To Be Human and Get Away With It
Sophia Loren Writes Her Way Home
By Rachel Greben
n 1932, MGM held a Greta Garbo look-alike contest in Italy, offering as first prize a ticket to Hollywood for a screen test. Romilda Villani, an alluring young woman from Pozzuoli, a small town near Naples, was certain she would win. A gifted piano player, Romilda had received a scholarship to a Neapolitan conservatory, graduated with honors, and now had her eye set on bigger things. Her ambition paid off and this restless beauty was deemed the Italian Garbo. Unfortunately, there was a problem: Romilda was only seventeen, and her parents denied her permission to claim her prize. America, they felt, was a much too dangerous place for a young woman alone and unsupervised.
A stunned Romilda pushed forth on her road to stardom. She moved to Rome, attracted by the prospects of Cinecittà, the movie-making complex built by Mussolini to rival Hollywood. There, she caught the attention of Riccardo Scicolone, a tall, distinctive construction engineer who said he could make her a star. When Romilda became pregnant with Scicolone’s child, however, he refused to marry her, and baby Sofia Scicolone was born in 1934 in a ward for unwed mothers. Romilda returned to her parents’ household in Pozzuoli to raise her child. She didn’t rid herself of Scicolone, though—she became pregnant by him again four years later. He again refused to marry her, even denying this second daughter, Maria, the right to bear his last name. Then World War II hit. Pozzuoli’s harbor and munitions factory were a strategic bombing target for the Allies, and for five years, Romilda and her two young daughters suffered darkness, fear, and hunger.
There is no underestimating the power of a mother hell bent on her children’s success, though. Sofia was intuitive, beautiful, and mentally focused, and Romilda was determined her daughter would have the opportunities Romilda had been denied. Beauty pageants led Sofia to Naples, and then to Cinecittà, where she and Romilda won bit parts in Quo Vadis, tossing flowers at Robert Taylor. Her acting tutor was a resourceful Neapolitan who taught Sofia the art of a flexible face, and she was hired as a model for the popular photo-romance magazine Sogno. Then she entered another pageant, in which the now sixteen-year-old Sofia was noticed by a lawyer-turned-movie producer who had already worked with neorealist directors Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Luchino Visconti. His name was Carlo Ponti, and he invited Sofia for a screen test.
Sofia was an uncommon beauty: tall, with a broad smile and Mediterranean features. Inexperienced in front of the camera, her screen test was a disaster. Ponti suggested she might have work done on her nose. Sofia declined—she had an appreciation of her unique physical qualities and wanted success without self-compromise. She made just one change. While working for Sogno, she had been credited as Sofia Lazzaro. Inspired by the Swedish actress Märta Torén, though—and indulging a flair for sophistication—the young Italian became Sophia Loren.
oren’s modest success enabled her to move into a more settled apartment with Romilda and Maria. Her estranged father, also based in Rome, would occasionally play the role of antagonist. At one point he told the police the women were running a brothel from the apartment. Another time, he asked Loren for money. To this, she agreed—on the condition he grant Maria social acceptance by legally giving her his surname. Scicolone gave in, and Loren’s sister was, according to the Catholic, Italian standards of the time, legitimized.
There is an unavoidable cynicism in Loren’s negotiation for her sister’s name, in which Loren seems to recognize the potential—and sacrifice—of leveraging her own power. In her new autobiography, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, Loren writes:
There’s no need to go into more about that heartbreaking exchange. The important thing was that with my own means and as well as I know how, I had gone back over our family history to try to understand things that had been too big for me to deal with when I was a child.
The prose in Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow is slyly simple, somewhat dramatic, and reads like a story. Page one begins, “The world whirls around me dizzily and I feel as if everything is slipping out of my control. I go back to the kitchen in search of certainties that I can’t find.” Loren calms her nerves with her grandma’s recipes before launching into her life story. This isn’t the authoritative voice of a celebrity deity—there is no pretension here, outright or hidden. Because Loren admits to spending a lifetime trying to keep her emotions at bay and barely succeeding, I was, by prologue page two, considerably aligned with the story.
