“Her feet are too big. Her nose is too long. He teeth are uneven. She has the neck, as one of her rivals has put it, of ‘a Neapolitan giraffe.’ Her waist seems to begin in the middle of her thighs, and she has big, half-bushel hips. She runs like a fullback. Her hands are huge. Her forehead is low. Her mouth is too large. And, mamma mia, she is absolutely gorgeous.
By her own description, Sophia Loren is ‘a unity of many irregularities.’ She has rewritten the canons of beauty. A daughter of the Bay of Naples, she has within her the blood of the Saracens, Spaniards, Normans, Byzantines, and Greeks. The East appears in her slanting eyes. Her dark brown hair is a bazaar of rare silk. Her legs talk. In her impish, ribald Neapolitan laughter, she epitomizes the Capriccio Italien that Tchaikovsky must have had in mind. Lord Byron, in her honor, probably sits up in his grave about once a week and rededicates his homage to “Italia! oh, Italia! thou who hast the fatal gift of beauty.” Vogue magazine once fell to its skinny knees and abjectly admitted: ‘After Loren, bones are boring.’
Catherine de’ Medici decreed that women should strive for a waist measurement of 13 inches. Sophia Loren sets the template now — 38-24-38. She is what the Spaniards call ‘much woman’ and the French ‘une femme plantureuse.’ Italians once called Gina Lollobrigida ‘La Gina Nazionale.’ They now call Sophia Loren ‘La Sophia Seducente.’ They prefer the seductress. Gina was, in their curious view, too refined. Sophia, they say, is a woman of the people, their donna popolana.
Her body is a mobile of miscellaneous fruits and melons, and her early career was largely a matter of putting them on display. But Sophia no longer leans forward for just any passing Leica. ‘Some day,’ she
says with the earnestness of a starlet, ‘I hope that everyone will say I am a great actress and I will be remembered for that.'”
In Sophia Loren’s case, the critics are beginning to take the statement with some seriousness. Two months ago, the New York film critics named her 1961’s best actress. Next week at the Academy Award ceremonies in Hollywood, Sophia will arrive swathed in a black and white Dior gown and a blanket of nervous tension. For her performance in Vittorio de Sica’s “Two Women,” she has been nominated as the “Best Actress of 1961.” She is the first person ever nominated for a top Oscar for a performance in a foreign-language film. Hollywood prejudice is unlikely to break down all the way in one year, so the odds are that the winner will be one of the other four nominees — Audrey Hepburn (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”), Piper Laurie (“The Hustler”), Geraldine Page (“Summer and Smoke”), or Natalie Wood (“Splendor in the Grass”). Sophia’s work in “Two Women” is more than comparable to any in that list, and she is going to fly 6,000 miles on the chance that Hollywood has the courage to agree. “Imagine,” she says, “if an Italian girl gets an Oscar for an Italian picture and suppose I’m not there.” [And the winner was…….. Audrey Hepburn.]
A short time ago, all this serious attention to Sophia Loren would
have seemed as preposterous as the suggestion that Jimmy Hoffa might some day
win a Nobel Prize. She owes her new-found status almost exclusively to
European film makers, a fact that illuminates the general difference between
films made by Hollywood and films made by Europeans. The difference is a
matter of maturity and honesty. In Europe, for example, realism means
graphic truth; in Hollywood it means sordidness. Romantic fantasy, in
Hollywood, means juvenile sentimentality. Europeans know how to dream better
Sophia Loren is an actress of narrow range, but under skilled
direction she is an actress of enormous depth. With an authority that
beggars the cheap criticism that she is merely playing herself, she can put
her hands on her hips, cock her head, turn bargaining eyes toward the camera
and drench an audience in the sunshine and sadness, shrugs, shouts, laughter
and song of southern Italy. She does so for De Sica in “Two Women” — hair
blowing in her eyes, dressed sexlessly in threadbare clothes, pouting,
cursing, writing chapters in the air with her hands. She plays a ferociously
protective mother who is helpless to prevent her daughter’s rape by Moroccan
soldiers. It is a brutal but honest film.
Hollywood, on the other hand, which drew her to the U.S. in 1957,
mainly cast her in dishonest stories with dishonest endings. In “A Breath of
Scandal,” she was a fin-de-siecle Austrian princess falling in love with a
mining engineer from Pittsburgh. In “Heller in Pink Tights,” she was an
actress traveling the Old West who bet her “honor” in a poker game with a
She was given difficult parts before she knew the language, as in
O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms,” and she was matched with leading men whom
she could have swallowed with half a glass of water. “It’s very difficult to
find a man who can compete with me, with how I look on the screen,” she says
with professionally detached candor. “It would be a nice experience to be
dominated for once.” Tab Hunter was her partner in “That Kind of Woman.”
