Sophia Loren’s La Bella Vita
by Laurie Bogart Wiles
SOFIA VILLANI SCICOLONE was born September 20, 1934, at the Clinica Regina Margherita in Rome, Italy, and raised in Pozzuoli, an ancient shipping and naval port on the Tyrrhenian Sea on the western coast of southern Italy near Naples.
“Naples is so strong, so vital. It’s about music and dance. Books and books of history,” reflected the greatest foreign-language actress in motion picture history in an interview, saying she considers herself a Neapolitan first and an Italian second.
The young Sofia called her mother Mamina, “Little Mother.” Romilda Villani was a ravishing young woman, but her own dreams of becoming an actress were vanquished when her strict parents refused to permit her to claim her first place prize as winner of a Greta Garbo look-alike contest—a trip to Hollywood for a screen test. Indeed, she would only realize her dreams vicariously through Sofia, the eldest of her two daughters by Riccardo Scicolone.
“My father did not live with my mother, my sister, and me,” Sophia once explained of the cad who reluctantly gave only the eldest of his two illegitimate daughters his surname and nothing more. “He even managed to be absent by mail. It’s amazing to think that even though I never had a real father, I can still call myself Viscountess of Pozzuoli, Lady of Caserta, a title given by the House of Hohenstaufen, Marchioness of Licata Scicolone Murillo.” It was her maternal grandparents, Mamma Luisa and Papa Domenico, who raised, nurtured, and protected Sofia and her sister, Maria, throughout their childhood against a bleak backdrop of poverty, hunger, peril, and all the hardships of World War II in Mussolini’s Italy.
“For the Allies, Naples was a key target: it was one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean, at the center of the supply route to North Africa, which the Axis powers controlled. At the outbreak of the war, the Allied attacks were aimed at military targets, but after a certain point, the bombs started to rain down on the town and the coastline. Houses and schools, churches and hospitals, hotels, and markets were struck repeatedly. I remember everything as though it were yesterday. As soon as the siren sounded, we’d race off to take refuge in the railway tunnel, on the Pozzuoli-Naples line. We would arrive there with our mattresses and lay them down on the gravel, next to the tracks. We’d all huddle together in the middle—it was dangerous to stay close to the exit—and prepare to spend the night. Sometimes it was humid and cold, other times it was muggy without the slightest breeze. But it was always infested with mice and cockroaches. And it was filled with the roar of the airplanes and by our anguish and our fear that we would not make it out of there alive.”
In1960, Sophia would recreate the trauma of those terrifying years in her role as Cesira, a widowed shopkeeper struggling to protect her 12-year-old daughter from the horrors of war in Two Women (“La Ciociara”), Vittorio De Sica’s brilliant, harrowing film adaptation of the Alberto Moravia novel. It would earn Sophia an Academy Award for Best Actress—the first to ever be bestowed upon a foreign actress in Oscar history.
Her life was also marked by great love. “Carlo was 39, 22 years older than I was. He had already made a name for himself, and he was at the height of his brilliant career. ‘Shall we take a stroll through the park? It’s a charming place… ”
That gentle evening in 1951 on the Oppian Hill in Rome, Sophia Loren first met the great love of her life—Italian producer Carlo Ponti, whom she would wed in 1957 and have, after many miscarriages and difficult pregnancies, two adored sons—the noted international orchestral conductor Carlo Ponti, Jr., born in 1968, and director Edoardo Ponti, born in 1973.
“I’ve always liked playing strong women,” Sophia has said. “They’re interesting. They inspire me. And one of the reasons I decided to come back to acting for the film The Life Ahead was that I admired my character, Madame Rosa, so much. She’s strong, but she’s not scared to show her vulnerabilities either. And she is a lover of life, just like me.”
Reflecting on his parents’ careers, Edoardo Ponti stated “Honestly, it was never about stardom or glamour. It was always about the craft. My parents, if anything, were more like artisans. It was like they were a pair of Italian shoemakers.” His father, the great Italian director Carlo Ponti, died in 2007 at the age of 94.
Encouraged to enroll in acting lessons after entering a beauty pageant, Loren began her film career at age 16 in 1950. She appeared in several bit parts and minor roles in the early part of the decade until her five-picture contract with Paramount in 1956 launched her international career. Photo 12/Alamy Photos
Italian director Giovanni Roccardi directed Sophia in her first starring role, in Africa Under the Seas (1953). He didn’t like her acting name at the time, Sofia Lazzaro, and he liked Scicolone even less.
