Born Sophia Villani Scicolone in a charity ward for unmarried mothers in Rome in 1934, her father Riccardo Scicolone, a construction engineer, refused to marry her mother or provide financial assistance. Despite this stigma in devoutly Catholic 1930s Italy, her mother, Romilda, had another child by Riccardo in 1938, a daughter named Anna Maria, to whom he refused even to give his surname, preventing her from later receiving schooling. Sophia later used her first movie earnings to purchase her father’s surname for her sister in order to ease her of the shame of illegitimacy. Her mother Romilda Villani was an aspiring actress and beauty – her striking resemblance to Greta Garbo being so great that she would often get stopped on the street to sign autographs. Romilda took Sophia back to her hometown Pozzuoli, on the Bay of Naples, an area renowned for its slums and squalor where they lived with her parents; a small apartment above a vinegar factory, shared between eight relations with Sophia never sharing a bed with less than three other family members. ”The two big advantages I had were to have been born wise and to have been born in poverty.”
The poverty of the fishing and munitions town grew considerably worse during the targeted bombings of World War II – resulting in famine. By 1942 the family were barely managing to survive; their only food the ration bread being provided. ”I’ve never tried to block out the memories of the past, even though some are painful. I don’t understand people who hide from their past. Everything you live through helps to make you the person you are now.” Sophia was wounded by shrapnel whilst attempting to reach the train tunnel shelter during one air raid, splitting her chin and giving her the now distinctive scar. The family moved to Naples during the remainder of the war, before returning to Pozzuoli where Sophia’s grandmother Luisa opened a public house in their living room, entertaining American soldiers who were posted there and selling cherry liquor.
Sophia, who went on to become famous for being one of the most beautiful women in the world, was by no means considered a pretty child and, in reference to her lack of nutrition, nicknamed ‘matchstick’ by other children. By 1950 however, at the age of 15, having blossomed from a thin and sickly looking child to a voluptuous teenager, she became a finalist in a beauty contest, winning a small cash sum, a ticket to Rome, and attracting the attention of film producer Carlo Ponti who was judging the ‘Miss Eleganza’ competition. For Ponti, famous for having produced Doctor Zhivago, it was love at first sight, and the 37 year old married man was soon offering to become her manager and help her make a career in the film industry.
Ponti, having arranged for her to study acting and learn English secured many early roles for Sophia. Sophia travelled with her mother – who had rested all her own Hollywood ambitions on her young daughter – to Rome in the hope of succeeding as an actress and model. Wherever she went Sophia was greeted with wolf whistles from boys. She was chosen as an extra for the 1951 film Quo Vadis followed by a small role in the1952 film La Favorita, starring for the first time as ‘Loren’, but it was taking the title role of Aida the following year that sealed her position as an up-and-coming Italian movie star. Noel Coward once said that Sophia should have been ”sculpted in chocolate truffles so the world could devour her.”
Sophia was cast opposite Cary Grant in her first Hollywood film, The Pride and the Passion in 1957. Filmed in Paris, Sophia soon became embroiled in a love triangle when Grant and Ponti simultaneously declared themselves in love with her. Sophia’s much publicised romance with Cary Grant continued during the filming of 1958 Houseboat, but was ultimately cut short when Grant proposed but she chose to remain with Ponti – the man famously twice her age and half her height. She later admitted this decision was influenced by never having had a father figure and being reluctant to leave her home country for an unfamiliar life in Hollywood. ”When I met Cary I was 23. He had been my dream since I was a little girl – tall, handsome, charming, funny, gentle. Of course Carlo and Cary had nothing in common but I loved them both.”
After Ponti’s first marriage was annulled he and Sophia married in Mexico in 1957, just three days before her twenty-third birthday. It was a happy and successful partnership lasting over 50 years, until his death in 2007, but in October 1957 Carlo was charged with bigamy when it was announced that the Catholic church would not recognise his divorce. Carlo once said ”I have done everything for love of Sophia. I have always believed in her.”
To prevent further scandal and keep Carlo from being jailed, the couple could not return to Italy and were careful never to be photographed together in public. For the same reason, Sophia and Carlo had their marriage annulled in 1962, only to re-marry in 1966 when Carlo and his first wife Giuliana had finally worked out an agreement and, having obtained French citizenship, he was finally granted recognition of his divorce by the French authorities. Sophia later recalled; “I was being threatened with excommunication, with the everlasting fire, and for what reason? I had fallen in love with a man whose own marriage had ended long before … I wanted to be his wife and have his children. We had done the best the law would allow to make it official, but they were calling us public sinners. We should have been taking a honeymoon, but all I remember is weeping for hours.”
In her professional life Sophia’s big screen popularity during the 1950s showed no sign of waning, with movies such as Boy with a Dolphin and Black Orchid but however much Sophia flourished as an actress in Hollywood she would never turn her back on the Italian film industry. In 1961, starring as Cesira in Two Women, she became the first person awarded an Academy Award for a non-English speaking leading role. Portraying a woman attempting to save her daughter from the terrors of World War II, Sophia relived many painful memories from her own childhood; ”I would never have won the Oscar if I’d stayed in Hollywood. I knew that there, in Italy, I could really show what I had inside, what came from my background.” It became the most celebrated role of Loren’s career; for which she won the BAFTA for Best Actress in a Leading Role, the Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award, and the New York Critics Circle Award for Best Actress.
Sophia had two miscarriages before her first son Carlo Ponti Jnr was born in 1968, followed by another son Eduardo in 1973. On both occasions she spent the entire nine months in bed in the desperate attempt to avoid miscarrying. In the 1970s Sophia and Ponti re-established themselves in Italy where she dedicated herself to spending time with her children and although working regularly, spent less time on set than previously. In 1981 Sophia showed her entrepreneurial skills by becoming the first celebrity to launch her own perfume. She also published the book Women and Beauty and several Italian cookbooks.
Appearing in over 80 movies, in 1991 Sophia received the Academy Honorary Award for her outstanding contribution to world cinema. Perhaps the last living classic movie icon, Sophia, aged 75, starred as ‘Mamma’ in the musical Nine in 2009 – her first major motion picture for fourteen years – proving once again her inimitable style and charisma. When asked about being a worldwide sex symbol for over five decades Sophia replied; ”Sex appeal is fifty percent what you’ve got and fifty percent what people think you’ve got.”