Sophia Loren (Seven Magazine, Sunday Telegraph, Nov. 09, 2014)
Sophia Loren has always seemed to epitomise glamour, pure sex and the Hollywood state of mine, even though many of her movies were in fact Italian including Two Women, for which she won an Oscar.
There is probably no greater on screen chemistry than Sophia Loren and Cary Grant in Houseboat (1958). They met when they made The Pride and the Passion in 1957. They were really in love. Or at least she was enthralled with him. And he was besotted.
I loved the chapters about Grant in her autobiography Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life as a Fairy Tale. They shimmered with charm. The book is poetically written and reasonably entertaining. It is a detailed account of her life in movies. Forensic details about actors, actresses, directors, sets. Sharply contrasted with the poverty and desperation of her war torn childhood without a father.
I have gone to Geneva where she has lived for the past 36 years to meet her. In a quiet chi-chi hotel penthouse suite I am ushered in and there she is. She handles herself with grandeur.
She is wearing a black and white trouser suit. Her late husband Carlo Ponti once told her she should always wear suits. She is slim and voluptuous. A great body, even at 80. Her breasts still buoyant. Her eyes brown like chocolate melted over honeycomb. Giant eyelashes, giant lips.
She has always had the giant lips. After her very first photo shoot she was told that her facial proportions were wrong. That her nose was too big. And she wouldn’t dream of changing anything. She knew who she was.
So it is with sadness that I note the evidence of some facial landscaping and her hair is in fact a rather stiff wig. Nonetheless it is still her. She is still full of Italian mama warmth and spiky charm. She misses nothing and gives the impression that she is fresh and tireless.
Has she always been a write? ‘I used to write in my diary every day. I am a Virgo, so annoying and boring. I found the diary and I said let me see how many years ago I wrote this? And I saw many things in it. Many things that I didn’t want to ever let go from my own intimacy. So I tore out the page. And then another. And then another.
‘And then I thought I don’t want these books to be around if I’m not there one day. I would like to keep my privacy. All these things have to be finished. So I burned them. All of them.
‘So every year when I write my diary. A phrase here, a date there. A note about meeting someone. And every year I destroyed them. There are some things I want to keep just for myself.’
I’m rather puzzled at why she’s written an autobiography and she’s here to promote it and she tells me first off she burned the juicy bits. It’s not that the book is bland or without detail. Her childhood for instance lays out so many details you can practically smell the Parmesan cheese being grated. That’s if there was a cheese. Most of the time they were too poor for cheese and had to beg people in the street for a crust of bread.
Later on where she talks of her desperation for children and her endless miscarriages, it’s gruelling and after that when she was wrongly imprisoned for tax evasion, her prison diary reads like a scene from a prison B Movie. Now I want to know what she’s left out.
‘The book is a story of my life read as a story. I think you put other things in a diary. Just feelings, not facts. Perhaps nothing to do with your life. Anyway, why should I give it all out?’
She comes over as an interesting mix of shyness, reserve, confident to the point of fearless, open and wary in equal parts.
‘I wanted to give in the books the facts of my life. How I succeeded. How my life was during the war. I wanted to do that with all my heart because people have written books about me and sometimes it was not real, people completely made it up. Sometimes they put in something they read in the papers.
‘It’s not like I wanted to put the record straight, just that I wanted to say what happened to me, because I am proud. I was really a nobody, a little girl, unhappy, in desperation because of the life I was living with my family and no father. Everyone was starving during the war.’
Her voice trails. What she was starving for all her life was a father. She had a father. She knew him. But he never married her mother. Her mother looked like a starlet. It was her dream to be an actress. Her mother Romilda Villani won a contest held in Italy by MGM Studios to find the new Greta Garbo when she was just 17 and the prize was to go to Hollywood. Her parents said she was too young and wouldn’t let her go. Romilda, according to her daughter, ‘oozed allure.’
Instead she had a passionate, calamitous on off relationship with Riccardo Scicolone Murillo and became pregnant with Sophia. Riccardo came from a good family but was one of these aristocratic losers. He gave his name to his first child but Sophia had to buy his name with her first pay cheque for her sister Maria.
The older authoritative male figure is something that she was always searching for, which is perhaps why she felt so instantly at home when she met Italian film producer and director Carlo Ponti, who was nearly 22 years her senior. Cary Grant was 30 years her senior.