“He wanted to give me a short name that was easy to pronounce, a name with a certain allure,” Sophia recalls. “So, while staring at a poster hanging behind him, which showed the beautiful Swedish actress Märta Torén, he recited the alphabet … Toren, Soren, Roren … back to the “L”—Loren! And he decided to replace the f with ph—and voila! Sophia Loren!”
Sophia Loren’s storied career has spanned seven decades, and with her late husband’s help, she catapulted to international fame. With 100 major motion pictures and made-for-television films to her credit, her incomparable acting skills are equally adroit in drama and comedy, in which she has starred opposite some of the silver screen’s greatest actors: Clark Gable (It Started in Naples, 1960); Frank Sinatra (The Pride and the Passion, 1957); with Paul Newman and David Niven (Lady L,1965); William Holden (The Key, 1958); Alan Ladd (Boy on a Dolphin, 1957); Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon (Grumpier Old Men, 1995); Richard Burton (Brief Encounter, 1974); Peter O’Toole (Man of La Mancha, 1972); A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) opposite Marlon Brando and directed by Charles Chaplin; Gregory Peck (Arabesque, 1966); Charlton Heston (El Cid, 1961); Peter Sellers (The Millionairess, 1960); and famously with Cary Grant in House Boat (1958) and also The Pride and the Passion—in which an onscreen romance that Grant had privately hoped, but failed, to wrench Sophia from the arms of Ponti. Most famously, she was paired with her great friend, the late Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni in 14 films—notable among them, Marriage Italian Style (1964), Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1963) and A Special Day (1977), and for the last time together, two years before his death, in Mastroianni’s final film, Ready to Wear (1994), directed by Robert Altman in 1996. For these and countless other reasons, Sophia Loren is listed as No. 21 on the American Film Institute’s Top 50 Screen Legends,” which is comprised of 25 actors and 25 actresses—of which she is the sole living legend.
Sophia Loren on the set of Legend of the Lost. A 1957 Italian-American adventure film produced and directed by Henry Hathaway. It was shot in Technirama and Technicolor by Jack Cardiff. Loren starred opposite John Wayne and Rossano Brazzi. The location for the film is a small village just outside Tripoli, Libya. Screenprod/photononstop/Alamy Photo
“When I started out in this business, I didn’t know where I was going. I took it one day and one film at a time. or me, it was hard because when I began to make American films, I couldn’t speak English. But I worked day and night and learned very quickly because, of course, that’s what it takes. You have to believe in yourself. And as an actor, you always have to give and give, even when you sometimes feel you can’t. If you work hard enough and don’t give up, your dreams do eventually come true.
“I made sure to never let anyone define me or my career. If things didn’t feel right [with a project], I didn’t do it. Early on, I had the opportunity to work with the great director Vittorio De Sica on The Gold of Naples in 1954, and he taught me that what matters most are your self-esteem and your dignity. Everything else comes second. ”
“My confidence came from having clarity. It came from being grounded and knowing where I wanted to go with my life. It also came from knowing what my strengths and weaknesses were. But I am not weak. I’m so strong that, when I’m in character, I can always really go for it. But even after years and years of acting, I have never really felt like a movie star. Even now. Never. For me, it’s more about my work as an actress and choosing projects that I thought I would be best in.”
Sophia Loren tried her hand at bullfighting, but her courage failed her at the last minute. The Italian film star was in Madrid for the making of a new film and was a guest at the home of Mrs. Luigi Miguel Dominguin, wife of the greatest of all Spanish bullfighters. Miguel Dominguin offered to give her bullfighting lessons in the private bull ring in Villa Paz, near Madrid. Sophia had no problem entering the ring, but as soon as the bull moved toward her, she lost her resolve, and dashed out of the ring. Keystone Press/Alamy Photo
Sophia Loren, at 86, has remained beautiful in body, spirit, and heart. Here are some of her secrets:
OLIVE OIL: Miss Loren includes two tablespoons of olive oil in her diet every day. Loaded with antioxidants and among the top sources of vitamins A, D, K, and E, olive oil protects the skin from free radicals—those unstable atoms that damage the cells in the body, leaving the skin red and inflamed from the sun’s UVB rays and air pollution, and triggers aging, developing brown spots, fine lines, wrinkles, and a dull, uneven skin tone. Olive oil contains squalene, a compound that keeps the skin hydrated and increases collagen levels in the body.
