The acting career of Sophia Loren (born 1934) has covered over 50 years and more than 100 films. Her work has earned virtually every major acting award the international film community has to offer.
Born as Sofia Scicolone on September 20, 1934 in Rome, Italy, she was the illegitimate child of Romilda Villani and Riccardo Scicolone. Sofia grew up in Pozzuoli, near Naples, Italy. Her mother, Sofia, and eventually her sister Maria, lived with her maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles in a two room apartment.
Sofia said "the two big advantages I had at birth were to have been born wise and to have been born in poverty." Her mother's unmarried status lead to a life of poverty. Sofia was so undernourished as a child she was called Sofia Stuzzicadente or "Sofia the toothpick." By all accounts she was a thin, shy, fearful and unattractive girl.
World War II
Sofia recalls the war as a time of cold, starvation and sickness. Her grandfather and uncles worked in a munitions factory which supported the family briefly. The plant, however, was a frequent target of bombings. During bombing raids Sofia remembers hiding in train tunnels but leaving them before the morning trains started.
Italy was devastated following the end of the war. Food, jobs and money were scarce, particularly for unmarried mothers. One way women could make money was by participating in beauty pageants. Sofia, who had blossomed from 'the toothpick' into a lovely teenager entered such a pageant as a teenager and was a finalist. After this contest, Sofia's mother learned extras were needed for the film Quo Vadis. Hoping for employment, her mother packed their belongings and headed for Rome.
The Movies-Bit Parts
Sofia and her mother were hired as extras for Quo Vadis. When the film was over they were unemployed. Her mother headed back home but Sofia remained in Rome. During the early 1950s she secured work modelling for fumetti magazines. Comic-like, these magazines used actual photographs. The dialogue bubbles were called fumetti-hence the popular name.
Fumettis were quite popular throughout Italy and Sofia was in demand. She used this recognition to get bit parts in movies. Under her real name she made eight films. One director suggested she change her name to Sofia Lazzaro, which she did for three films.
Carlo Ponti and His Influence
Sofia's luck changed due to an encounter at a night club holding a Miss Rome contest. A stranger asked her to enter the contest but she refused. The stranger returned a second time and told Sofia one of the judges, Carlo Ponti, suggested she enter. She entered the contest and won second prize. More important she also won a screen test with Ponti, one of Italy's leading film directors.
Ponti gave her bit parts in films, believing there was something worthwhile there. Borrowing Marta Toren's last name, she changed the spelling of her first and her last name to Sophia Loren. She quickly made several films while taking drama lessons.
The Big Break
In 1953, producers were filming Aida with Gina Lollobrigida. The concept was to have a beautiful actress lip-synch the opera's arias which would be performed by one of Italy most famous opera singers, Renata Tebaldi. Lollobrigida backed out when she learned about the lip synching. Ponti suggested Loren as a replacement. Appearing completely painted black, Loren made the film.
Her success in Aida lead Loren to parts in nine films that year. One was Anatomy of Love which co-starred Marcello Mastroianni and Vittorio De Sica, two men she would successfully continue to work with over time. By the mid-1950s Loren had established herself as an Italian sex symbol. Loren once commented, "Sex-appeal is 50 percent what you've got and 50 percent what people think you've got."
Sex Symbol to Serious Actress
In 1954 Loren again teamed up with De Sica for The Gold of Naples. This time de Sica was directing the film. Sam Shaw, in Sophia Loren: In the Camera Eye, noted "De Sica taught her [Loren] the craft of acting. Secrets of interpretation, restraint. It took a director like him to get the talent out of her." Loren agreed, claiming "the second man of my life is Vittorio De Sica."
De Sica once stated to an interviewer, "She was created differently, behaved differently, affected me differently from any woman I have known. I looked at that face, those unbelievable eyes, and I saw it all as a miracle." He considered her "the essential Italian woman." Loren had a box-office success when she teamed up with Mastroianni, in Too Bad She's Bad, with De Sica directing. In The Films of Sophia Loren, Tom Crawley noted Too Bad She's Bad was the "genesis of the most successful partnership in Italian movies." Loren explained this success, "The three of us were united in a kind of complicity that the Neapolitans always have among themselves. The same sense of humor, the same rhythms, the same philosophies of life, the same natural cynicism. All three of us did our roles instinctively."
The Marriage Scandal
In 1957 Loren appeared in her first English-speaking film, The Pride and the Passion, with Cary Grant. Despite the fact that Grant was married, romance was rumored between the stars. This concerned Ponti, who was Loren's agent and manager. Ponti, despite a wife and two children, was also in love with Loren. From all accounts it seemed Loren was also in love with Ponti. "What nobody could understand then and still can't is the extraordinary power of the man, " Loren once claimed in an interview.
This relationship was troublesome in Italy which did not recognize divorce. Loren found herself embroiled in a scandal, when Ponti obtained a Mexican divorce from his wife. Loren and Ponti were married by proxy in Mexico on September 17, 1957. The Vatican refused to recognize the divorce and subsequent marriage and labeled the couple public sinners. After a hearing, warrants were issued for Carlo (as a bigamist) and Loren (as a concubine).