She doesn’t remember ever thinking she was beautiful or special, but she found her old school book, part of the inspiration for writing her memoir. On the first page it was written in Italian “Sophia Scicolone will become a great star.” It was some kind of premonition that she would be famous. ‘Why did I write that? I don’t know. I have no idea.’
The book must have been some kind of catharsis for her. She looks blankly. I’m not sure she understands the word. Sometimes she answers in Italian. She does perk up when I talk about her father, as he seems to haunt the book. He buys her a present, she loves it, she’ll keep it forever. Then he disappears. He gets back together with her mother and then they break up. They get together again and he leaves her again and again and again. At what point did she decide he was a useless human being?
‘When you are five, six, seven, you follow what your mother tells you because you want to make peace. You want the normality, which we didn’t have. My father would always comes to see me when my mother sent him a telegram saying, “Sophia’s very sick. Come.” It didn’t matter why he came. What I always wanted, because all my friends had it, was a father. I wanted to be like them, to be normal. But this was not possible. ‘So you see these things when you’re 13, 14, when you’re almost grown up. You see it for what it is.’
Does she think this lack of a father is what attracted her to men who were older, that they were fulfilling a mentoring role? ‘No,’ she says abruptly. ‘I was never attracted to men like that.’ You see her nostrils flare slightly, still expressing disgust at her father.
She agrees though she did want to learn. ‘And I had a lot to learn because I lived in a small town. There was no opportunity for me to have experiences even with younger men. It was all impossible, impossible.’
The first time she met Ponti ‘I felt at home. When I was leaving him to go home after we’d seen each other I would feel calm. I would ask myself why do you feel like that? Because I trusted him. I was terribly young. I was 17 and we didn’t have anything together until a long time later. It’s not like today.
‘He gave me confidence. He taught me many things. One day he bought me a suit and he said, “You should always wear suits because it suits you very well.” But he was always saying stuff like that. I cut my hair to look like an actress who was very successful at the time, Lucia Bosè and Carlo said, “You should always wear short hair.”
‘Each time I did something that he liked he would always say “You should always do that” and yes, this gave me confidence. He was protective and he… took my insecurities away, yes. He looked and sounded like he would take care of me which no other man had done.’ And did he take care of her? ‘Oh yes.’
By the time she met Cary Grant on the set of the Pride and The Passion (1957) she and Ponti were definitely an item. They were together but couldn’t marry because Ponti couldn’t get a divorce. The laws in Italy at that time were extremely high end Catholic. This was a source of great frustration to Loren because of course all she ever wanted to be was normal.
At this vulnerable moment enter the gently seductive impossibly charming Cary Grant who courted her on set with many intimate little dinners and then proposed to her. Why on earth didn’t she take Cary Grant?
‘They were very different men. It was difficult. I was doing my first American language film and my American language was so very terrible I was upset. Many times I needed help with the language and Cary would help me.
‘Cary belonged to another world in America. I felt that I would never fit in there. I would never have a future there because of my nationality. I was scared to change completely in life without knowing if this relationship or quasi relationship was going on.
‘The picture finished. We exchanged numbers and he said he would call. In fact he did come on to the set of Two Women and then when I was doing a picture in New York he came to the house. I was together with Carlo and already had my son.
‘One day he called me in New York where I was for another film. “How are you?” I’m fine I said, why are you calling? And he said, “Because I wanted to say ciao.” That was it. He died. He must have known he was dying.’ Her voice is shaky with sadness.
Something in the book that puzzles me. On the day her second film with Grant wrapped he sent her a giant bunch of yellow roses. She was leaving with Ponti on the plane and boasted about the yellow roses. ‘Yes, it was not a nice thing to do. Maybe I wanted to test him, to test how he felt. I was young and thought if he got angry and jealous it meant he loved me.’
In fact Ponti was so angry and jealous he hit her. ‘Yes he did. Very softly. Let’s not exaggerate it. But that’s what made me feel okay. That made me feel I’d made the right choice.’ I tell her I still don’t understand and that jealousy doesn’t equate to love. She is quiet, which is unusual because she’s extremely chatty.
What about all these other iconic men that she worked with – Marlon Brando, Charlie Chaplin, Richard Burton? Was she ever daunted by that?
‘What is daunted? I was friends with them, never nervous. Richard was having a very difficult time in his life. He was suffering a lot and we took care of him. He would play with the children and have a wonderful time but then Elizabeth would come and have lunch and it would not be good.’
