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Loren, Sophia (1934—)

Loren, Sophia (1934—)

Internationally renowned Italian film actress who won an Oscar for her work in Two Women. Born Sofia Scicolone in Rome, Italy, on September 20, 1934; daughter of Romilda Villani and Riccardo Scicolone; sister of Maria Scicolone ; married Carlo Ponti (a film producer), in 1966; children: two sons, Carlo Jr. (b. December 29, 1968) and Eduardo (b. January 1973).

Raised near Naples by her unmarried mother amid great poverty during World War II; appeared as an extra in her first film Quo Vadis? (1949); film career began in earnest after meeting producer Carlo Ponti; was rivaled only by Gina Lollobrigida as Italy's best-known actress on both sides of the Atlantic (1950s); appeared in the first of many Hollywood-made films (1958), but her finest work is still considered to be her portrayal of a mother in war-ravaged Italy in Vittorio De Sica's La Ciociara (US title: Two Women, 1960), for which she won an Oscar; married Carlo Fortunato Pietro Ponti as a French citizen (1966), after a protracted legal battle with Italian authorities who refused to recognize Ponti's annulment of an earlier marriage.

Films (featured roles only):

La Favorita (1952); La Tratta delle Bianche (1952); Affica sotto I Mari (1953); Ci troviano in Galleria (1953); Carosello Neapolitano (1953); Tempi Nostro (1953); La Domenica delle Buono Gente (1953); Il Paese dei Campanelli (1954); Pellegrini d'Amore (1954); Miseria e Nobilita (1954); Due Notti con Cleopatra (1954); Atilla (1954); L'Oro de Napoli (1954); Un Giorno in Pretura (1954); La Donna del Fiume (1955); Peccato che sia una Canaglia (1955); Il Segno de Venere (1955); La Bella Mugnaia (1955); Pane Amore E … (1955); La Fortuna Essere Donna (1956); Boy on a Dolphin (1957); The Pride and the Passion (1957); Timbuctu (1957); Desire under the Elms (1958); The Key (1958); Houseboat (1958); The Black Orchid (1959); That Kind of Woman (1959); Heller in Pink Tights (1960); It Started in Naples (1960); A Breath of Scandal (1960); The Millionairess (1960); La Ciociara (Two Women, 1960); El Cid (1961); Madame Sans-Gëne (1961); Boccacio '70 (1962); Le Couteau dans la Plaie (1962); I Sequestrati de Altona (1962); Ieri Oggi e Domani (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, 1963); The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964); Matrimonio all'Italiana (Marriage Italian Style, 1964); Operation Crossbow (1965); Lady L (1965); Arabesque (1966); A Countess from Hong Kong (1967); C'era una Volta (1967); Questi Fontasmi (1967); I Girasoli (1969); La Moglia del Prete (1970); La Mortadella (1971); Man of La Mancha (1972); Bianco Rosso e … (1973); Il Viaggio (1974); Le Testament (1975); La Puppa del Gangster (1975); The Cassandra Crossing (1977); Una Giornata Speciale (1977); Angela (1978); Brass Target (1978); Shimmy Lugano e Tarantelle e Vino (1978); Fatto di Sangue (1979); Sabato (1990); Domenica e Lunedi (1990); Prêt-à-Porter (1994); Grumpier Old Men (1995); Messages (1996); Soleil (1997).

The Italian fishing village of Pozzuoli, eight miles west of Naples, is known for several curious features. One is the small but occasionally restless volcano, Solfatara, just outside the city limits, much smaller than its towering neighbor, Vesuvius, but no less moody. Another is the slow rising and falling of the ground on which the town sits, a result of the viscous earth deep below; and there are the steaming fumaroles of the famed Campi Flegrei, the Burning Fields said to have inspired Dante's Inferno. But to most Italians, Pozzuoli is known for only one thing. It is the hometown of Italy's most famous and most beautiful movie star, Sophia Loren, whose 50-year career continues to show more life than either of the peaks that loomed over her poverty-stricken childhood. "She has emerged as beautiful as Aphrodite rising from the Aegean," film critic Rex Reed once effused, while Vogue noted more laconically that "After Loren, bones are boring."

