The life story of Sofia Loren, one of the best-loved and most phenomenal film stars of cinema, reads like a fairy tale. Born with the tag of an illegitimate baby, in a charity ward of a hospital in Naples on September 20, 1934, her childhood was anything but a bed of roses. Yet she rose by sheer grit and determination to walk away with prizes at beauty pageants, make her presence felt in insignificant roles of Italian films and finally establish herself as one of cinema’s best actresses and sex symbols of Hollywood.
War clouds loomed menacingly in the sky, the year Sofia was born - Mussolini bombed Ethopia that year, adding to the misery of many poverty stricken Italians like Sofia’s single mother who struggled to feed herself and find shelter in this grim scenario. Sofia’s father Riccardo Scicolone an already married man, refused to take any responsibility for his out-of-wedlock baby, except sign an affidavit that gave Sofia his last name. In those conservative days, it was well nigh impossible to get any acceptance in society, why even admit a child in school without declaring, who the father was. Romilda Villani, Sofia’s mother, an aspiring actress and a piano teacher, valiantly tried to take care of herself and her little daughter, trying though the circumstances were at that time in Naples, little realizing fate had more suffering for her in store. Her baby daughter developed a digestive problem that made her unable to digest cow’s milk and became so sick that she was all but skin and bone. A desperate Romillda left with her gravely ill child to return home to Pozzuoli where her mother lived, even though the older woman had hardly any means of her own and eked a hand-to-mouth living herself. Under her grandmother’s loving care the infant Sofia, turned the corner, recovered miraculously and lived on to become the legend she is today.
From then on Sofia grew up in Pozzuoli with her mother, grandmother, two uncles and an aunt. Their small flat, stood atop a vinegar factory. Later her mother gave birth to another baby girl Maria, fathered by the same man Riccardo. This time he even refused to sign any paternity document accepting the child to be his, as he did when Sofia was born. He apparently was unwilling to pay the additional money for child support and therefore saw it fit to refuse the baby his last name. It caused Maria great shame and hurt as she grew up. She was even denied any formal schooling, since children like her never got to enter the portals of any school. It was some many years later, when Sofia as an actress earned her first sizable pay check of some $1500 that Riccardo cunningly sensing an opportunity to make money, offered to sign Maria’s papers in exchange for the whole sum! Though the young girl had many dreams about spending the money for her family, she did not hesitate in accepting Riccardo’s proposition - she knew what a difference it would make to the life of her little sister and it could never be valued in terms of money. Sofia herself had experienced the misery of being illegitimate – the cruelty of the whispers and humiliation at the hands of her schoolmates had scarred her indelibly for life.
As World war II became a reality in 1940, Pozzuoli became a frequent target. The harassed residents had to flee their homes to seek shelter in a train tunnel every time an enemy bomber hovered over their skies. Finally Sofia’s family was compelled to leave the town and seek the safer environs of Naples, where a distant relative of Romillda’s lived. They were grudgingly given shelter and never felt welcome anytime. Life here was the same struggle though now mixed with fear, the violence of war and waiting for crumbs thrown of other people’s tables.
The Villani family returned to Puzzouli once the war was over. Faced with the challenge of earning money for daily survival, they turned their living room into a kind of entertainment place for American soldiers who were posted around there. Maria sang for them while Romillda accompanied her on the piano. Grandmother Luisa brewed and served cherry liquor, while Sofia cleaned the dishes. The homely atmosphere of the place appealed to the soldiers and pretty soon became a popular and profit making venture for the Villanis.
As Sofia began to grow into adolescence, she found herself more and more attracted to the theatre and made as many trips there as she possibly could, to see her favorite Hollywood stars on the screen, sometimes even staying back to see four shows in a row, in a single day! Her fascination was no fleeting fancy for she knew instinctively, even at the tender age of 11 that her future lay nowhere but in films. Luckily for Sofia her unparallel beauty was to be her greatest asset. She entered a beauty contest at the age of 14, dressed in a pink gown hastily stitched together from old curtains. She wore black shoes that were made to look white with a coat of paint, hard as money was to come by to buy new attire for the event. Despite her initial nervousness it was a confident Sofia who faced the judges that day. From among some 200 participants she was chosen to be one of the final twelve Princesses, for which she received a prize of 3000 Lire and a few gifts, much to her great joy.
