Sophia Loren caught the eyes of many suitors in her time, earning the unofficial title of one of the most beautiful stars of old Hollywood.
Now the icon is set to return to the silver screen at the age of 86, starring in a new film directed by her own son, Edoardo Ponti, titled The Life Ahead.
But her own life – especially her love live – has been just as dramatic as any of her movie roles.
From her teen romance with a man 20 years her senior, to her Hollywood affair with actor Cary Grant, this is Loren’s love story.
Born Sophia Villani Scicolone in 1934, the star came from a noble heritage and even wrote in her autobiography that she is entitled to call herself the Marchioness of Licata Scicolone Murillo.
But the noble connection was on her father’s side, and the man abandoned Loren and her mother – whom he had refused to marry – when Loren was just an infant.
She met him three times in her life, and though she later said she forgave her father, she would never forget how his abandonment affected her childhood and her mother.
As a child, Loren saw some of the worst impacts of WWII on Italy and often battled hunger and poverty – things she wouldn’t forget, even when she became a star.
Her acting career began in the early 1950s, after Loren enrolled in the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the national film school of Italy.
At 16 she starred in her first film as an uncredited extra, followed by a series of bit parts and minor roles in Italian movies from 1951 until she landed her breakout role in 1954.
Starring in The Gold of Naples shot the young actress to stardom, and soon the Italian film industry was the oyster to her pearl.
It wasn’t until 1958 that she would find international fame, singing a five-picture contract with Paramount Pictures that would see her star in the film that would spark her infamous Hollywood affair with none other than Cary Grant.
At the time she was married, as was Grant – but that wouldn’t stop them.
Loren’s complicated romance
The Italian star met her husband, film producer Carlo Ponti, in 1950, when she was just 16 years old and he was 37.
“It was love at first sight for both of us. We met at a beauty contest in Rome when I was 16 and he was on the jury,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2019.
“That this was how we started to see each other, at first in a friendly way, then it became serious when I was 19 … We genuinely loved each other.”
The 21-year age gap would be considered deeply taboo by modern standards, especially given how young Loren was, but she and Ponti quickly became entangled.
“I knew immediately she was someone remarkable. Something played off her that gave her a kind of illumination,” Ponti reportedly once said of the actress.
He had been separated from his first wife, Giuliana, for some time but the pair had never legally divorced; technically, Ponti was still a married father of two.
At 19, Sophia became Ponti’s lover, following several years viewing him as a mentor and father figure, and their romance grew in secret.
Having grown up in a fractured family, Loren dreamed of a family life that fit the conventions of Catholic Italian society at the time.
“What I wanted to have was a legitimate family,” she told Vanity Fair in 2012. “A legitimate husband, children, a family like anybody else. It was because of the experience I had with my father.”
But she wouldn’t get that with Ponti, at least not right away.
The couple were secretly engaged in 1953 but Ponti wouldn’t be able to divorce his first wife easily in the religious Italian society of the 1950s.
Meanwhile, Loren’s beauty and charm had caught the eye of another man; Hollywood heavyweight Cary Grant.
The Hollywood affair
Loren and Grant met in 1956 when they starred together in The Pride and the Passion, Grant teasing the Italian star by pretending to mistake her for another actress the first time they met.
It was an unlikely start to their friendship, which soon blossomed into romance as they confided in one another.
Grant was married to his third wife at the time and complained of being unhappy. Meanwhile, Loren was still trapped in limbo with Ponti, who hadn’t divorced his first wife.
Loren fell in love with Grant, though she was still involved with Ponti, and the couple began an affair that would see him request her as his costar in the 1958 film The Houseboat – a role originally meant for his then-wife, Betsy Drake.
Grant wrote Loren letters, showered her in gifts, and even wanted to marry Loren, but she was conflicted, calling it a “strange time” in her life.
Though she described Grant as a “wonderful man” who was charming, handsome and “very romantic”, there would be major fallout if she accepted any proposal from the actor.
“Cary was in love with me and wanted me to marry him but that would have meant my leaving Carlo and creating a huge scandal,” she told SMH.
“The American press had been very cruel to Ingrid Bergman when she left her husband and I was terribly afraid of what the reaction would have been if I had left Italy.”
Though Loren has recalled that time of her life as “traumatic”, she had to make a choice: Grant and a life in the US as a Hollywood actress, or Ponti and the life he promised in their home country.
“You know, I had to make a choice,” Sophia told Vanity Fair. “Carlo was Italian; he belonged to my world… I know it was the right thing to do, for me.”
In 1957, Loren ended her affair with Grant and married Ponti – kind of.
Ponti had managed to secure a divorce from his first wife, the ruling finalised in Mexico, where two lawyers then stood in for Ponti and Loren to marry them by proxy.
Technically, the couple were now husband and wife, but their relationship simply wouldn’t fly in Italy.
The Vatican itself condemned their marriage, calling it “illegal” and even going so far to accuse Ponti of bigamy. These were serious accusations in the deeply religious nation.
Sophia called it one of the saddest days of her life, and the couple would spent the better part of the next decade defending themselves against Italian authorities after charges of bigamy were brought against them.
Unable to return to their home country, the pair were unofficially exiled and spent years living in France and Switzerland before travelling back to Italy in 1962.
It was discovered their Mexico marriage by proxy wasn’t legal, so it was annulled and the pair put on a façade in Italy, completely avoiding public outings together.
Then, in 1965, the pair became French citizens and finally married the following year, after Ponti finally managed to obtain an official, legal divorce from his wife.
Though Loren was never a blushing bride who walked down a church aisle in a lavish white gown, after many long years she was happy to finally be Ponti’s wife.
In the years to come they would welcome two sons, Carlo Jr. in 1968 and Edoardo in 1973.
They would continue to work together in the film industry, Loren winning two Best Actress Academy Awards and continuing her film career well into her later years.
She and Ponti remained together for decades, only separated by Ponti’s death in 2007, which Loren mourned deeply.
In the years since, she has kept a lower profile and though she is open about her love affair with Grant in the 1950s, her connection with Ponti was the defining love of her life.
As for what Ponti thought of it all, Loren has been coy: “My Carlo would just smile.”