Her birth in Rome, however, on September 20, 1934, seemed only the beginning of the kind of bleak life facing many poor Italians between the two World Wars, with the added burden that Sophia was born illegitimate. Her mother Romilda Villani had come to Rome from Pozzuoli to study piano after her dreams of an acting career had been scotched by her family. Romilda was beautiful enough to have won a country-wide contest to find the Italian girl who looked most like Greta Garbo , the first prize being a trip to Hollywood and a screen test; but the Villanis, suspicious of America in general and Hollywood in particular, forced her to refuse the prize. She had run away and been in Rome barely a year when she found herself pregnant by a married engineering student who had told her he worked in films. Riccardo Scicolone legally acknowledged paternity of the baby girl Romilda named Sofia and allowed the child to carry his surname, but he remained an aloof and somewhat mysterious presence, even when his daughter became known around the world as Sophia Loren. His visits to Pozzuoli were rare, but Sophia always remembered him as "tall, strong, distinguished-looking, with a nose hooked like the beak of a bird." His trips to Pozzuoli may have been infrequent, but Romilda claimed him as the father of her second daughter, Maria, born four years after Sofia. This time, Riccardo refused to admit paternity until many years later, when Loren had earned enough to pay him for Maria's right to use his last name.

The Villanis—Romilda, her two daughters, Romilda's parents, and an aunt—shared two bedrooms on an upper story of a house on Pozzuoli's Via Soltafara, with the volcano visible at the end of the street and its sulphurous fumes mixing with the smell of fish piled on the docks by local fishermen who harvested an already polluted Bay of Naples. Everyone worked—at local munitions factories, as day laborers or secretaries or piano teachers. There was usually food on the communal table until war broke out when Loren was barely six years old, bringing the devastation and suffering that she would later so poignantly depict in many of her films. "Suffering means maturity," Loren once said, "even when you're a baby. I've always been old." At times, the only water to drink was the few drops to be found in the radiators of abandoned cars. Hungry mothers and children would be killed while standing in breadlines, unwilling to give up their places even when the bombs began to fall, sometimes five times a night as Allied planes pounded away at Naples' strategic port and railway stations. Loren and her family spent much of the war living in a rat-infested railroad tunnel. "I saw death in the streets when I was six and eight years old," she recalled many years later. "That you live with all your life. But I don't understand people who hide from their past. Everything you live through helps to make you the person you are now."

My complexes have been good to me. They help to make people what they are. When you lose them, you might also lose yourself.

—Sophia Loren

With the German retreat and the Allied occupation of Naples, the Villanis got by as best they could by selling homemade beer to American GI's and scrambling desperately for the aid packages distributed by the troops. Loren would later, in several films, portray Neapolitan women who turned to prostitution to feed their families, but she has always been quick to point out that she herself was only nine years old at the time of the occupation. "I was a rather mature child," she once told a reporter, "but not that mature." She was, in fact, considered a rather plain child, tall, with a long neck, wide mouth, and so scrawny that she was tauntingly called stuzzicadenta ("toothpick") and stecchetta ("little stick"). But she had blossomed enough by the age of 13 to receive her first marriage proposal, Romilda angrily chasing away the gym teacher who was rash enough to offer his hand; and she was a runner-up at 14 in Naples' Queen of the Sea beauty contest, for which she was given a prize of about $40. Romilda was sufficiently encouraged to enroll her daughter in a few acting classes, at one of which Loren learned that the first major American picture to be shot in postwar Italy was looking for extras. So it was that in July 1949, Romilda and her daughter boarded a train for Rome and its fabled Cinecittà studios; and so it is that on close examination of one scene of Quo Vadis?, a thin, long-necked slave girl can be seen standing behind the regal Roman woman played by Deborah Kerr , the girl peering intently toward us. "I was trying to see where the camera was," Loren explained later. Throughout her life, Sophia would credit Romilda for the career that brought worldwide admiration. "I would have been happy being a teacher in Pozzuoli, marrying a good local fellow, raising a family," she claimed. "Without my mother's ambition … I doubt that on my own I would have pushed myself out of Pozzuoli."

