Hubert Burda Media

The Lore of Sophia

Cinema legend Sophia Loren looks back on a life of hardship and glamour.

Ask any man from the baby-boomer generation about his sexual awakening and chances are that Sophia Loren, the undisputed goddess of Italian cinema, figured prominently in his wildest fantasies. Like Marilyn Monroe in America or Brigitte Bardot in France, La Loren, as she’s still known in her native Italy, was the quintessential bombshell, exuding pure, unbridled Mediterranean sexuality from the day she started to act in the early 50s.
Much has been said about Loren’s perfect bosom, voluptuous curves, pouty lips and full-throated voice — not to mention that come-hither look and that slow-paced, assertive gait that, derrière gently swaying from one side to the other, has been captured by the many cineastes who fell prey to her charms.
If there’s a film that has come to define Loren as the ultimate bella donna, it would have to be Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, in which she collaborated with her on–and-off working family: Actor Marcello Mastroianni and director Vittorio De Sica. As this classic commedia all’italiana climaxes to its final denouement, which in this case aptly describes the last 10 minutes of the film, you get to admire Loren’s drama skills and visceral sensuality to the full: She performs a riveting and titillating striptease that has remained indelible in the collective consciousness of a generation of moviegoers — especially boys — who undoubtedly saw themselves in the besotted and hapless character played by Mastroianni, the lucky man who witnessed first-hand that moment of cinematic — and erotic — history.
In spite of her comedic talent, Loren rose to the echelons of movie stardom thanks to a harrowing performance in the film Two Women, which earned her an Oscar at the tender age of 25. Playing a mother whose daughter was raped in war-torn Italy, Loren imbued her acting with a raw energy and over-the-top pathos that only someone from Naples could naturally summon. Loren herself lived through the harsh years of World War II, a time she still remembers vividly and that shaped her more profoundly than any other life experience.
Born Sofia Villani Scicolone in a humble and fatherless household in Pozzuoli — then a slum on the outskirts of Naples — Loren was raised by a single mother, who was an aspiring actress herself and spurred on her daughter to pursue a career in acting. After the two moved to Rome, it didn’t take long for the young Sophia to make it big in the city that, at the time, was one of the international centres of film production.
Loren’s long-lasting marriage to the late movie mogul Carlo Ponti has become the stuff of legends in entertainment history. She was also a devoted mother, whose willingness to raise her two children often came at the expense of the many role offers that kept coming her way from Cinecittà (the hub of Italian cinema in Rome) and beyond even as her halcyon days were fading.
Leading a quiet life in the posh environs of Geneva, Loren nowadays makes only sporadic public appearances. This spring, she embarked on a short tour of Asia — Singapore, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong — on behalf of Damiani. The actress has been a client of the jeweller for many years — the Maison even created a collection inspired by her “Italianness”, in CEO Giorgio Damiani’s words — and has developed a personal relationship with the Damiani family.
On her last leg of the journey, the star took a break to talk about life in the spotlight, her first days in Tinseltown and her difficult childhood, showing that no matter her accolades, she’s still a genuine Neapolitan at heart — her sharp sense of humour and funny repartee peppering a relaxed and informal chat.
What sentimental value do jewels have for you?
It’s hard for me to say, because I lost all my jewels. I was robbed twice: The first time in London when I was shooting The Millionairess with Peter Sellers — all my jewellery was stolen and it wasn’t even insured; the second time was in New York while I was staying at a hotel. They came into my room and at gunpoint, asked me to give them all my jewels, threatening to kill my son Carlo, who was staying with me. I gave them everything. It was very traumatic and for a while I never wore jewels to go out. It was horrific.
How did the relationship with Damiani begin?
I met the family many years ago. When we first met, we started to talk about how jewels are made, where you find the stones and diamonds…they saw that I was very interested in the choice of colours, designs and so on. They liked my ideas and we slowly became friends. They started to show me their drawings and I would give my opinion so they thought that I could give some input. It was something very spontaneous and organic. I would never have thought that I would be able to do something in jewellery since I don’t come from that background.
Of the places you visited on this Asian trip, what city fascinated you the most?
I didn’t have that much free time this time, but from my past memories and other trips, I would say that Hong Kong is my favourite. If it wasn’t so foggy, it would be marvellous (gesturing towards the window on the 116th floor of The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong). We’re soaring above the mountains — it feels like being on a plane up here but with a very steady pilot (laughs).