When little 5-ft. 6-in. Alan Ladd did a film with 5-ft. 8-in. Sophia, a
trench was dug so they could walk along side by side. “Houseboat” gave her a
chance to show her comic talent opposite Cary Grant, but by then she had had
enough of Hollywood and she returned to Rome. She showed no sign of regret
at abandoning the moneyed and meaningless roles Hollywood had assigned her,
knowing with sure instinct that such parts would never be right for a girl
born to the tumbling poverty of Italy’s back streets. Says one director:
“Sophia is perhaps the only movie star who has not forgotten where she came
Sophia was born in Rome in 1934 as the result of a natural union
between Ricardo Scicolone, who called himself a “construction engineer,” and
a tall, red-haired girl named Romilda Villani. Scicolone did nothing
constructive, preferring to hang around the edges of show business. Romilda
was a would-be actress with a striking resemblance to Greta Garbo. Entering
her picture in a contest, Romilda won a trip to the U.S. to work as Garbo’s
double, but Romilda’s mother refused to let her go on the ground that Rudolph
Valentino had reportedly been poisoned and that was a portent of what a good
Italian could expect in America. So Romilda began living with Scicolone
instead, and ended up by returning to her native Pozzuoli with a baby
Pozzuoli, on the Bay of Naples, has been described in a travel book
as “perhaps the most squalid city in Italy.” The most squalid city in Italy
has music in its streets, cluttered pink and white buildings, seagulls
screaming overhead, a bright blue waterfront, a Roman amphitheater where
Gennaro — patron saint of Naples — achieved his exaltation simply because a
pride of lions refused to eat him. It now has a municipal slogan: “What a
woman we have exported.”
Romilda’s health was poor, and her breasts went dry. Little Sofia
— the “ph” was inserted later because it seems more exotic to the Italian
eye — was turned over to a hired wet nurse. From a bed swarming with six
grandchildren, the wet nurse last week reminisced: “Sophia was the ugliest
child I ever saw in my life. She was so ugly that I am sure no one else
would have wanted to give her milk. It was my milk that made Sophia
beautiful, and now she doesn’t even remember me. I gave milk to hundreds of
children, but none of them drank as much as Sophia. Her mother gave me 50
lire a month. Sophia drank at least 100 lire worth of milk. Madonna mia!”
Scicolone dropped in on the Villani family in Pozzuoli from time to time, and soon Romilda had another daughter, called Maria. “That pig was free to marry me,” complains Sophia’s mother, “but instead he dumped me and married another woman.”
Not much was heard from Scicolone until Sophia became a movie star
and he tried unsuccessfully to take over the financial management of his
daughter’s affairs. Last month Maria Scicolone was married to Romano
Mussolini, son of Il Duce and now a jazz pianist.
“Since Maria has been married in white in church and in the eye of
the world, my happiness is nearly complete as a mother,” says Romilda. “But
never as long as I live will I overcome my hate for Scicolone. Now he comes
around trying to be friendly, but we don’t want him, and my vendetta was
nearly complete when Maria refused to let him come to her wedding. That is
poetic justice.” Nonetheless, when he comes around, Romilda still sets a
place for Scicolone if he is hungry for a plate of pasta. That is merely
In the early days before World War II, Romilda helped support her
daughters by giving piano lessons in Pozzuoli and playing in local cafes.
Sophia’s grandfather — who now at 78 struts about town in the warmth of his
magic celebrity — was then a cannon maker at the local arms factory. In the
four-room family flat, nine people slept in one bedroom; Sophia shared a bed
with her grandmother, grandfather and an aunt. A silent child, she would go
outside and sit in the branches of fig trees. Sometimes she did not speak
for days. “I’ve always been a very closed character,” she says.
In school after the war, Sophia was bright but not a particularly good student. “I always felt a stranger among the girls who had a father,”
she says. “They used to talk among themselves. You know how children are sometimes, very cruel. So I used to go to school either at five minutes to 9, when everybody was almost in, or at 8 o’clock, because nobody was there.”
On the door of her house, her schoolmates scrawled the word stecchetto (little stick) because she was as thin as one.