She was paid $30 for her work in Quo Vadis? and would have been paid more for a small speaking part if she had been able to master English. The lesson was not lost on Loren, who sought out tutors in English, French, and Spanish and paid for the instruction with the few dollars she and Romilda earned from work as extras. There was money to be made, too, from modeling, especially for fumetti, rather like comic books in format but filled with photographically illustrated crime stories and true confessions. Sophia was paid $16 a day to pose as gun molls, hapless housewives or jilted mistresses, every cent of the proceeds going toward the rent for the small apartment on Via Consenza she and Romilda had taken. When several casting directors told her Scicolone was too hard to pronounce, Sophia, with tongue firmly in cheek, adopted Lazzaro, the Neapolitan slang for a layabout, as her first professional surname. Her film work was entirely forgettable, bit parts in films with such names as I Am the Guerilla Chief or another that starred the entire Neapolitan soccer team. About the only work to survive from this period is a scene from a shabby desert saga in which Loren played one of several bare-breasted harem girls. Stills from the shoot regularly popped up in cheap movie magazines during the peak of her career in the 1960s, much to the dismay of one of her co-stars, William Holden, who found such a publication on the set of The Key one day in London. "This is dreadful!" he complained, staring in horror at the magazine's display of Sophia's exposed attributes. "Why?" Sophia wanted to know. "They look pretty good to me."

There were also, in those early days, beauty contests as sources of income; Sophia made it all the way to the finals in Rome's Queen of the Adriatic Sirens festival in 1950. She had chosen not to compete, however, in 1951's Miss Rome contest, preferring instead to take a front-row seat with friends as a spectator, when one of the contest judges approached and coaxed her into entering at the last minute. The judge was Carlo Ponti, a rather dour and dowdy Milanese lawyer turned film producer who was 20 years Sophia's senior. By the time of their meeting that June night in the moonlight shadows of the Coliseum, Ponti had been in the film business for a dozen years, had been jailed by Mussolini during the war for an anti-Fascist picture he had produced, and had founded Lux Studios, Italy's first important postwar production company. He had most recently produced Roberto Rossellini's Europa 51, starring Ingrid Bergman , and Fellini's La Strada, starring Giulietta Masina , which would soon be awarded America's Oscar for best Foreign Film.

Ponti knew he had found someone special in the 17-year-old girl from Naples, even after she placed second and was passed over as Miss Rome. "I saw in Sophia all the best that is Italian," he explained many years later, "not just Neapolitan gaiety, but a vitality, sensitivity and sense of rhythm that no actor's studio can teach." Sophia, with two years' experience of Italian movie men, was initially suspicious of Ponti's suggestion that she come to his office for an interview, but eventually borrowed a dress with red polka dots and appeared as Ponti had asked. A screen test followed, during which the cinematographer complained to Ponti that Sophia was too tall, too heavy and big-boned. Her face was too short, he said, her mouth too wide and her nose too big. Still, Ponti persisted. He sent Sophia to a speech teacher to erase her Neapolitan accent, to a film school to learn how films were made, and to a school of deportment to learn how to carry herself elegantly and self-confidently. He prevailed on Sophia to lose 20 pounds (although she angrily refused to have her nose bobbed) and carefully chose her wardrobe and her reading list, making sure she was familiar with the classics of Western literature. Ponti's associates soon took to calling him the "Pizza Pygmalion" to Sophia's earthy Galatea.

A year later, Ponti was casting Sophia in small parts in his films with the new name a friend had suggested, Sophia Loren, the surname close to that of a Swedish star of the day said to be the next Bergman, Marta Toren , and the new spelling of her first name thought to look more sophisticated. By the time of Ponti's 1953 potboiler La Tratta della bianche (The White Slave Trade), Sophia had been given a small featured part.

That same year, Loren stunned everyone by taking a leading role that no other actress wanted

and turning it into an international sensation. She agreed to play Aïda in a film version of Verdi's opera—not for Ponti, but for another studio to which he had loaned her. It was a potentially awkward and embarrassing exercise in lip-synching to soprano Renata Tebaldi 's soundtrack. But Sophia managed to create a full-fledged screen character that went far beyond a mere mouthpiece for Tebaldi, so much so that audiences were stunned to learn that this unfamiliar Aïda was neither an opera singer nor an Egyptian, but a bella napolitana in blackface. It was Loren's good fortune that the film was her first to be released in the United States, distributed by entrepreneur Sol Hurok, with equally enthusiastic praise from the Americans. "Around this girl you could really build something super-colossal!" Cecil B. De Mille was said to exclaim, while The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther noted, "The advantage is that a fine voice is set to a stunning form and face, which is most gratifying (and unusual) in the operatic realm." For Loren, who impressed her co-workers during production for her conscientious attitude and patience, the experience taught her how much acting meant to her. "For me, acting is like lying on a couch at a psychiatrist's," she later said.