Loren is straightforward about how acting was for her a dream and at the same time a necessity. She conjures the light and dark of a fairy tale, yet sits apart from that tale and laughs at it. The book’s prose and structure are simple, elegant, and disarming, but Loren’s conviviality and graciousness can be deceptive: there is a flip side to the coin, one she signals between the lines. Her collection of memories begins with a setting of the table, preparing a feast, baking struffoli, her grandma’s pastry. But it’s Loren’s humility that is most alluring: she can’t sleep because she’s too nervous; her emotions are exacerbated by the trials and changes of old age and loss. She takes out a box of old letters and photos to calm herself, throws out some Italian phrases, and as if listening to a favorite fairy tale, we are tucked in and ready for the story.
oren describes the thrill of walking around the sets of Cinecittà, where the Italian film industry was thriving and she never knew what she would find around the next corner. One day she meets Vittorio De Sica, a moment she describes as the true beginning of her career. A Neapolitan himself, De Sica had been telling stories of contemporary Italy for years, filming everyday life and post-war struggle. His personal charisma and experience leant him an ability to achieve synchronicity with his actors. Just as he had done for previous actors—and for post-war Italian cinema itself—he gave Sophia a voice.
Loren in “The Gold of Naples” (1954, top) and “The Pride and the Passion” (1957, bottom) with Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra.
In the first of thirteen movies they would make together, De Sica cast Loren as a pizza girl in The Gold of Naples. A film in six episodes written by Neapolitan author Giuseppe Marotta, The Gold of Naples is an unforgettable collection of characters and emotions, including De Sica casting himself as a tragicomic gambler who can’t beat the child son of his employee in a round of cards. Loren began filming in the winter of 1954, and although the weather was freezing cold and she ended up with pneumonia, the role was a moment of pride and a transformation. Always saddled by worries and hard work, Sophia had, for the first time, enjoyed the experience of acting.
In these early days, she worked her way through the the obstacles of youth, inexperience, poverty, and class. Meanwhile, she grew closer to the married Carlo Ponti. She felt he recognized essential parts of her, including, she writes, her “reserved personality, difficult past, great longing to be successful, seriously and with passion. It wasn’t just a game for me, it was much more than that.” This passion and seriousness are apparent while watching Loren’s best movies. Her focus and intensity somehow convey that, at a certain level, she is acting as if her life depends on it.
onti arranged a Hollywood contract, and Loren began studying English. By 1955, she had won enough recognition to earn comparisons with famous Italian actresses Anna Magnani, Gina Lollobrigida, and Silvana Mangano. In 1956, she went to Spain to film The Pride and the Passion with Cary Grant. Grant and Loren found each other disarming and spent enough time together in remote parts of the country to grow close. The former Archie Leach and Sofia Scicolone met on a level apart from their show business personas—both had worked their way up from challenging circumstances and had much to share.
Always grounded by the experiences of her youth, Loren was not the type to get swept away, but the two fell in love, and Grant proposed. After spending time in Greece filming her second American movie, Loren returned to Los Angeles in 1957 with her sister Maria. Back on the Hollywood circuit, she met actors she had adored as a child. “I was at the heart of the world,” she writes. “But all we ever talked about was cinema, and I missed my country, steeped in history, wit, humanity. Ordinary people just didn’t seem to exist in Hollywood.” In love with two men, Loren sensed her home was with Ponti. His legal team hastened things significantly by setting up a proxy marriage to be declared in Mexico. Unaware of this move, Sophia read about it one morning in Louella Parson’s gossip column. Though unorthodox, Ponti’s plan convinced Sophia he would indeed fufill her wish for a legal marriage, and the two celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday with a happy return to Capri.
This is a point at which the fairy tale gives way to reality. Although Loren and Ponti remained together, the legitimacy of their marriage would be hard-won. There is an irony at play in Loren’s dual impulses toward stardom and normalcy. Driven to succeed as an actress, she also longed for the traditional Italian family she never had. She chased both fame and normalcy, but admits she was more prone to the former due to her restless lust for life. This struggle is personified in her relationship with Ponti. Loren credits him with providing a foundation for her success, but in an Italy that would still not permit Ponti’s divorce from his first wife, cultivating the normal family life Loren craved would be a challenge.
Loren and Eleonora Brown in “Two Women” (1961).