At 14, the little stick suddenly blossomed. Gymnastics classes were held in the Roman amphitheater, and the men of Pozzuoli began to show up to watch Sophia doing calisthenics. “It became a pleasure just to stroll down the street,” Sophia remembers. Mamma had thought that Sophia should try to become a teacher, but she took another look and put her in a beauty contest. She won a secondary prize that included 15,000 lire and some wallpaper, which still decorates Grandfather Villani’s living room in Pozzuoli. In the spring of 1950, mother and daughter went off to Rome to seek work in films.
“There I told my first big lie for Sophia,” Romilda says. “Someone called out, ‘This way for girls who speak English.’ ‘Sure!’ I told the man, ‘my daughter speaks English. Don’t you speak English, Sophia?’ ‘Si, mamma.’
And we found ourselves in a room with lots of people and Mervyn LeRoy sitting in a chair. He said in English, ‘Do you speak English?’ And Sophia asked me in Italian what he was saying. They realized we were bluffing but for our courage they gave us both jobs as extras in Quo Vadis.”
Sophia found another job posing for photographs for the fumetti, the cheapjack Italian magazines that tell stories with strips of pictures like U.S. comic books. She changed her name to Sophia Lazzaro, suggesting that she could raise men from the dead. Mamma kept the money Sophia earned in a handkerchief and every morning they would take it out, count it, and stare at it.
After she had done bit parts in about ten pictures, a producer at Rome’s Titanus films rechanged her name to Loren. Taking voice lessons, she shed her Neapolitan dialect for a clearer Italian. She posed for more pictures — semi-covered with a bath towel, twirling an eel like a two-foot hot dog, being lassoed by Indians, having her brassiere adjusted by a male volunteer, going to Mass, holding her skirt so high that the Italian police confiscated the entire edition of the magazine that ran the picture on its cover. Editors took one look at that wonderful set of beautiful big luminous eyes and craved photographs of Sophia for their newspapers and magazines.
Suddenly Sophia Loren was a star. Mouthing Verdi while Renata Tebaldi’s voice was fed into the sound track, she became a voluptuous, musky Aida. And in Gold of Naples, the picture that spread her reputation across continents and seas, she played a Neapolitan pizza vendor’s wife whose wonderful, self-congratulating look seemed to say: “Look at me. I’m all woman, and it will be a long time before you see such a woman again.” She took a long, unforgettable walk in the rain through the streets of the city, drinking the applause of venal eyes.
Within four years, she starred in 21 pictures, some of them with Hollywood companies working abroad. She bared her north temperate zone in Two Nights with Cleopatra and her subtropics in Woman of the River. But the great moment of that early phase of her career came when she played a sponge diver in Boy on a Dolphin. Following the custom of native girls in the Greek islands, she lifted her skirt toward her hips, tucked it between her legs, and pinned it in back to her belt. She dived into the mottled blue-green Aegean, and when she came up, all dripping and skin-soaked, the sea had yielded its finest vision since since Botticelli painted Aphrodite on her shell.
Supervising all this with a watchful eye was Producer Carlo Ponti, who met Sophia when she first went to Rome, signed her to something the Italians call a “personal contract,” helped shape her career, became her lover, then her husband (in 1957) by proxy marriage in Mexico, then technically her lover aggain — this year — when bigamy charges pressed by a religious zealot in Milan forced the couple to disavow their marriage.
Carlo had been married before, and his divorce, also Mexican, is recognized in Italy by neither church nor state. “I give up,” says Sophia. “I’m married.
I’m not married. I’m this, I’m that. Basta. I feel married, and lots of married people don’t feel married.”
People say that Ponti serves as an image of the father she never had, but she treats him as if he were her own little boy. They say he is her Svengali, but at most he is only a part-time Svengali, being chiefly concerned with mingling their considerable enterprises. Last year she and Ponti acquired a chalet in Burgenstock overlooking Lake Lucerne, partly to establish themselves as residents of Switzerland in order to sidestep Italy’s haphazard tax code. They keep an immense apartment in Rome. They have also bought and are refashioning a 16th century villa eleven miles southeast of the city. It is on 18 acres and has
50 rooms. Before they are through, it will cost them $2,000,000. The place sits on catacombs that will become the world’s weirdest wine cellar. Sophia and Carlo will each have an apartment consisting of a bedroom, a library, a study and an oak-paneled bathroom. Outside, Carlo is excavating a 135-ft.
swimming pool surrounded by a sort of pocket aqueduct with Romanesque arches on top of which will rise a huge, four-apartment guest house with 16th century curves and a frieze of stone statues and cannon balls. The rest is greenhouses, olive groves, tennis courts, a trotting course, a farm-produce center with chickens, pigs, goats and sheep. At the bottom of the garden, Ponti is constructing a small monastery for Jesuits.