Hollywood at Last
Loren's first Hollywood film was the 1958 Desire Under the Elms. During this year she worked with Peter Sellers in another film from which they recorded an album. One single from the album "Goodness Gracious Me" topped the charts in England.
Over the next years Loren worked on ten films. Two of the most important were El Cid and Two Women. El Cid with Charlton Heston is probably the largest grossing film of Loren's career. Two Women achieved greater importance in Loren's life. Loren received numerous Best Actress awards, including an Academy Award for her depiction of a mother struggling during war. This was the first Academy Award ever given to a foreign actress in a foreign language film.
In 1963 the Pontis were charged with public bigamy and their marriage was annulled. Hoping to resolve this problem, the Pontis moved to France where they became citizens. In 1965 the French court granted a divorce to Giuliana, Ponti's wife. On April 9, 1967 Loren remarried Ponti in a small French civil wedding.
While Loren enjoyed a successful career, she also attempted to become pregnant. She suffered two miscarriages after which she underwent a series of tests. When Loren again became pregnant her doctor ordered complete bed rest. On December 28, 1968, Hubert Leoni Carlo Ponti, Jr. (known as Cipi), was born. Loren had spent almost the entire pregnancy in bed.
Five years later on January 1, 1973, Eduardo Ponti arrived. Again several months of bed rest were ordered by her physician. Despite the lengthy confinements, Loren was overjoyed. In a Good Housekeeping interview with Heather Kirby, Loren claimed childbirth "is something women are born for, the continuation of life." During this period an Italian appellate court also dismissed all bigamy charges against Ponti.
The early to mid-1970s proved to be a very productive time for Loren. She made ten films and wrote a cookbook, In the Kitchen with Love, published in 1972. Unfortunately these good times were not destined to last.
On February 8, 1977, Italian police searched the Pontis' private home and business offices. The government believed Ponti was guilty of income tax evasion, the misuse of government subsidies, and the illegal export of Italian funds. A warrant was issued for Ponti's arrest. Loren was charged as an accomplice.
In 1979 the government tried the couple, in absentia. Ponti was found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison, and fined 22 billion lire (about 24 million dollars). Loren was acquitted. Ponti was eventually cleared of all charges in 1987.
Loren continued making films, but she also began other endeavors. She published Sophia: Living and Loving, her own story, written with A.E. Hotchner. She also moved into marketing when she became the first female celebrity with her own perfume. "Sophia" a combination of jasmine and roses was manufactured by Coty. In 1981 she partnered with Zyloware to market the Sophia Loren Eyewear collection.
Loren was asked to be the first female grand marshall of the annual Columbus Day Parade in New York City, a parade celebrating Italian-Americans, which she did in 1984. She also published her second book, Sophia Loren on Women and Beauty.
All these activities were interrupted by legal problems. A tax court sentenced Loren to a 30 days jail term for income tax evasion on a 1966 filing. Loren promised to return once work obligations were completed. She began the sentence May 19, 1982. She served 17 days at a women's prison and was paroled early.
Since the mid-1980s Loren has continued making films, shifting towards television movies. She used her celebrity status on behalf of charity projects such as the Statue of Liberty, protecting Greco-Roman ruins and drought-relief work for Somalian refugees.
In 1991, she received a Special Academy Award, for as the Academy noted, being "one of the genuine treasures of world cinema who, in a career rich with memorable performances, has added permanent luster to our art form." Sadly though, Loren also experienced a great loss with the death of her mother that year. In an interview, Loren said "I think when a mother dies the whole world collapses because she's the anchor that you don't have anymore."
After turning 60 in 1994, Loren received a Hollywood Walk of Fame star and numerous lifetime achievement awards. Entertainment Weekly selected her as one of The 100 Greatest Movie Stars of All Time in 1996. She appeared in Pret-a-Porter (Ready to Wear), which marked her fifteenth and final pairing with Mastroianni, who died shortly after.
Fans seemed to agree with Sam Shaw when he stated, "Whatever she does on screen is right. She can do ordinary pictures; and still she remains an international superstar, still she grows as a human being." With accolades like this Sophia Loren will be a presence for sometime to come.
Further Reading on Sophia Loren
Crawley, Tony, The Films of Sophia Loren, Citadel Press, 1976.
Harris, Warren G. Sophia Loren, Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Shaw, Sam, Sophia Loren: In the Camera Eye, Exeter Books, 1979.
Art News, March 23, 1998.
Chicago Tribune, October 7, 1990.
Esquire, August 1994.
Good Housekeeping, August 1994.
Houston Chronicle, February 2, 1994.
New York Times, August 18, 1983; August 25, 1984.
Orange County Register, February 19, 1994.
People, March 11, 1988.
San Diego Union-Tribune, July 8, 1988.
Washington Post, May 20, 1982.
"Sophia Loren, " CelebSite, http://www.celebsite.com (March 25, 1998).
"Contemporary Authors-Sophia Loren, " http://galenet.gale.com (March 24, 1998).
"The Epitome of Woman … Sophia Loren, " http://www.spyderempire.com/sophia (March 25, 1998).