“Sofia, have you ever thought about…you know, softening your…your…dominant profile…?”
“Carlo, if you’re suggesting that to be able to make movies I’m going to have to slice off a piece of my nose, well then I’m going back to Pozzuoli because I have no intention of getting a nose job!”—Sophia Loren after her screen test for Carlo Ponti in 1951.
Despite being admired throughout the world for her unique and natural beauty, Miss Loren was pressured by film executives early in her career to have plastic surgery to shorten her long, aquiline nose. Carlo Ponti—who first laid eyes on his future wife in 1951 in her first film in an uncredited role as Lygia’s slave in Quo Vadis, suggested plastic surgery— just once. Miss Loren recalls, “Carlo said, ‘The cameramen, they say that your nose is too long. Maybe you have to touch it a little bit.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to touch anything on my face because I like my face. If I have to change my nose, I am going back to Pozzuoli.”
“I always tried not to listen to these people,” she said. “They were saying that my nose was too long, and my mouth was too big. If you want to look always young, maybe you should make the mistake to do some surgery, but I don’t like that very much. People get so unhappy because they make mistakes. I would be so much afraid of it. So much!”
“There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life, and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age”
THE WOMAN BEHIND THE IMAGE
Miss Loren is glad she never gave in to plastic surgery. She embraces who she is and credits a healthy diet and daily exercise to remain fit and youthful.
BEAUTY AT ANY AGE
Aging—the process of getting older— comes to us all who are fortunate enough to see the years add up to a lofty number. Yes, DNA has much to do with it; where and how we choose to live, as well. However, the way you embrace aging is entirely up to you. To the young-at-heart, it is simply a number.
“Things don’t change too much,” Miss Loren observes. “The body changes. The mind does not.”
WHERE DOES BEAUTY COME FROM
Beauty comes from within. From inside, from the spirit, from the soul. You can’t touch it, you can’t feel it, but you can see it in a person’s eyes because the eyes are the window to the soul. “Beauty is how you feel and what you feel from inside. Nothing makes a woman more beautiful than the belief in herself that she is beautiful.”
As with everything in her life, Miss Loren has formulated, and follows her own rules:
BELIEVE IN YOURSELF
Beauty is how you feel inside. Beauty is not possible for everyone. But if you believe in yourself, you will be able to assess your strengths and weaknesses. Build on your strengths and strengthen your weaknesses. “Ahh, that’s something that has to be within us, to be able to do that,” Miss Loren observes.
Loren in a famous scene from Arabesque, the 1966 American comedy/thriller/spy film directed by Stanley Donen and starring Gregory Peck. Written by Julian Mitchell, Stanley Price, and Peter Stone, the movie is based on The Cypher, a 1961 novel by Alex Gordon. Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Everyone is plagued with self-doubt at various times along the road of life, its detours, highs, and lows. The question is, how to suppress self-doubt and build up your confidence? When asked whether she has had periods of doubt, Miss Loren replies, “Yes, well, maybe sometimes. But then I say to myself, ‘Shut up. Be strong. Just keep going and try. Sometimes you make mistakes and sometimes you win.’ I made some mistakes. But still, I won! After all these years, I am still involved in the process of self-discovery. It’s better to explore life and make mistakes than to play it safe. Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life.”
MARRY AN HONEST AND LOVING HUSBAND
The great love between Sophia and Carlo Ponti blossomed in sunny times and survived the onslaught of times beset with great difficulties. She advises, “Marry an honest and loving husband. If, that is, you—as I myself—have been fortunate enough to encounter one. For a marriage to sustain two people as one there must be friendship. Love, friendship, trust, respect, and humor: these are the ingredients of a successful marriage.”
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
Miss Loren, begins every day with a chilly, ten-minute shower, which she maintains is beneficial for preserving the shape of the breast and “recharges” her energy.
Sleep is essential for natural beauty, happiness, health, and critical for healthy skin. Miss Loren tries to be in bed at 8:00 on a typical day and is up at 5:00 a.m. This affords her nine good hours of sleep almost every night.