By 1955, the relationships that would mark Sophia's long and prolific career were in place. She and Ponti had become lovers (despite Ponti's ten-year marriage to Giuliana Fiastri ); she had shot the first of many pictures directed by Vittorio De Sica (1954's L'Oro di Napoli [The Gold of Naples]); and she had appeared onscreen a year later in the first of 15 films with fellow Neapolitan Marcello Mastroianni in De Sica's Peccato che sia una canaglia (Too Bad She's Bad). Her roles made full use of her considerable physical attractions, often overshadowing the genuine acting talent that De Sica had called "a natural force." Indeed, by the time of 1955's La Donna del Fiume (The Woman of the River), in which she spent most of the picture wearing little more than a wet shirt, the press was already calling her "Sophia the Sizzler." Ponti, meanwhile, had begun actively promoting her in the United States, where the "Battle of the Bosoms" was waged in the American press between Loren and Gina Lollobrigida . Admiring men and envious women carefully compared Loren's proportions of 38-24-38 to her rival's 36-22-35, and much was made of Lollobrigida's comment to Hedda Hopper that "Sophia's may be bigger, but mine are better."

Under Ponti's guidance, Loren appeared on the front cover of Life in August 1955, while Newsweek offered a four-page article entitled "Italy's Sophia Loren—a new star, a Mount Vesuvius." Ponti's work led to leading roles in three major American-produced pictures in 1957 alone—Jean Negulesco's Boy on a Dolphin, shot in Greece with Alan Ladd; the African adventure Legend of the Lost, with John Wayne; and Stanley Kramer's epic story of the Napoleonic Wars, The Pride and the Passion, with Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant. Reports of affairs with her leading men were more public relations fantasy than fact, although Cary Grant did propose marriage and was gently refused. "He had his own problems of insecurity," Loren later said, "and the mixture with my own would not have made for a lasting marriage."

Marriage was, however, very much on Sophia's mind, for she and Ponti had long wanted to formalize a relationship that was already a marriage in everything but name. "When we first met," Loren said, "he was just a kind producer who gave me a chance. But the more we were with each other, all kinds of bonds held us together. He was friend, counselor, lover, father, teacher, everything." But her increasing stature in American films was subjecting the couple's adulterous liaison to intense scrutiny, with rumblings of moral outrage from the American Catholic Church and its Legion of Decency. Since Ponti's marriage had been in trouble long before he met Loren, and since Giuliana Fiastri wanted a divorce as much as her husband, it would have been an easy thing to accomplish had it not been for Italy's strict laws of the time against divorce. Nor did the Church believe Ponti's grounds for annulment—that he had not believed in the sacrament of matrimony at the time of his marriage to Giuliana. Ponti thought he had hit on a solution while he and Sophia were in America. On September 17, 1957, a proxy divorce from Giuliana and a proxy marriage to Sophia took place in Mexico with lawyers as stand-ins, a perfectly legal technique under American law. But Italy's response was to promptly charge Ponti with bigamy and issue a warrant for his arrest as soon as he set foot in the country, even after Ponti had the proxy marriage annulled.

Catholic organizations, even in Loren's hometown, excoriated her in public and in one instance called for her public burning; while in America, the Italian Men's Catholic Action group called for a boycott of Sophia's films. "I give up!" Loren said to the press in exasperation. "I'm married, I'm not married. I'm this, I'm that! Enough! I feel married, and lots of married people don't!" Although Loren herself could not be charged with bigamy and the furor against her eventually faded, Ponti remained criminally liable under Italian law and was forced to remain outside Italy for nearly ten years. So implacable were the Italian authorities that the couple was finally obliged to become citizens of France, where more liberal domestic laws permitted Ponti's divorce from Fiastri in December of 1965 and his belated marriage to "Sofia Scicolone, artiste" in a civil ceremony outside Paris on April 9, 1966. "It's a little like reading the theater program long after you've seen the show," Loren sourly told reporters after the ceremony; and when she called Romilda to tell her she was finally married, the older woman remarked ruefully, "Yes, but not in white, and not in a church."

