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The American Film Institute’s AFI Fest took on a decidedly Italian flavor on Wednesday night as it celebrated the legendary actress Sophia Loren with a career tribute that packed the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. The regal 80-year-old, who lives in Switzerland and doesn’t travel much to the U.S. anymore, emerged from backstage in a resplendent, shimmering Armani dress and was greeted with a two-minute-long standing ovation, which clearly touched her.
Loren was then interviewed for 45 minutes by Rob Marshall — who directed her in her last Hollywood film, Nine (2009) — during which she spoke candidly about her early years and struggles, her career breakthroughs and her great successes. To many, the most striking thing about her was her humility. She said of her adoring fans — one of the braver ones approached the stage and started talking to her right as she took her seat — “I always feel like I owe these people so much for what they have given me. … I never forget what I’ve come from: Naples and the war and terrible things — violence and hunger and everything.”
After starting out in the movies as an extra on films such as Quo Vadis (1951), and being urged by some to change her facial features, Loren got her big break: She met and hit it off with actor-turned-director Vittorio De Sica, a fellow Neopolitan, who cast her in The Gold of Naples (1954) and would cast her in many other fine films thereafter. Her success in Europe would ultimately bring her to Hollywood, where she was a leading lady opposite the biggest male movie stars of the day but never got to show off her talents in the way that she would upon returning to Italy after only a few years. There, at the age of 26, she starred in Two Women (1960), for which she would become the first woman to win a best actress Oscar for a performance in a language other than English.
Loren described Cary Grant as “a special person” and Daniel Day-Lewis as “one of the best alive,” but, upon being asked about Marlon Brando, paused with a pained expression, eliciting laughter. The chuckles continued when she was later asked about the famous “side-eye photo” of her looking down at Jayne Mansfield‘s boobs, about which she said, “I was afraid everything was gonna fall out!” That photo was recently re-created by Modern Family‘s Julie Bowen and Sofia Vergara, the latter of whom briefly came out on stage to heap praise on Loren and say of the woman who shares her name, or a variation of it, “There is only one Sophia!”
Then Edoardo Ponti, one of Loren’s two sons, took the stage to thank the audience and Marshall for so warmly welcoming his mother, and to talk about The Human Voice, a 26-minute short that he recently directed, and in which Loren delivers an emotional “monologue” for almost the entire time. “She gave me life; the least I could do was give her a movie in return,” he cracked, before adding more seriously, “She really had no reason to prove herself yet again; she gave so much to the world, why risk even denting her legacy with such a daunting role that has challenged so many actresses across the generations and the cultures. Why? Because she’s an artist.”
After Loren — the last surviving actress who was included on the AFI’s 1999 list of the all-time greatest big screen legends — exited the stage to another standing ovation, the Dolby crowd was treated to back-to-back screenings of The Human Voice and a restored version of the classic Marriage, Italian Style, for which Loren received a best actress Oscar nom 50 years ago.
This year’s AFI Fest will come to a close on Thursday evening with the Los Angeles premiere of Bennett Miller‘s Foxcatcher.
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