which Loren famously performs a strip tease for the benefit of her favorite costar, the late Marcello Mastroianni.
It was DeSica who guided Loren through what is her best movie, 1960’s Two Women, which won Sophia a best actress Academy Award. If you can only see one Loren movie, make it this one.
It was the late DeSica who gave a teenage Sophia her first big acting break. I owed him so much, she wrote. In his hands, as with Ponti’s, Sophia felt completely safe.