Soon after returning to Italy from America, the couple set their sights on Alberto Moravia’s novel Two Women. The story of a mother and daughter caught in disastrous circumstances at the end of World War II in Italy, Italian cinema diva Anna Magnani was originally cast as Cesira, the mother, with Loren slated to play her daughter. Magnani was indignant about the match—Loren was much too tall, she claimed (and likely much too gorgeous). After rounds of unsuccessful negotiation, Magnani asked why, if everyone wanted Loren in the film so badly, they didn’t just go ahead and give Loren the role of the mother? De Sica, who by then had landed the job of director, asked if Magnani was sure about that. She said she was, and so Loren took the lead role. Playing Cesira tapped into Loren’s childhood memories of Italy during the war and brought out a new intensity in her acting. It was her most difficult role to date, and she describes a rock thrown at a soldier’s jeep as an act of rebellion “against the hatred that had held the world hostage for so many years. The flame of that rebellion must always burn, even in times of peace, keeping us watchful and alive.” Under the guidance of De Sica, the catharsis Loren experienced playing Cesira helped her move beyond her memories and into a new phase of womanhood. She was nominated for the 1962 Academy Award for best actress for the film, a surprising development, since no actress had ever won an Academy Award for a non-English role. Too nervous to attend the ceremony, Loren and Ponti stayed up all night in their apartment in Rome, awaiting the results. At 6:39 a.m., their phone rang. It was Cary Grant calling to let Loren know she had won.
Loren marks this moment as a personal promotion as an actress. She had become an international star, but she still felt most at home in her Italian characters. De Sica next cast her as Zoe, a carnival girl who is also the first prize in the lottery at the county fair in the omnibus film Boccaccio 70. Once again, De Sica expertly maneuvered through the insidious nature of the subject matter. Although it’s a humorous role in a short film, watching Loren in the movie is to see her at her most loveable: gorgeous, stern, hilarious, sincere, sly, strong, vulnerable, and down to earth. Working with De Sica, biking to the set singing Neapolitan songs, Loren recalls being totally at ease in Romagna: “As if that weren’t enough, the flower growers in Lugo named a rose variety after me. What more could I possibly have wanted?”
hen working with the Neapolitan crew in Gold of Naples, Loren had connected with Suso Cecchi D’Amico, the only woman in the field of great Italian scriptwriters at the time. In 1954 Sofia had been cast as a thief in Too Bad She’s Bad, a film D’Amico had co-written based on a Moravia short story. De Sica played her father, but Loren had also gotten along well with an actor who played a taxi driver. She worked with him again in 1955’s The Miller’s Beautiful Daughter and 1956’s What a Woman! A modest fellow a decade older than Loren, he too had experienced the difficulty of World War II, escaping a German prison camp to hide in Venice. His name was Marcello Mastroianni.
Loren hadn’t worked with Mastroianni since 1956, but he had achieved his own fame in the intervening years—especially after playing the lead in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita—and in 1963, De Sica paired Loren and Mastroianni in Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. They star in three episodes, playing couples in different contexts, and the film showcases their talents as an acting team. The film is fun, beautiful, and features the famous striptease scene in which Loren disrobes before a howling Mastroianni. Loren writes that she did not sleep for a week before shooting the scene, which neither she nor Mastroianni could have done without De Sica, whose ironic but good natured humor created a sense of freedom for the actors. The film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
During filming of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Loren found out she was pregnant. She was overjoyed, but suffered a miscarriage and plunged into intense grief. Her marriage was still not considered legal in Italy, and Ponti had been charged with bigamy in 1959. Having achieved a satisfying level of success in her professional life, Loren was devastated by these challenges in her personal life. Ponti pitched her the idea of playing Filumena Marturano, the title role in a popular 1946 play about a woman who turns the tables on the man she loves but who has treats her poorly. Loren questioned her capacity to play a character as publicly beloved as Filumena, but decided to take on the challenge. “By doing what I knew how and had to do, I had the impression of regaining control,” she writes. Work began on the film version, retitled Marriage Italian Style, with De Sica directing once again.
Loren describes making this film as one of her and Ponti’s happiest adventures. De Sica takes the story of Filumena out of the theater and sets it in the streets in and around Naples and Mt. Vesuvius, bringing a new visual and sensual dimension to the story. “At every moment,” Loren writes, “I was being asked to interweave happiness and sadness, courage and despair, ugliness and beauty, placing them at the service of deeper sentiments.” At the end of the movie, and after years of fighting for the survival of her children, Filumena finally breaks into tears. “I’ve never felt so happy,” she wails. In another intersection of real life and cinematic fairy tale, Ponti and Loren were finally officially married in a ceremony in France.