Loren might have permanently turned her back on her native country if it had not been for her old friend De Sica, who pleaded with her to return to Italy to shoot "an Italian story made in Italy by Italians," as he described his screen adaptation of Alberto Moravia's wrenching novel La Ciociara, about a widow and her 19-year-old daughter during the Allied bombings of Rome. In a testament to Sophia's maturing skills as an actress, De Sica wanted Sophia, now 28, to play the daughter and had cast Anna Magnani as the mother. Magnani had become an international star at the end of World War II with her performance in Rossellini's Open City and had later won an Oscar for her work in the screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo. Loren, unfortunately, had publicly criticized Magnani's bombastic handling of Williams' Sicilian heroine by commenting that "no Italian woman should depict an Italian woman like that." Now, Magnani told De Sica she had no intention of playing the mother of "a Neapolitan giraffe"; and even though she was nearly 30 years older than Loren, Magnani went on to tell De Sica she was too young to play the mother. "Let her play the part herself," Magnani said, withdrawing from the picture at the last minute. De Sica took Magnani's advice, rewrote the script to make Sophia Loren the older of the two women, and cast newcomer Eleanora Brown as the daughter. "I had not the experience of being a mother, let alone the mother of a teenage daughter," Sophia later remembered. "But De Sica was one expert I trusted totally, so when he said I could do it, I went along with him." Her faith in De Sica proved wise, for her performance as Cesira won her Best Actress awards at the 1961 Cannes Festival, from the British Film Association, from the New York Film Critics Circle and, as her crowning glory, that year's Oscar as Best Actress. Loren was so sure that Audrey Hepburn would capture the award for Breakfast at Tiffany's that she remained in Rome for the ceremonies and was telephoned with the news by Cary Grant. "Before I made Two Women I had been a performer," she later said. "Afterward, I was an actress."

By the time Sophia began work on 1964's Ieri Oggi e Domani (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow), playing three different women in De Sica's trio of romantic comedies, the thin little girl who had roamed the streets of Pozzuoli 25 years earlier was an international celebrity with homes in New York, Paris, and in Rome, where Ponti had restored the 16th-century Villa Sara in the Alban hills. But one of the crew members on the De Sica film noticed the way Loren gazed at the women, many of them pregnant, who were extras. "Here was the star of the world, the woman who had everything," he said, "watching them with the most envious look I've ever seen." Loren had, in fact, been pregnant when shooting had begun but had miscarried in her fourth month. It was the first of two such tragedies, the second occurring in 1967, both of which Sophia blamed on her doctors. Pregnant for the third time in 1968, Loren traveled in great secrecy to Geneva and to a hormone specialist recommended by a friend of Ponti's. Her whereabouts remained unknown to a frantic press until one of Romilda's maids leaked the story to an Italian newspaper. Fan mail immediately flooded Sophia's luxurious private suite in Switzerland, much of it from women around the world offering advice and encouragement. Finally, on December 29, 1968, Carlo Ponti, Jr., was born by Caesarean section, to Loren and Ponti's great joy; five years later, in January 1973, Sophia gave birth at the same clinic to the couple's second son, Eduardo.

During the 1990s, Sophia Loren projected the calm self-assurance brought by a full, productive life, having appeared in some 25 films since the birth of her sons and having done full justice to her reputation as one of the world's most beautiful women. A photographer for whom she sat in Paris on her 60th birthday, in 1994, wrote later that "a blind man could get great photographs of her. The lady is magnificent; sixty—yes, sixty!—has never looked better." Loren had just appeared in her 81st film, Robert Altman's Prêt-à-Porter, and was soon to leave for America to begin work with Jack Lemmon, Ann Margaret , and Walter Matthau on her 82nd, Grumpier Old Men. In an interview just a few days before her birthday with journalist Heather Kirby , Loren spoke tenderly of Romilda, who had died four years earlier; contentedly of her own two sons, both pursuing careers in the arts; and proudly of Ponti, then 82 and still, she said, her chief promoter and protector. And what, Kirby wanted to know, did it feel like to be sixty? The answer came quickly, accompanied by the brilliant Loren smile. "Fifty-nine," Sophia said.

sources:

Bernstein, Gary. "Sophia Loren: Dream Session," in Petersen's Photographic Magazine. Vol. 23, no. 2. June 1994.

Hotchner, A.E. Sophia: Living and Loving. NY: William Morrow, 1979.

Kirby, Heather. "Sophia Loren at Sixty," in Good Housekeeping. Vol. 219, no. 2. August 1994.

Levy, Alan. Forever, Sophia: An Intimate Portrait. NY: Baronet Publishing, 1979.

suggested reading:

Harris, Warren G. Sophia Loren. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York

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