Sophia Loren talks about love, life and the night she was saved from near-death

CARY GRANT begged to marry her and Marlon Brando tried to bed her but screen siren Sophia Loren saved herself for the man who proved his love - by slapping her in the face.

Though shocking, the blow told the Italian temptress that she had chosen wisely in rejecting Grant’s marriage proposal.

“That’s what made me feel OK,” she says of the slap, delivered by Grant’s love rival, married Italian film producer Carlo Ponti.

“That made me feel I’d made the right choice.” Irresistibly charming and suavely debonair, Grant was 30 years her senior when Loren became the great unrequited love of his life, a new book reveals. Loren – who celebrated her 83rd birthday this week – was swept off her feet by intimate dinners and Grant’s unbridled passion, as they starred together in the 1957 drama The Pride And The Passion, and a year later in comedy Houseboat.

“She loved Cary Grant and was tiring of being mistress to Carlo Ponti who was unable to divorce his wife and marry Sophia under Catholic law of the 1950s,” says Cindy De La Hoz, author of Sophia Loren: Movie Star Italian Style.

“Their relationship quickly deepened to a romance with Grant falling head over heels in love. By the end of filming he had asked her to marry him.”

Yet Loren was torn between Grant and the younger Ponti, 22 years her senior.

She was at a point in her career where she was finally being offered Hollywood roles but feared that if she married Grant she might just become red carpet arm candy.

“Cary belonged to another world in America,” says Loren. “I felt that I would never fit in there. I would never have a future there because of my nationality.”

When Houseboat finished filming, Loren rejected Grant’s marriage proposal. “Grant was devastated,” says the author.

“He never stopped loving her.”

In farewell Grant sent Loren a large bouquet of yellow roses, which she shamelessly flaunted on her flight home with Carlo Ponti, who promptly slapped her.

“It was not a nice thing to do,” Loren says of her taunting. But Ponti’s slap made her realise she had chosen the right man. “I was young and thought if he got angry and jealous it meant he loved me,” she says.

Sophia with her besotted co-star Cary Grant
Sophia with her besotted co-star Cary Grant in Houseboat in 1958 (Image: GETTY)

Their romance took almost a decade to reach the altar and Loren had only just married Ponti when she starred in 1967 comedy A Countess From Hong Kong opposite Marlon Brando, and was forced to rebuff his sexual advances.

“All of a sudden he put his hands on me,” says Loren, who snarled: “Don’t you ever dare do that again! Never again!”

She recalls: “As I pulverised him with my eyes he seemed small, defenceless, almost a victim of his own notoriety. He never did it again but it was very difficult working with him after that.”

Loren had previously chased away the advances of British comedian Peter Sellers who fell for her when they co-starred in the 1960 comedy The Millionairess.

Sophia with Marlon Brando in 1966
Sophia with Marlon Brando in 1966 (Image: GETTY)

Obsessed, Sellers wrecked his marriage to first wife Anne Howe, who lamented: “He became besotted with her.” Loren’s illegitimate birth, impoverished childhood, heartbreaking miscarriages and near-death experience on a film set are also exposed in the new book.

“The two big advantages I had at birth were to have been born wise and to have been born in poverty,” says the star who was born Sofia Scicolone in a charity ward for unwed mothers in Rome in 1934.

Her mother was frustrated actress Romilda Villani whose lover Riccardo Scicolone refused to marry her.

Growing up near Naples during the Second World War food was scarce and she was so thin that teasing schoolmates called her “Stuzzicadenti” – toothpick. “She was malnourished and they had no money for doctors,” says De La Hoz.

“But clearly she blossomed in her late teens.” L OREN began modelling at 17 and worked as a movie extra in Rome but her looks were not considered classically beautiful.

“In her early screen tests the cameramen complained her face was too short, her eyes too big and her nose too hooked and long.

“They urged her to get cosmetic surgery but Sophia refused to have any work done. She liked her unique features.” In 1953 she changed her name to Sophia Loren yet her illegitimacy haunted her and loomed over her romance with Carlo Ponti who was unable to divorce his wife.

Sophia Loren
Sophia is still performing and has no plans to retire (Image: GETTY)

“What I wanted was to have a legitimate family, a legitimate husband, children, a family like everybody else,” says Loren. “It was because of the experience I had with my father.”

With her first big pay-cheque from Italian movies, Loren paid her father a million lira to legally give his last name to her younger sister Maria. She was well on her way to becoming a huge Hollywood star when her career almost ended and she nearly died while filming Legend Of The Lost opposite John Wayne in the Sahara in 1957.

“One night while Loren was asleep the gas heater installed to keep her warm slowly filled her motel room with carbon monoxide,” reveals De La Hoz.

“She woke with a pounding headache and crawled to the door and unlocked it before collapsing. Co-star Rossano Brazzi found her but it could have turned out very differently.”

In 1961 Loren picked up the Best Actress Oscar for Two Women and another nomination in 1965 for the comedy Marriage Italian Style. But off-screen marital bliss eluded her. In desperation she and Ponti were wed by proxy when their lawyers unromantically signed marriage papers on their behalf in Mexico in 1957.

But the Vatican branded the marriage illegal and threatened the couple with excommunication while Ponti was charged in Italy with bigamy.

They fled into exile and had the dubious marriage annulled in 1962. Ponti, later adopted French citizenship and could thus divorce legally, marrying Loren in Paris in 1966. He died in 2007. But her dreams of motherhood seemed destined for heartbreak.

Sophia and late husband Carlo Ponti
Sophia and late husband Carlo Ponti (Image: GETTY)

“After suffering two miscarriages in the mid-1960s Sophia feared she would never fulfil her dream of becoming a mother,” says De La Hoz. When she became pregnant again in 1968 she confined herself to bed, giving birth to Carlo Ponti Jr and son Eduardo a year later.

“For the first time in my life I had everything I wanted,” Loren admits. But thereafter she concedes: “I was more of a mother than an actress.”

Loren continued acting intermittently, expanding her glamorous brand with lines of perfume, sunglasses and beauty books touting the benefits of Eastern medicine, body-brushing and apple cider vinegar.

Still performing, with no plans to retire, the ageless beauty says: “There is a fountain of youth, it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source you will truly have defeated age.”

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