Seldom does one find oneself in the presence of royalty, but in the case of Sophia Loren, that’s precisely the aura she casts. Film royalty, that is, a screen icon whose breathtaking beauty and charisma have left a lasting mark on European and American movies. Now 84, Sophia still projects the glamour and grace which have made her a living legend. She is not only a symbol of eternal feminine beauty, but she is a national treasure in her native Italy. Above all, she remains a woman of uncompromising grace and elegance.
“I’m not particularly fond of getting older, but I can still fake being 15 years younger,” she says with a laugh. “I like to live my life, I like to have my children, I like to get old, I like to look younger. Why not? Is that a sin? No! So I try to eat certain things; I’ve even published two cookbooks. I try to exercise a lot and do things for my body. I try to enjoy a wonderful, serene life. Serenity is the key to beauty. You can make peace with yourself.”
These days, Sophia is comfortably enjoying what is best described as an active semi-retirement. In 2014, she published her autobiography, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life, offering a panoramic view of her storied acting career and equally remarkable private life. In the book, she admitted to nearly allowing herself to be swept away by Cary Grant’s ardent romantic overtures and offer of marriage, only to ultimately remain faithful to her fiancé, the Italian film producer Carlo Ponti, and their life in Italy.
Born Sofia Scicolone in Rome in 1934, she endured a brutal upbringing, the child of unmarried parents in a staunchly conservative Catholic country at the height of Italy’s fascist period. She would grow up on the outskirts of Naples, one of Italy’s poorest regions, and was so skinny as a child that other children in her neighbourhood named her “The Toothpick.”
This proved to be an ironic taunt considering the adolescent curves which first brought her to the attention of Carlo Ponti and later the world. Her mother, Romilda Villani, an aspiring actor, had dreams of stardom for her attractive, curvaceous daughter, who at a statuesque 175 centimetres entered a beauty pageant at 16. She was a finalist and ended up taking acting classes.
Later, when Ponti saw her at yet another beauty contest, he arranged a series of small parts in low-budget Italian productions. She would finally achieve stardom in Vittorio De Sica’s The Gold of Naples. During this time, she had an affair with Ponti, one of the first in a series of well-publicised relationships. In 1956 she was cast by an American studio to star in The Pride and the Passion, based on the C.S. Forester novel, during which time she was deeply attracted to her co-star, Cary Grant. At that time she was 22 and was already romantically linked to Ponti, her future husband. Grant was 52 and already on his third marriage when he became infatuated with Sophia and repeatedly implored her to marry him.
Coming into her own as an actor, Sophia would go on to star in Hollywood films including Desire Under the Elms and Houseboat, before earning rave reviews for her work in The Black Orchid and then in De Sica’s Two Women, for which she became the first actor to win an Oscar while appearing in a foreign film.
She would go on to star in many great Italian films, often opposite Marcello Mastroianni, including Boccaccio ’70, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and Marriage Italian Style. In 1994 she played in Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter, and in 1991 she was awarded a special Oscar by Hollywood for her achievement in film. Today, Sophia lives in Geneva, Switzerland. She sits down to talk about her incredible life.
You’ve had an illustrious acting career. How would you describe the life you’ve lived?
It’s been wonderful, extraordinary in every sense. I always saw things positively. And I have not stopped thinking that way. I’ve always been a simple person who has been open to enjoying the finer things that life has had to offer. I’ve also had the ability to dismiss the nasty things in life and always try to move forward and think about what I can accomplish.
When you have accomplished certain things and reached levels you could never even dream of, it is very difficult to judge who you have become and what you have experienced. Today, I can say I am aware of having lived a very full life and lived very intensely. I don’t think I could have lived with any more passion than I have.
Do you still have strong memories of your poor childhood in Naples?
My childhood always follows me to this day, but the memories do fade, and I have a lot to be thankful for.
Did you always know that you were going to be an actor?