Fitness is a key to staying young. Miss Loren stretches in the morning to loosen up after a night’s sleep. “A little exercise is good. But I walk, walk, walk, walk! I walk an hour every day. That’s very good for your heart.” The mornings she doesn’t feel like going out, she exercises a positive attitude and goes out just the same, and looks for new and beautiful things to see along the way. “Physical exercise makes you more graceful. Walk as if the whole street is yours.”
ATTRACTIVE EYE MAKEUP
The eyes are the window to the soul, it is said. Miss Loren’s eye makeup has accentuated her large, elegant eyes. It is dramatic—not because of her profession, but because her facial bone structure
and striking features can tolerate eye shadow, liner, and mascara in the manner in which she applies her makeup. This will not do for most women. Apply your makeup to best accentuate your own features. “At the dressing table, every woman has a chance to be an artist, and art, as Aristotle said, completes what nature left unfinished.” As for hairstyles, she says, “I always prefer a simple hairstyle, no matter how formal the occasion.”
KNOW HOW TO DRESS
Stand in front of a mirror and be critical of your reflection. “To dress to your advantage, you must cover your imperfections and choose colors and patterns that emphasize your personality,” Miss Loren says. “I never thought much about being a fashion icon or anything like that. I just like beautiful things. I like fashion, and I like things that look nice and make me feel good. But good style is something that allows people to see you, not the clothes that you are wearing. A woman’s dress should be like a barbed-wire fence: serving its purpose without obstructing the view.”
Candid Shots of Sophia Loren from Clifton Webb’s Estate. Webb co-starred with Sophia Loren in Boy on a Dolphin (1957), her first U.S. film. Featured here are 11 photos from Webb’s personal archives which show him at work and at play with the beautiful Sophia. There are shots of an April 1957 studio cocktail party which introduced her, as well as shots on a boat, and on location. Two of Webb’s favorites feature Jayne Mansfield paying her respect to Sophia (as Clifton stands by bemused), and he and Sophia dancing “cheek to cheek.”
BE HAPPY AND KEEP CALM
Avoid stress at all costs—easier said than done, but make every attempt to try, whether it is listening to music, taking a brisk walk, meditating, or simply having a relaxing cup of tea when life gets tense. This is key to taking care of yourself. “Relax a little bit, read, look at the sunset—you know, things that please you,” Miss Loren recommends.
BE CAREFUL ABOUT THE COMPANY YOU KEEP
“Always be surrounded by people that you like, people who have a nice conversation, to learn something more about other people and about yourself through the communication. There are so many positive things to think about,” Miss Loren suggests.
TREASURE YOUR FAMILY
In this day and age, this advice is perhaps the most difficult to achieve. Distances and, in the past year, Covid-19, have made it hard—but not impossible. Phone calls, video calls, and the almost-forgotten, old-fashioned letter writing will keep you close to your loved ones. Family is not just blood relations. Family are friends who you treasure as you would a blood relation. “I have two sons and four grandchildren, and my life is a very happy one because of them. I want to be remembered as a woman who has found strength and meaning in her passion for both her work and her family.”
Miss Loren eats three meals a day and observes a low-carb, portion-controlled, Mediterranean diet. Like all Italians, she enjoys preparing and eating good food. She has a small and simple breakfast—usually an English muffin and a cup of decaffeinated coffee. Around mid-morning, she has a sandwich. Lunch is considered the main meal of the day for most Italians and so it is for Miss Loren. She will have pasta, chicken, salad, and fruit. She enjoys a light dinner and then to bed, by 8:00 p.m.
• Never smoke! Limit alcohol!
• Smoking and alcohol are enemies of youth.
• One tablespoon of yogurt beer yeast a day will improve your digestion.
• Miss Loren has found that a serving of fresh pineapple a day helps get rid of fat.
• Eat sufficiently—enough but not too much. When you overeat you gain weight. Small portions are best. Include fresh fruits and vegetables, and fresh juices in your daily diet.
Every month, Miss Loren observes a regimen she has developed over years of experience to effectively cleanse the body. It is a three-day diet of approximately 1,000 calories a day. The core ingredient—one that no Italian can live without—is pasta!