In 1969, Loren and Mastroianni starred in De Sica’s Sunflower, the story of an Italian couple who fall in love but whose lives are shaped by senseless acts of war. De Sica was sick with lung cancer—the film is his farewell. Mastroianni again did his best, in Loren’s words, to “personify a man without qualities,” playing a character conscripted into the German army to fight in Russia at the end of World War II. De Sica captures the effects of this absurd brutality on both individual and family life, but in doing so also pays tribute to the soldiers whose graves lie beneath vast Russian fields of sunflowers. De Sica died in 1974, and a grief-stricken Loren felt that in losing her mentor, she would lose her ability to act with conviction.
However, she writes that if De Sica had seen her and Mastroianni in A Special Day, he would be proud. The 1977 film combines the virtuoso talent of director Ettore Scola with Mastroianni and Loren each cast against type. Rather than an epitome of strength, Loren plays a beleaguered mother whose life has been shaped by the day to day rigidity of fascist Rome. By chance she meets Mastroianni’s Gabriele, who has been pushed to extremes by these same forces. Each finds in the other a momentary chance at honesty in a culture dominated by conformity. Loren describes making the movie as a singular process that was challenging, pure, and ultimately transcendent. At the end of the film’s shooting schedule, her father died.
Even with certain cultural aspects at play, Loren’s naturalness in the De Sica films still translates powerfully. Though each has its own tone and alterations between fun and gravity, there is a visceral power to Loren’s performances, a range she reveals that few actresses have—at least not in Hollywood, where traditional female icons are often understated and simmering, if not totally repressed. Loren is not afraid to yell, show emotion, laugh, look foolish, eat, make dumb jokes, eat while fighting, and wear different masks. Watching these films, I am struck by her ability to display emotion: to show anger, outrage, frustration, and yet maintain her own power and respect. In short, to be human and get away with it.
Sophia writes in length about her close friendship with Mastroianni, and the innate rhythm they shared. They maintain a tender playfulness toward each other on screen, and their personalities off screen in many ways complemented one another: where Loren was organized and always on time, Mastroianni was intuitive, last-minute. Loren needed to act in order to feel her own emotions, but Mastroianni acted to hide behind a character. “We both believed in the strength of kindness, we always ignored the gossip, and we never stuck our noses into other people’s lives,” she writes. Trying to capture the essence of Marcello, Loren ponders the enduring nature of his friendships, and his personality that was somewhat carried by the breeze, yet deeply loyal. A master of his craft, Mastroianni was an undeniable professional, though he often carried himself with the carelessness of someone naturally gifted. Their acting together is like a dance.
oren miscarried once more before son Carlo Jr. was born in 1968. A second son, Eduardo, was born a few years later. After each birth, Loren experienced an urge to withdraw and protect her family from the outside world, which had never proven free of aggression. Living in a sixteenth century villa half an hour south of Rome—an estate with mosaic floors, gardens, and frescoes—Loren recalls finally feeling happy, having all she wanted. But the haven also had a dark side: delusional intruders and threats to her son’s life. It was a time of unrest in Italy, and violent kidnappings were common. Ponti himself escaped two attempts, and a car with kidnapping materials was found hidden in the trees on their own estate. Eventually the turmoil was too much, and Ponti and Loren moved to Paris.
1977 marked the beginning of a period of legal trouble for the Pontis. Caught in a snarl of red tape from her years living abroad, Loren was accused of tax evasion, and in 1982 she was given the choice of exile or a prison stint. Although she was settled in Paris, the thought of never returning home to her family in Italy was unacceptable, so she elected to go to prison. She was outraged but operating on instinct, “listening to that voice inside me that has always pointed me in the direction of the straightest and narrowest path, refusing to take shortcuts or accept easy compromises.” During a painful month of confinement, Loren took to writing, and in Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, she looks back on a slim red notebook filled with intense emotions. “I’ve never enjoyed writing,” she wrote in the notebook, “but I’m writing like crazy now.” She found relief from a sense of claustrophobia through writing in Italian, French, and English, and observed within herself a sense of despair, and of feeling appalled by the general public’s zeal to attack her with little effort to understand the truth. She wasn’t cleared of the tax charges until 2013, and Loren ends this chapter with a disdainful word for the Italian justice system.