This encouraged her journey into the tinsel world. She took up acting lessons and encouraged by her instructor made bold to apply for a part in a film being made in Rome. She landed the role of a slave girl in the immortal production, Quo Vadis and her mother Romillda who accompanied her daughter to Rome too, got a small part to play as well. Good fortune started smiling on the family from now on.
Sofia’s brush with acting in films began in the 1950s. She also worked as a model for Fotoromanzi, an illustrated weekly of romantic stories. It was somewhere around this time that Carlo Ponti, a much older film producer of repute, who became Loren’s husband later, discovered Sofia. There was an immediate sizzling chemistry between the two but the fact that Ponti was already married, put brakes on their romance. To Sofia it was just unthinkable to be the ‘other’ woman in Ponti’s life, especially after the very strict and conservative upbringing she had as a child about the sanctity of a marriage. Carlo Ponti never the less took her under his wing. He changed her name from Sofia Scicolone to Sofia Loren. He married her after he attained a divorce from his wife, on September 17, 1957 – just three days before Sofia’s twenty-third birthday. As expected, their marriage became the topic of great criticism in Italy. Even the government refused to recognize their union and labeled it bigamy. Much mudslinging against the couple was carried on in the press, dragging their private life under public scrutiny. So much so, Sofia was afraid to accept an invitation to the Venice Film Festival, where she stood nominated for the best actress award. Realizing how dearly Sofia wished to attend this function, Carlo made a deal with the authorities – that they promise police protection for his wife, with safe passage into and out of Italy, if she were to attend the festivities. They were only too pleased to accept the conditions. She went alone and was greeted by ecstatic fans instead of the brickbats, she feared. A jubilant Sofia returned with the best actress trophy!
The bitter tirade against their marriage forced Carlo to nullify the marriage and live outside Italy for many years. It was a wait of 9 years that saw them marry again, that too after they both sacrificed their Italian citizenship and moved to live in France. It has been one of the most sensational and romantic marriages that has stood the test of time. They have two children, Carlo Ponti Jr and Edouardo Ponti whom she is immensely proud of!
The latter part of the 1950s saw her meteoric rise in Hollywood with movies such as Boy with the Dolphin and The Pride and Passion in which she acted opposite Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant. She worked hard to improve her English and that her efforts paid off was obvious with the success of the latter film.
She followed this, by signing a prestigious contract with Paramount Studios that involved the making of five films. One of these was Houseboat – a romantic comedy where she was paired with Cary Grant. She was romantically involved with Cary Grant but in the end it was a bittersweet experience. Though they were deeply attracted to each other and Grant wished to marry her, she finally chose to tie the knot with Carlo as the sets of the Houseboat came to a close, leaving Grant a deeply disappointed man
After Houseboat, she acted in many successful films that included, The Key, It Started in Naples, The Millionairess, The Black Orchid and Heller in Pink Pants – the last two were with Anthony Quinn.
It has been more than 5 decades of films for Sofia Loren and hundreds of awards in appreciation of her talent. Among them was the Oscar Lifetime Achievement in 1991. Another trophy she cherishes is the Best Actress Award for a foreign film that was presented to her for Two Women. It dealt with the story of a desperate mother, Cesira, who tried to shield her 13-year-old daughter from the ravages of the World War II. It was for the actress reliving the pain of her childhood, though in the film she played the part of the mother getting a perspective on how her own parent suffered through those years.
Sofia Loren spent less time with her acting career after the birth of her sons. She ventured into the area of writing books – Sofia Living and Loving, Her Own Story, Women and Beauty, Eat with Me, Sofia Loren’s Recipes and Memories, belying the fact that she was just beauty and no brains.
Today she is one of the most loved and known actresses in history. She has over 100 films to her credit and truly “one of the world’s treasures” as someone described her.