Before the world had Monica Bellucci for its resident Italian hottie, we had Sophia Loren. Like Monica, she was a sensual, exotic and buxom femme fatale who steamed up the screen and set trends with her natural beauty and keen fashion sense. She broke the rules and bucked the trends, showing off her beautiful body and obvious sexuality during a time when such things weren't so easy to do. And like so many an Italian hottie, Sophia has hung on to her beauty and sex appeal well into her sunset years - yet another way she sets the standard for those lovely ladies from Italy who follow in her wake.
Sophia was born Clinica Regina Margherita in Rome, Italy on September 20th, 1934. Her mother Romilda was an aspiring actress in her youth, but was denied that career by a strict, Catholic mother. Sophia's father, a construction engineer, refused to marry her mother, having already married and had a family by another woman. That didn't stop her mom and dad from having a second child together, Anna Maria, in 1938. Because her father refused to even support them, Sophia, her mother and sister lived in slums, eking out a meager existence. During WWII, the family survived frequent Allied bombings of a nearby munitions plant. In one such bombing Sophia was wounded in the chin by a piece of shrapnel while running for a bomb shelter. Soon after they moved to Naples, where relatives took them in for the duration of the war.
After the war, Sophia began waiting tables at her grandmother's pub, which was basically her own converted living room. This became the family business, with her sister singing and her mother playing the piano for the pub's thirsty, GI customers. As a child, Sophia's nickname among her peers was "The Stick," ironically because she was so thin and plain-looking. However, once puberty hit at 14, Sophia had herself a major blossoming and was soon developed enough to enter a beauty contest, where she made it to the finals. Like so many beautiful women before and after her, this small taste of celebrity soon motivated Sophia to take acting classes, eventually landing her a bit part in the 1951 film QUO VADIS. It was a small beginning for much bigger things to come.
Being in this beauty contest changed the whole rest of Sophia's life, for it was here that she fist drew the attention of film producer Carlo Ponti. 22 years her senior (two years older than Sophia's mother), Ponti was nonetheless destined to become the man in her life for the next half century to come. With Ponti's guidance, Sophia got small parts in various Italian films starting in 1950. That led to supporting roles in more features. During these early years of her career, Sophia was credited as Sophia Lazzaro, as it was said her beauty could raise Lazarus from the grave.
By the mid 1950s, Sophia had moved into lead roles in several Italian features, among them 1953's LA FAVORITA and AIDA. By 1957, her beauty and abilities as an actress had gotten the attention of Hollywood, earning her a role in her U.S. debut in BOY ON A DOLPHIN, then later in LEGEND OF THE LOST with John Wayne and THE PRIDE AND THE PASSION with Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra. Grant, also several years older than her, became involved with Sophia during the production of PASSION. It was said he was so taken with her that he proposed marriage, though Sophia turned him down. The two went on to make another film, HOUSEBOAT, in 1958.
Shortly after her fling with Grant, Sophia and the man who discovered her, Carlo Ponti, first married. Unfortunately for their marriage, Ponti conveniently forgot that he was already married. Unable to end the marriage thanks to Italian laws prohibiting divorce, Ponti was forced to arrange for a Mexican annulment with Sophia to avoid bigamy charges, while he worked to immigrate to France so that he could end his marriage to with his first wife. By 1966, with divorce papers finally obtained, Sophia and Ponti were reunited. Their second marriage lasted until Ponti's death in 2007.
While all this was going on, Sophia continued to take the world by storm as a full-fledged international phenomenon. Her 1958 contract with Paramount Pictures scored her huge, high profile hits with films like EL CID with Charlton Heston, THE MILLIONARESS with Peter Sellers and DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS with Anthony Perkins. She also returned home occasionally to star in Italian productions. Her performance in director Vittorio De Sica's TWO WOMEN, which told the story of a woman who is raped while trying to protect her daughter in wartime Italy, won her an Oscar for the role of the wounded mother. It was the first time a non-English language performance won in the Best Actress category. In addition to Oscar, Sophia won 22 other film awards for her performance that year, and TWO WOMEN earned critical and commercial success across the globe.