I always just wanted to act. It takes years to know you are a star. Maybe I knew when my mother said I was a star. I became interested in acting when I watched movies as a young girl with my aunt. I would see a different kind of life, and I said to myself, “the life I am living is not the only kind of life”. There was another kind of life that I thought I could aspire to when I was older.
How do you approach life these days?
I try to do something positive every day, not only for myself but also for the people around me. My approach to life is very simple: enjoy all the good news that my children tell me about their lives. The beauty of my grandchildren fills me with joy although they are far away in California. Inexplicably, they all have blue eyes and blonde hair; who knows why? Perhaps it is the way life has saved up beautiful things for you which in the end come as a surprise.
What lessons do you want your two sons and your grandchildren to know about your life and who you are?
That they are what makes my life worthwhile.
You have said that feeling happy is the key to ageing gracefully.
Life is life. You should enjoy your time here, and ageing is part of that time. So enjoy it, too. Take care of yourself … What’s going to happen will happen, but your happiness is up to you. And that affects everything.
How hard was it for you when you were starting as an actor and all that attention was focused on your beauty?
What’s difficult is when you’re young and trying to prove yourself. There are so many beautiful young girls trying to become actresses and there are many people trying to take advantage of them. I was lucky in that I always had good people to look after me and protect me when I began to work in the cinema.
I was also fortunate in becoming successful in the 1950s when beauty had a different meaning than it has today. There was a wonderful sense of glamour about being an actress and it wasn’t so commercialised and cheapened the way it often is now.
Today every young actress and even models are becoming famous so soon that they have no time to develop their own personalities and character. They have no life any more, other than their fame, and that’s very dangerous.
Do you ever get tired of that image of being one of the most beautiful women in the world. Has that ever been a burden for you?
I am so blessed, and I never get tired of it. But was it ever a burden? Only when that is all a person sees in you.
You were married for 41 years to Carlo Ponti, who died in 2007. What was the secret of your long marriage?
No secret. 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. He saw me sitting at a table with friends and sent me a note asking me to join the contest. I did and I finished second, but the most important thing was 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.
What do you think about the #MeToo movement that has become such a powerful force in Hollywood and is giving women a greater voice around the world?
No one should be taken advantage of. I never let that happen to me. I never found myself in a similar situation to what other actresses have been revealing. Never. Perhaps because I had my mother next to me, who taught me so many things. I could never have allowed myself to be in such a situation, and if it had happened I would have fled. I understand it, but the solution is there: go away, run!
After you made Houseboat with Cary Grant, there were reports that you were going to marry him …
That was a strange time in my life. It was tough for me to leave the US then. 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. 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.
What was Cary Grant like?
He was a wonderful man. The most elegant and charming man I have ever met. Stunningly handsome. The kind of man who stopped your breath when he walked into a room. He had a great sense of style when it came to how he dressed and how he behaved in social gatherings. He was also very romantic. Someone who would send you hundreds of flowers at a time.
Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you had married him, lived in the US and continued making Hollywood films?
At the time it was very traumatic but once I made my decision to leave and go back to working in Italy and my life there, I didn’t have any regrets. You have to make your choices in life and go on from there. I don’t like to look back. It would drive you crazy. What’s the point? You can’t change the past. It doesn’t exist anymore. I won’t deny that [Cary Grant’s] courtship sent me into a state of confusion, but I intended to have a family with Carlo … My decision was the right one.
Who was your favourite leading man and your least favourite leading man?
I loved working with Marcello Mastroianni. We made 14 films together and he was so delightful and fun. It never felt like work with him … I wasn’t so happy working with Marlon Brando, and Clark Gable was a bit strange. He was very serious on the set, and had this strange habit where he would leave at exactly 5pm. He had a watch that would ring at 5pm and it didn’t matter whether we were in the middle of a scene or not, he would say “Bye-bye” and leave the set. He would not work after 5 o’clock!
What would your mother say about you and your life today? And what would Carlo say?
My mother would say that I deserved everything I have. And she was proud of me. My Carlo would just smile.