She is ingenuous, but she is also bright, forthright, candid and savvy. In conversation, she is an excellent listener. Her voice goes very small when she is lying. She has an exquisitely nutty sense of humor. When someone begins to tell her a joke about the papacy, she says: “I’m a good Catholic. I’m no supposed to listen. What is it?” For a Neapolitan, she has a remarkably subdued temper. “I get angry,” she says, “once a year.”
At home, she wears slick slacks and roomy sweaters. But when she puts on a dress, it is almost always Dior. Jean Barthet of Paris makes her hats. She has had the same private hairdresser for eight years. “I have never been to a beauty parlor in my life,” she says, setting up a memorable non sequitur: “When I go there, they ruin me.” She eats reducing tablets to help keep her measurements from becoming 38-38-38. She loves spaghetti with meat and tomato sauce, hot peppers, and grapes. “It still seems an occasion to eat meat,” she says, and her childhood hunger now turns up in her terms of endearment. She calls Carlo Ponti her “Melanzana Parmigiana,” her little eggplant.
Off-camera, she reduces sex to a pilot light. Cary Grant once tried to turn the flame full on. He fell wildly in love with her, and gossips said that he wanted to marry her, but the answer was: “No, grazie.”
Asked if he still loves her, he says: “Doesn’t everybody?”
Everybody does, from bootblacks to bank presidents in a hundred countries, for the dark Latin magic of her personality is saved largely for her life before the cameras. She has few interests outside her working life.
She drives herself through film after film, collapsing in bed for four days after each one, then starting in on another. She has three new pictures completed (Five Miles to Midnight, Madame Sans Gene, Boccaccio ’70) and five more in preparation (To the Victors, A Shot in the Dark, Of Human Bondage, Moll Flanders, The Prisoners of Altona).
“Nothing is too small to demand her attention if it has something to do with her career,” says Anatole Litvak, who has just finished directing her in Five Miles to Midnight in Paris. For example, she keeps a magnifying glass beside her bed, where she goes over the tiny contact prints of her publicity pictures. “In all the weeks in Paris, she only went out twice,”
says Litvak. “One can’t even get her to a night club unless she convinces herself it is a question of public attention. Actually, once she’s there she has a great time, but she’ll never let herself have fun for fun’s sake. A good actress needs human experiences of all kinds and must live broadly in order to feel. I kept telling her, ‘Sophia, go out and live a little,’ but there’s nothing doing. Even her rare vacations are a big bore, concentrated on physical recuperation, which is also part of the plan.”
Similarly, when she went to England to make The Key, she took a flat in suburban Elstree and did not go into London once during the four months of shooting. Yet that sort of spartanism paid off in a performance — under the brilliant direction of Sir Carol Reed — which delivered astonishing proof that her talents were more than physical. She had little to do, but she did it to perfection, as the somber mistress of a series of doomed World War II tugboat skippers, managing to suggest the awesome fears just beneath the surface of the dearly bought frivolities of war.
“What struck me was something terribly important to a director,”
says Carol Reed. “She trusts you right from the start. She gives herself to you as an artist. During shooting she would ask me, ‘What did I do wrong and what can I do to make it better?’ I never knew her to pull an act — the headache, the temperament. Usually with such beauty, there is worry about how looks are. She doesn’t bother about looks. She’s interested in acting.”
Sophia’s depth as an actress has been the discovery of good directors, and none knows her better than Vittorio de Sica, who understands and intensifies the natural light that shines from her. “In spite of having the usual womanly defects,” says De Sica chivalrously, “she is the only really spiritually honest woman I have ever known.” From Gold of Naples to Two Women and her episode in Boccaccio ’70, he has directed her in many films. Under poor direction, most of them could have proved merely tawdry — mere smirking, leering, petty triumphs of voyeurism, like American cheesecake. Sex to the European eye is more interesting and less adolescent.
De Sica has used Sophia’s body and her spirit in honest and artful balance.
In an outgrown red dress, her hair a disheveled beehive dripping fresh honey, she laughs, and smirks, and races the blood of the aged. A big bull gets loose and panics the fairgrounds, thundering and charging through the crowds. The animal stops and takes a long fierce look at Sophia. She slowly removes her blouse. The bull stands glazed a moment, then runs off snorting in inexplicable terror. A man in the crowd speaks for all when he
says: “God bless her.”
-TIME MAGAZINE, 1962