With an Oscar under her belt, Sophia now had the clout to go for the big money roles. Salaries in the high six figures became her norm and she earned a cool $1 million for her role in THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE in 1965. That year saw her earn a second Oscar nom for her role in MARRIAGE ITALIAN STYLE. As the 60s wore on, she worked with even more big time directors and leading men in films like like LADY L with Paul Newman, ARABESQUE with Gregory Peck and Charlie Chaplin in his final screen role. She also did A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG with Marlon Brando, who didn't get along with Sophia at all, once remarking to her during an on screen make out session "did you know you have hairs up your nostrils?"
Sophia started to slow it down by the start of the 1970s as the rearing of her two young sons began to take up more and more of her time. She did manage to squeeze in a little time to work with more iconic Hollywood leading men. In 1972 she starred in Arthur Hiller's MAN OF LA MANCHA. 1974 brought THE VOYAGE with Richard Burton. She starred with actors Richard Harris, Martin Sheen and Ava Gardner in 1976 disaster movie THE CASSANDRA CROSSING in 1976. In 1977 she starred alongside Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni for the 8th time in her career for the film A SPECIAL DAY. That film went on to earn 11 international awards, including two Oscars, a Golden Globe and a César award. Altogether, she and Mastroianni made 11 films together before his death in 1996.
With two kids and a movie career on her plate, Sophia still somehow managed to write an autobiography of her life called Sophia Loren: Living and Loving, Her Own Story. In an unusual twist, Sophia played herself in a 1980, made-for-TV biopic based on this autobiography. The next year saw her take what was at that time an unprecedented step for a celebrity with the launch of her own perfume, called simply Sophia. She opened the flood gates with that one, inspiring a wave of celebrity perfume and cologne lines to follow in succeeding decades.
Sophia scored another first the following year when she did a voluntary 18-day stretch in an Italian jail for tax evasion, having overlooked a mere $7000 on a ten-year-old tax return. This was the culmination of 5-years worth of hell Sophia and her husband endured at the hands of Italian authorities, who had apparently decided to go after their country's favorite daughter. After a dramatic 1977 arrest of the couple at an Italian airport just minutes before their flight was to depart, Sophia and her husband Ponti were charged with tax evasion and misuse of government funds in 1979, with Sophia listed as an accomplice. Though she was acquitted, Ponti was sentenced in absentia to 4 years in jail and over $24 million dollars in fines. However, that conviction was later overturned and Ponti was cleared of all charges in 1987.
Her acting work became even more intermittent through the '80s, where she did mostly TV movies. She was in negotiations to do a 13-episode stretch on the popular TV drama Falcon Crest in 1984, playing a half-sister to the show's matriarch Angela Channing. Unfortunately for them, negotiations fell through before the contract could be signed. Content to raise her two boys, she did only a couple TV movies before the end of that decade.
The 90s saw her showered in awards and honors for her lifetime of work in film. In 1991, she received the Academy Honorary Award for her contributions to world cinema. Later she received Golden Globes, stars on Walks of Fame and practically every other kind of award a film society had to give. She also won the love of a younger generation with her appearance as an Italian fish out of water in the beloved sequel to GRUMPY OLD MEN, GRUMPIER OLD MEN. Playing a sexy divorcee waking up a sleepy Minnesota town with her international good looks, Sophia proved that even at 60, she could still wear the hell out of a red dress.
The turn of the millennium didn't stop Sophia from working or receiving praise. Still a fixture in many overseas productions, her first American production in 14 years came in 2009 with the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Nine with Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman and Marion Cotillard. In 2010, she once again recreated her own life for an Italian miniseries based on a memoir written by her sister Anna Maria. She played her mother in the miniseries. Feeling especially confident in her enduring beauty, Sophia posed for a seductive calendar spread for the Pirelli tire company in 2007. At 72, she was the oldest model ever to do one of their famous calendar spreads.
Now almost 80-years-old, Sophia shows no signs of fading away just yet. Just this month she signed to appear in an Italian adaptation of a John Cocteau play The Human Voice. She does live a much more quiet life now, splitting her time between her home in Geneva, Switzerland as well as homes in her native Italy. Sophia's days as a young and vivacious screen siren might be over for the most part, but she still carries within her the essence of that world class beauty from days past, keeping alive the spirit of the bewitching, Italian goddess who's beauty once set the whole world on fire.