Sophia Loren: The Italian Screen Queen

Majalla - London

Italian actress Sofia Loren, original name Costanza Brigida Villani Seacolón, was born in Rome on September 20, 1934. She began her film career in 1951 and rose above her poverty-stricken origins in postwar Naples to become universally regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful women and Italy’s most famous movie star.

Loren was born to Riccardo Scicolone, a contruction engineer, and Romilda Villiani, a piano teacher, who he met while hanging around the fringes of show business hoping to romance young actresses. Although she would go on to be considered one of the most beautiful women in history, Sophia Loren's wet nurse remembered her as "the ugliest child I ever saw in my life."

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.

Things got worse when World War II ravaged the already struggling city of Pozzuoli. The resulting famine was so great that Loren's mother occasionally had to siphon off a cup of water from the car radiator to ration between her daughters by the spoonful. During one aerial bombardment, Loren was knocked to the ground and split open her chin, leaving a scar that has remained ever since.

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.

In 1950, 15-year-old Sophia Loren (born Sofia Villani Scicolone) competed for the Miss Italy title in her native Rome. While at a night club holding the Miss Rome contact, 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. Entered under the name Sophia Lazzaro, the local starlet missed the top gong but did scoop the Miss Elegance’ prize, a title created especially for her. More importantly, 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.

Her first film role was as an extra, one of many slave girls in the American production of Quo Vadis? (1951). Under the tutelage Carlo Ponti (her future husband), Scicolone was transformed into Sophia Loren. Borrowing Marta Toren's last name, she changed the spelling of her first and her last name to Sophia Loren.  Her career was launched in a series of low-budget comedies before she attracted critical and popular attention with Aida (1953), in which she lip-synched the singing of Renata Tebaldi in the title role.

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."

Loren’s beauty often overshadowed her enormous talents as an actress, but her earthy charisma is evident even in such early works as Vittorio De Sica’s L’oro di Napoli (1954; The Gold of Naples). With Ponti’s help, Loren increased her international visibility by appearing in Hollywood films opposite such major stars as Cary Grant (Houseboat, 1968), Clark Gable (It Started in Naples, 1960), Frank Sinatra (The Pride and the Passion, 1957, also with Grant), Alan Ladd (Boy on a Dolphin, 1957), William Holden (The Key, 1958), and Paul Newman (Lady L, 1965).

Such exposure was undoubtedly instrumental in helping her win an Academy Award (Oscar) for best actress in De Sica’s La ciociara (1961; Two Women), in which she delivered a powerful performance as the courageous mother of a teenage girl during World War II. Two Women was Loren’s most acclaimed performance of her career. In the film, which has some parallels to her own childhood, Loren played a mother desperately trying to provide for her daughter in war-ravaged Rome. The film transformed Loren into an international celebrity. She was the first actress ever to win the award for a non-English-language film.

Throughout the 1960s, Loren continued to star in Italian, American and French films, cementing her status as one of the great international movie stars of her generation.

Sophia Loren moved back to her native Italy during the 1970s and spent most of the decade making highly popular Italian films. She had given birth to two sons, Carlo Hubert Leone Ponti, Jr. (born December 29, 1968) and Edoardo (born January 6, 1973), and during the 1980s she backed off her intense filming schedule to spend more time raising her teenaged children.

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.

After turning 60 in 1994, Loren received a Hollywood Walk of Fame star and numerous lifetime achievement awards. International recognition for Loren’s distinguished acting career included a lifetime achievement Oscar (1991) and a career Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival (1998). She also made headlines in the 1990s for her strong defense of animal rights. In 2010 she received the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for theatre/film.

In 2015, Sophia Loren released her definitive autobiography, ‘Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow:  My Life’ where she vividly recounts her difficult childhood in Naples during World War II, remembers her parents and their tempestuous relationship, and reveals the pain of growing up in her grandparents' house with her single, unmarried mother and younger sister.

Loren retains her youthful energy and age-defying hourglass physique. She still can be seen strutting down the red carpet into award shows, looking fabulous in high heels and low-cut dresses that women several decades her junior would be happy to pull off. However, after more than 100 films and five decades in the spotlight, Loren remains true to her humble Italian roots.


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