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Gina Lollobrigida, the Italian film sensation whose exotic charms made her an international sex symbol of postwar cinema, has died, Italian news agency ANSA reported Monday. She was 95.
For her first well-known English-speaking role, Lollobrigida appeared as Bogart’s wife in John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953), shot on location in Italy. She starred as the glamorous queen in Solomon and Sheba (1959) and was there when Tyrone Power collapsed and died during production (Power was replaced by Yul Brynner).
Perhaps most famously, Lollobrigida stood out in Carol Reed’s Trapeze (1956) as Lola, a high-wire artist caught in a love triangle with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. The movie achieved a high degree of realism by having the actors perform most of their own stunts. Lollobrigida trained for six months on a trapeze in her home to prepare for the film.
The actress relocated in 1959 to Hollywood, where she would star with the likes of Rock Hudson, Frank Sinatra and Sean Connery. After appearing with Sinatra, Steve McQueen and Peter Lawford in John Sturges’ Never So Few (1959), she transitioned from dramatic roles to showcase her comedic chops in romantic fare like Come September (1961), which earned her a Golden Globe.
In 1968, Lollobrigida made one of her most beloved films, Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, a sex farce that saw her character warding off three men, each of whom she has led to believe is the father of her teenage daughter (the result of wartime flings with American GIs) — a plot that inspired the Broadway musical Mamma Mia! That earned her a Globe nomination.
Throughout her acting career, Lollobrigida never abandoned her dreams of returning to the fine arts, which she pursued as a youngster, and she used her time on sets with cinematographers and directors as a master class in photography.
By the late ’60s, Lollobrigida was an accomplished photojournalist, and she shot such diverse figures as Paul Newman, Salvador Dali, Audrey Hepburn, Ella Fitzgerald and Henry Kissinger. In 1973, a collection of her work was published under the title Italia Mia.
Lollobrigida became so skilled in photojournalism that in 1972 she managed to secure an exclusive interview with Fidel Castro and produced, directed and wrote the documentary short Ritratto di Fidel. Decades before Cuba would be reopened to America, she had given the world a glimpse of the reclusive dictator.
Lollobrigida virtually gave up acting in 1997 but continued to pursue photography, painting and sculpture. She once described the dedication to her art and her refusal to depend on any man: “I have never made any compromise, remaining independent and always alone. My strength is my free spirit, and my great imagination gives me strength and vitality.”
Luigina “Gina” Lollobrigida was born July 4, 1927, in Subiaco, a small town 65 miles outside of Rome. One of four daughters of a businessman, she spent much of her childhood and adolescence suffering from the deprivations of World War II and its frequent bombing; her family home was destroyed during the conflict.
Though she would appear in more than 60 films, Lollobrigida came to acting reluctantly, initially studying sculpture and drawing at Rome’s Accademia di Belle Arti. She got her start working as an extra in films to help support her family and subsidize her studies.
Lollobrigida quickly came to the attention of producers after being seen in the Rossano Brazzi film Return of the Black Eagle (1946). When offered her first leading role, she demanded a million lire, hoping such a sizable sum would make the producers balk. Much to her surprise, they cowed to her demands, and she found herself in pictures, working at Rome’s famed Cinecittà studios, soon becoming the embodiment of Italy’s postwar optimism and glamour.
After she starred as a beauty contestant in Miss Italia (1950), Lollobrigida was noticed by American playboy movie mogul Howard Hughes, who made a habit of signing beautiful women and keeping them nearby. He got off to a shaky start with her, leaving only one plane ticket for her at the Rome airport, thus reneging on his promise to allow her husband to accompany her to Hollywood.
Lollobrigida received English lessons and a residence in a luxury hotel from Hughes but was not impressed with him. After two and a half months of being wined and dined, she returned to Italy and refused to make pictures with him.
The actress was one of the few in Hollywood to resist the whims and temper of the billionaire. She continually fought against male dominance in cinema, telling an audience at the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival, “Women don’t have an easy life because men always try to command situations, even in art.”
Back in Europe, Lollobrigida starred opposite Vittorio De Sica in the Italian romantic comedy Bread, Love and Dreams (1953), landing a BAFTA nomination and a Nastro d’Argento award. In the French comedy Flesh and the Woman (1954), she played a dual role as a nagging wife and her attractive double, and she portrayed Esmeralda opposite Anthony Quinn’s Quasimodo in a 1956 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
By the time she returned to Hollywood, Lollobrigida was able to wield a great deal of power. “At one point, I had in my contract, in addition to 10 percent of the gross, approval of my co-star, the director and the script,” she told Vanity Fair.
In the ’60s, Lollobrigida appeared with Connery in Women of Straw (1964), with Ernest Borgnine in Go Naked in the World (1961), with Alec Guinness in Hotel Paradiso (1966) and with Hudson a second time in Strange Bedfellows (1965), and she co-starred with Bob Hope in The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell (1968).
Lollobrigida often played manipulative, sexually experienced women, taking advantage of her physical assets. Yet she was a gifted actress, deftly able to transition among serious drama, romantic comedy and high farce. Many underestimated her because of her beauty, but as she said at the TCM fest, “I had success despite everybody.”
In 1984, she received another Globe nomination for her portrayal of Francesca Gioberti, the half-sister of Jane Wyman’s character, on the CBS series Falcon Crest, a role originally written for fellow Italian screen goddess Sophia Loren.
Lollobrigida, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the European Parliament in 1999, also was a devoted humanitarian, activist and supporter of the National Italian American Foundation. In 2013, she sold her diamonds and jewelry collection, donating the entire $4.9 million to stem cell research.
Lollobrigida was married to Slovenian physician Milko Skofic from 1949 to 1971. She lived on a ranch in Sicily and also had homes on the Appian Way in Rome and in Monte Carlo.
Her sculpting and photography was displayed in Paris, Moscow and Venice, and she won numerous accolades, including the Legion of Honor as “artiste de valeur” from France in 1992.
In her later years, Lollobrigida was plagued by scandals surrounding her relationships with younger men and her son’s attempts to install a legal administrator over her.
She accused ex-boyfriend Javier Rigau y Rafols, 34 years her junior, of fraud when he claimed they were legally married. Her son’s concerns over the undue influence of younger men in her life led him to seek legal intervention, a request that was denied in July 2014. Lollobrigida viewed the legal action as an attempt to take control of her fortune, once valued at $50 million.
Duane Byrge contributed to this report.
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