Do you remember the first time you went to Asia?
It was to Singapore. I started to travel quite late in my life. I still remember the first time I took a plane; it was to go to Los Angeles. It was my first encounter with Hollywood. I was so worried as we were taking off and even though I got used to it, I’m still quite scared of flying.
What was your first time in Los Angeles like?
Well, Hollywood is Hollywood. It’s cinema with a capital C. It’s the power, the success…I was just 22 and having cocktails with Barbara Stanwyck, John Ford, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando…everyone was there. My heart was on fire. I couldn’t believe where I was. It felt like a dream. Although I’ve never lived there, I would go back and forth between Italy and Los Angeles to shoot. My children live there now.
You won an Oscar for Two Women but didn’t go to the ceremony. Why?
Because I had no hope of winning. It had never happened for a foreigner to win an Oscar in a movie shot in another language. I was already amazed to be among the five nominees but I thought I had no chance. I was also afraid that in case I won, I would faint on stage, so I thought: “I’d rather faint at home so no one can see me.” When I found out from Cary Grant, who gave me a call, I didn’t faint but I started jumping up and down. It was unforgettable.
Some say that how you played the role was inspired by your mother.
The story wasn’t inspired by my family at all — it’s about a woman whose daughter is raped during the war — but perhaps I was thinking about the attitude of my mother when I was recreating the character for the film. I took the role because of that. And actually, in the book, the woman is 50 whereas I was only 25 at the time. Vittorio De Sica, the director, told me I had to do it because he was confident I would do it well. “You’re Neapolitan,” he said, “and have inside you this treasure, this energy so let it all come out and do it.” It was one of the fantastic things he would always say. I was really intrigued by that and accepted the role.
Of all the directors you worked with, who’s the one you remember most fondly?
De Sica, no doubt.
You also shot many movies with Marcello Mastroianni.
Yes, it was Marcello and De Sica. When you work with someone for almost 20 years, it’s like a family. There’s something in common, a kind of humour that’s hard to explain. You only need a look, a gesture to make something happen. You really value each other. You know how many times De Sica broke into tears while shooting behind the camera? When we were shooting Two Women, we only did one take a day. Can you believe it? It means that at the end of the day, if you didn’t like the shoot, you would have to re-do it from scratch, the entire scene. But we did a third of Two Women like that. It was a big gamble. He knew what he was doing and wasn’t afraid.
Do you have memories of Pozzuoli, near Naples, where you were born?
Now Pozzuoli is a big city, not a rundown suburb anymore. My only memory of Pozzuoli is the war, nothing else — the horror, the bombs, the tunnel, no food or clothes, the Germans, the soldiers…something I can never forget. And what made me cry on the spot was when my son, many years later, told me: “Mum, you know what? No matter what happened during your childhood, you were a lucky kid because you actually experienced the war, unlike our generation. We only hear you talk about it but you actually lived through it so you have almost a treasure inside you, something that really changed you.” When things are just spoken, they have no value but it’s when you live them that you start to understand. I still remember going to get my portion of bread and being hungry. I would use a voucher to get my piece of bread but what I recall is that in spite of all the suffering, it was still like a theatre in Naples, with my grandmother talking and making jokes.
You had one of the longest marriages in Hollywood. How did you make it work?
You have to want it. It’s normal that you can’t always get along but if you want to stay with a man and you try to stay together as husband and wife, you have to overcome the petty issues and solve the little problems that every couple faces. Nobody’s perfect but if you really want to, you can be happy and make a marriage last. You have to be positive, especially when you have kids.
Do you watch movies now? Is there someone you think is the new Sophia Loren?
When I watch a film, I don’t think about that. I only see a beautifully made movie, a beautiful story that moves me. I don’t have to think if she or he is the new so-and-so. If an actor makes a film in which the character fits like a glove, I’m happy to see him succeed. I never think about the new Sophia or Marcello.
Are you interested in technology?
No, I’ve never used an iPad. Sometimes, I send an SMS from my phone but I end up sending it to someone else because I get confused. It’s not my thing.
I know that you like cooking and wrote cookbooks. How did that passion start?
The hunger! (laughs) The hunger of the war…those terrible memories of eating just rationed bread.
What about your life now? What’s your typical day like?
I’m very quiet and lead a low-key life. I go to the park every morning to take a stroll and I’m happy with what I have. I have very few friends, but they are good ones. When I get bored, I go to LA and see my children and grandchildren.
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Oh, Sophia!