‘What Would Sophia Loren Do?’ is a Short but Sweet Story of Celebrity Fandom and Representation

One is an ordinary Italian-American grandmother in her 80s living in New Jersey. The other is an Italian and Hollywood film icon, and a grandmother herself. The latter is Sophia Loren, one of the most recognizable stars in the world as well as the namesake of the new Netflix documentary short ‘What Would Sophia Loren Do?’. The former is Nancy Kulik, a film buff and Sophia Loren fan.

‘What Would Sophia Loren Do?’ tells their story. We follow Kulik, who drew inspiration from the actress with regards to navigating the challenges in her life. Running parallel to this we’re treated to brief new interviews with Loren herself as she muses on her life, but this is first and foremost Kulik’s story and she gets the lion’s share of the screen time. The end result is a film that’s a bit on the short and superfluous side but is still quite likable. And it serves as a fine companion piece to Loren’s most recent Netflix film ‘The Life Ahead’ (we also see behind-the-scenes footage of Loren working on the film with her director son Edoardo Ponti).

“I Ask Myself, ‘What Would Sophia Loren Do?’”

Directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Ross Kauffman and executive produced by Nancy’s daughter Regina K. Scully (who also produced ‘Life Ahead’), the film playfully explores the lives—in abridged form—of two women who might not have much in common beyond their Italian heritage but are linked through the power of movies and the impact celebrities can have in how we meet life’s journey. In the span of thirty minutes, we learn details of Loren’s life through her ruminations on her childhood, career, and her family. And as Kulik opens up about herself and her life, the film shows us how Loren influenced her way of thinking and finds a few unlikely parallels.

On Celebrity Fandom and Representation

So why do we idolize celebrities? Why do some of us look up to them as role models? Maybe it’s a glamorous and exciting lifestyle. Or it’s the money they make. Maybe we’re in awe of how they excel in terms of looks and talent; after all, they must’ve worked hard to achieve the status they have now. And in turn, we reward and praise them for their ability to become an entirely different person or to arouse emotions from people. 

The point is, we all need someone to look up to. Who we idolize reflects who we are as people and what we aspire to be; the hope is that if we follow their example, even if we never come close to achieving the fancy life our idols have, we can still find success in some way in our own lives. And it’s doubly more potent if we can see ourselves in that someone.

For me, it’s why I was ecstatic when Asian-led films like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, ‘Searching’ and ‘The Farewell’ turned out to be genuinely good films that found critical and/or commercial success; and why I especially cheered when ‘Parasite’ all but swept last year’s Oscars. And while I haven’t personally seen them, I do like how ‘Always Be My Maybe’, ‘Never Have I Ever’ and the ‘To All the Boys’ films have found success with mainstream audiences. The success of these works shows that people do want stories from a different and more diverse viewpoint. And while Asian culture is not monolithic, I can’t help but still see myself in these works. They serve as a reminder of the importance of inclusiveness—that representation matters.

And this dovetails into Nancy Kulik’s story. When she sees Sophia Loren, she sees herself being represented on-screen. She feels seen.

A Fan Finds Strength From Her Idol

The question that gives this short documentary its title is one that Kulik often asked herself and her kids, in issues both major and trivial. And it speaks to the impact Loren has on people: in addition to being one of cinema’s first true international superstars, without meaning to she’s become something like a mother and grandmother to many. For Kulik, in seeing the strong, determined, and graceful characters Loren plays in films like ‘Two Women’, ‘Marriage Italian Style’, and ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’, she sees in her a role model—for Italian womanhood and motherhood.

Kulik recalls how at a young age she saw an Italian movie with her parents and being awestruck at the alluring and full-figured Loren. In her she saw a type of classic beauty that more closely aligns with her; to her, it’s something different than what’s generally seen in typical Hollywood fare at the time. With heart and humor, we’re also treated to Kulik briefly unpacking a couple of Loren’s films. She shares a funny anecdote of trying to get intimate with her husband Alan, inspired by a similarly sexy scene with Loren in ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’. And on the other end, there’s a potent yet sensitive sequence where Kulik analyzes ‘Two Women’ and a particularly dark scene in that film. Seeing it through the lens of a woman and mother, Kulik praises Loren’s Oscar-winning performance and how her character exudes grace under pressure and the determination to push forward.

This idea comes back with regards to the parallels between the two women. Both have faced heartache: Loren lost her husband of fifty years Carlo Ponti in 2007, and Kulik lost her son Dominic years later. And both came close to straying from their spouses (Kulik with another man, and Loren with Cary Grant). But Kulik recalls finding comfort in seeing Loren’s strength and resolve and learning to cherish the family and friends present in her life.

As far as criticism, the documentary is a bit on the short side. It glosses over Loren’s wide-ranging career and I feel like we could’ve had a bit more time to dig deeper into her career, along with her impact on the industry; that would’ve given more weight to Kulik’s fandom. And at the risk of sounding cynical, I feel like this movie’s more of a marketing ploy on Netflix’s part as we enter awards season and the streaming giant generates buzz for Loren’s admittedly excellent work on one of their films.

But these are personal nitpicks. And Kulik is such a warm and engaging presence that I can look past that and just enjoy watching her sincerely discuss all things Sophia Loren.

‘What Would Sophia Loren Do?’ – Conclusion

At one point Kulik and Loren separately recount how Loren didn’t attend the Academy Awards ceremony where she ended up being the first actress to win for a foreign language performance, with Loren assuming at the time she wouldn’t win. But Loren was wonderfully proven wrong. Her win validates the importance of being able to see cultures and experiences beyond the usual white Anglo-Saxon Protestant point of view. 

And as the discussion of representation continues, ‘What Would Sophia Loren Do’ is a solid testament to the importance of that idea. It can help shape who you are as a human being, and help others see your humanity. It’s invigorating to actually see yourself reflected on the big screen. Just ask Nancy Kulik.

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