An existential exhaustion set in after her time in prison. Having always felt restless in her beauty, Loren was about to turn fifty, and found her beauty now posing questions of her that required deeper reflection. Drawing inspiration from the smile of DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, she looked within herself to cultivate self acceptance and appreciation of inner beauty. This brought a sense of freedom to her work, along with a willingness to try new things. Her mention of a phone call from Luciano Pavarotti, who was unsure of his ability to capture the essence of a Neapolitan ballad, is telling: “Only truly great people nurture doubts about themselves. And it is precisely when they have doubts that they can outperform themselves and become even greater.”
At this point, Loren began to draw on life experience in a way that brought deeper meaning to her career. She found new depth in her portrayal of mothers, bringing fresh life to her role of Cesira in Dino Risi’s Running Away. Another command performance pairs Loren and Mastroianni in Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear. Loren was turning sixty, Mastroianni seventy, and Altman let them choose how to play their scene together. As a tribute to De Sica, they decided to reenact the striptease from Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. This time around, however, at the pinnacle of the dance, Loren turns to find Mastroianni asleep in his chair. Correspondence between the two around this time is filled with bittersweet musings about the passing of time. They cite the passions they have felt, the love, and the joy of life. How could this passion ever cease to exist? “A few years later Marcello would also leave us. I still find it very hard to go back to those days surrounding his death,” Loren writes. Within a whirlwind of tributes and praises, she kept her feelings to herself. About the passing of her husband Carlo she writes, “Death is as ugly as it is normal. There’s something profoundly unnatural about having to let go of someone you love so much.”
Recognition, merits, and tributes—including an Oscar for career recognition—have continued to flow into Loren’s life, but that’s probably because she has never stopped working. The last film she made was only two years ago, with her son Eduardo. “If my age today doesn’t frighten me, it’s thanks to my children,” she claims. “Ever since I became a mother, I have led a forward-looking life, and continue to do so today…You never stop learning. Everything depends on self-knowledge and self-love.” Most recently, Loren has indulged a curiosity for theater with An Evening with Sophia Loren, a chance for candid exchange with live audiences. She admits that part of what keeps her going is her ability to remain at least a bit unsatisfied: “Instead, living means setting new goals to strive for each and every day.”
Long ago, I borrowed a biography that had been on my Grandma Lee’s shelf: Sophia, Living and Loving. I surely only glanced at the glamorous photos while speeding through the captions. “She was such a lady,” my grandma and her sisters used to say of Loren. “She came from nothing and was so elegant.” It was legendary among my grandmother’s generation that Sophia could have married Cary Grant but chose Carlo Ponti instead because he was Italian! Underneath it all, she was like them, a misfit in Waspy America, but she had done it. She mastered poverty, race, and sex, pushing through it all with grace and perseverance.
n Sophia’s letters to her mother over the years, there is an imploring tone, searching for more words from her mother and family. Like any mother-daughter relationship, the connection was complicated. Romilda lived for vicarious success through her daughter, and their almost sisterly bond was intense. But even while she poured so much of herself into her daughter, Romilda could be inaccessible. Sophia is stricken at her mother’s death, and moreso with the passing of time: “I miss our daily phone call. I miss her sudden fits of anger, her combative, exclusive love.”
Anyone who has grown up with the tell-all memoir will notice that Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow avoids going into detail about life’s ugly messes—Loren does not appear to believe that inspiration will come from identification with being at our worst. When she goes through periods of grief or sadness, she finds solace in cooking and makes a cookbook. There is a common theme in the rhythm of her story: she doesn’t stop. Acting is her love, but when she cannot act, she cooks. When she cannot cook, she writes. She diversifies.
What Loren manages to do in Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow is have the final say in her story. She positions herself as the master of her story, an active participant in the construction of the fairy tale. Like a fairy tale, her life has involved a monumental effort to overcome fear and build islands of safety—in her imagination, her creativity, and her love of true friends and family. Claiming her vulnerabilities and anxieties adds to her strengths, and lends her a universal, timeless appeal. After her month in prison, Loren continued the practice of keeping a journal:
In the solitude of writing I found comfort and companionship, and I discovered aspects of my voice I wasn’t aware of. I felt safe in my intimacy, as if only there could I truly, finally, be home again.
Rachel Greben is a staff writer at the magazine.