Was she attracted to him? ‘I admired him and he was very handsome and he had a beautiful voice. And when he was acting he was the end he was so good. So I learned a lot from him.’
Were there any other of your co-stars you felt passionate about?
‘You ask me these things so simply. You think you can ask me that and that I’m going to answer you? Very funny. You sounded naïve but you’re not naïve.’
This is probably the most charming put down I’ve ever had in an interview and now I realise what might be missing from the book. She is certainly not going to tell me.
I also found it hard to fathom when she was nominated for an Oscar in 1962 she didn’t want to go to the ceremony because she’d be too upset if she didn’t win, so she waited at home. It was many years before live telecasts and while she waited she went to make sauce to calm her down. She was up against Audrey Hepburn for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass.
She aged up over a decade for her character in Two Women. She played a mother in Italy during the war and put every emotion from her starving and sometimes terrified childhood into it. It was a big deal. It was an Italian language movie. She felt it didn’t have a chance.
‘Cooking is something that gives you a sense of home. If you have a sense of home you feel fine, or at least I do. I feel protected.’
What is her signature dish? ‘Eggplant parmesan.’
I tell her that I had that very dish last night.
‘Oh, but in a restaurant. It’s something you have to do at home.’
So she made her tomato sauce instead of going to the Oscars because if she won she might faint and if she didn’t win she’d be too upset? ‘Yes, that’s true.’
But later that night. In fact in the early hours of the next morning, she got a call from Cary Grant saying, ‘Darling, you won.’
Soon after this in 1964 she and Ponti moved to Paris because there was still no divorce in Italy. ‘In fact Carlo and his wife had to become French so we could get married. The situation was very complicated.’
Years before she thought she was married by proxy in Mexico. She says that it made her feel better. It alleviated her pain. It wasn’t a valid marriage but at least made her feel that Carlo wanted her as a wife. ‘It was very stressful but I thought that Carlo loved me and that was what counted. Life is not easy when you have the law against you and you can so easily get yourself in trouble and that was the last thing I wanted for our harmony.’
Loren of course always wanted to be a proper wife, have a proper family, be normal. ‘It took a long time but it happened. And then I had a bad time because I couldn’t have children. Or at least I got pregnant but I lost them.’
Heartbreakingly a doctor told her she’d never have children. ‘But then I met this wonderful doctor who realised the miscarriages were coming because of a lack of oestrogen. He gave me oestrogen and then I got pregnant.’
Her two sons Carlo Jr, 45, and Edoardo, 41. One is an orchestral conductor, the other a writer and director are very much adored. ‘No, I don’t like to exaggerate. Two boys are fine. They made me so happy with my life. And I have four grandchildren. Carlo’s son is very much like Carlo. And the girl is like his wife who is Swedish. They have blue eyes,’ she says flashing me her enormous golden brown orbs.
Does she think her eyes are her best feature? ‘No. No, I don’t. My character is my best feature.’
She jokes that for a long time she had to live with a newspaper who claimed her beauty and her figure was all down to eating lots of spaghetti. The quote went viral. ‘I never said that. I think the quote was “Everything I am I owe to spaghetti.” How rude,’ she says laughing. ‘I like to eat simple things. Yes, like eggplant Parmesan. Yes, like ragout. It’s very heavy. I suppose I like things that are not light.
‘I exercise every day for about 20 minutes. I think it’s important to do that instead of just lying in bed.’
What makes her happy? ‘A good day when I can do what I want. When things work. Something that I’ve been thinking about for a while and something suddenly happens, a breakthrough.’
She is happy with her life in Geneva. She may love Italian food but the Italian authorities and religion and tax regime certainly don’t please her. Was it painful for her to write about her time in prison?
‘It was painful because all the time I was innocent. It was bad management but they went on with the trial. They gave me a month in jail and released me after 17 days.’
Because they realised you were innocent? ‘No, it took 40 years and 40 years later I won the trial. It was not true. I had paid every penny. It’s not really true that that put me off Italy but I made a lot of films outside of Italy and it was convenient so we moved.’
Does she have work coming up? ‘Yes. I do have something in mind that I’d like to do but I can’t talk about it because we’re still working out the rights or at least the producer is. I’m just doing the acting.’
She won’t hint at what the role is but it feels good to know she’s not giving anything up. She is still tireless, still charismatic and unswervingly warm. As I leave she promises she’s going to make me her eggplant Parmesan. Can’t wait to have her in my kitchen.