“I didn’t have time to see anything of the life I was trying to build around me, so I stopped,” says the legendary Italian actress and beauty Sophia Loren — the last surviving major female star from Hollywood’s Golden Age, according to no less an authority than the American Film Institute — when asked on The Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Chatter podcast why 11 years elapsed since she last appeared in a feature film and 16 years since she last played the lead in one.
However, the luminous 86-year-old, speaking via Zoom from her home in Geneva, says she knew the time had come to return to work after she was given the script for The Life Ahead — a drama about a Holocaust survivor and former prostitute who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young Senegalese boy entrusted to her care — by Edoardo Ponti, the second of her two children with the late producer Carlo Ponti, who is a filmmaker in his own right and wanted to direct her in it. “When I read it,” she explains, “I said, ‘Well, I think I’m going to go back again with my work, because this story is really worth everything.’ I was enchanted by it. And here I am.”
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You can listen to the interview here, preceded by a conversation with Edoardo Ponti, Loren’s second son and the director of The Life Ahead. The article continues below.
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Loren was born Sofia Scicolone in a Roman charity ward in 1934, an illegitimate child raised by her mother and grandmother in Pozzuoli, a small town near Naples. She came of age during World War II, and, reflecting on periods of starvation, bombing and hopelessness, acknowledges, “We suffered a lot.” But through it all, she insists, she harbored dreams of becoming an actress and enjoying a better life: “As a matter of fact, even with bombs and everything in Pozzuoli, every time there was an American film, I was there.”
Loren’s mother, who had once won a Greta Garbo look-alike contest that offered her a chance to go to America, but declined to take it, invested her own unfulfilled ambitions in her daughter, taking her, when she was 14 and blossoming from a skinny child into a voluptuous young woman, to Rome to try her luck at acting and beauty contests. They both landed roles as extras in productions like 1951’s Quo Vadis, which helped to put food on the table, but was never going to be a long-term solution.
Their lives truly began to change when, at “15 or 16,” Loren was spotted and urged to enter a beauty contest by one of the judges, the aforementioned Carlo Ponti, who ran a top Italian production company with Dino De Laurentiis. Ponti then invited Loren to shoot a screen test, after which he advised her that she might want to have a nose job (“I did not touch it!”) and began casting her in his films. Their relationship was platonic for the next few years — he was nearly 22 years her senior, and she regarded him as the father-figure she never had — but it grew into love.
When the producer of another film in which the actress — still then Sofia Scicolone — was cast, 1953’s Africa Under the Seas, felt that she should have a name that was “not so Italian,” she agreed to change it to Sophia Loren, a play on the name of the then-popular Swedish actress Marta Toren. And after winning acclaim for her first sizable part performed under that name, in that same year’s Aida, there was no turning back.
1954 was an even more monumental year for Loren, in that it gave birth to the two most important cinematic collaborations of her career: the actor-turned-director Vittorio De Sica, a fellow Neopolitan, cast her in The Gold of Naples, which proved a hit (they would go on to make a dozen movies together), and she was cast in Too Bad She’s Bad opposite one Marcello Mastroianni (with whom she would appear in 14 films over the next 40 years).
The Gold of Naples screened at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, where Loren became the most photographed person on the Croisette and quickly acquired an international following. Within a year, Paramount signed her to a five-film contract. “I was very happy,” she recalls, “but at the same time I was scared to death,” lacking confidence in her English and her place among the stars she had grown up worshiping.
In the spring of 1957, she traveled to Hollywood for the first time and was welcomed at a dinner at Romanoff’s that drew the likes of Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and, yes, Jayne Mansfield, resulting in the most famous photograph of side-eye in history. (“She sat at my table and I was really shocked because I never saw a décolletage like this in my life, so I was just looking, making sure that everything was fine,” Loren recalls.)
Then Loren returned to Europe, where she starred — primarily as eye candy — in a number of English-language films for her new studio, among them 1957’s Boy on a Dolphin, costarring Alan Ladd, in Greece; 1957’s The Pride and the Passion, with Cary Grant, in Spain; and 1958’s It Started in Naples, opposite Clark Gable, in Italy.
Ponti was back in Italy seeking a divorce from his wife in order to marry her when she met Grant, and sparks flew. “He was really very handsome and a nice person,” she says demurely now. But the relationship was serious enough that Grant, who was even more Loren’s senior than Ponti, was prepared to leave his wife for her. Ultimately, she opted to remain with Ponti — “I was going to stick with him because that’s what I wanted really, not really to have my life all over the world,” she says — which made the filming of 1958’s Houseboat, in which she again was cast opposite Grant, somewhat uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, back stateside, Loren’s popularity was surging. According to the Motion Picture Herald’s survey of film exhibitors, she was one of America’s 10 biggest box office attractions in 1960, 1961 and 1962, topping the list in 1960. But in 1962, she made a decision that surprised many: “I left everything and I went back to Italy,” she recounts. Why? “Because I wanted to be an actress.”
For her performance as a woman who endures the horrors of war with her young daughter in the Italian-language drama Two Women, another film produced by Ponti and directed by De Sica, Loren became the first person ever to win an Oscar for a performance in a tongue other than English — something only four other people, male or female, have done over the ensuing 60 years. (She skipped the ceremony and remained in Italy due to nerves, but Grant called her to share the good news.)
Ever since then, she has been regarded as not just a great beauty, but a great actresses, as well, racking up strong notices and major nominations for numerous other films spanning the decades.
These included more films with Mastroianni — from Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), with her famous striptease opposite (“Fun to do”); to Marriage, Italian-Style (1964), for which she received another Oscar nom, to A Special Day (1977), which was nominated the for best foreign language film Oscar. And also numerous major English-language productions, such as Anthony Mann‘s El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964); Lady L (1965) opposite Paul Newman and Arabesque (1966) with Gregory Peck; and the last film ever directed by Charlie Chaplin, A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).
As she continued to act into her senior years in films like Robert Altman‘s Pret-a-Porter (1994), which marked her last big screen appearance with Mastroianni before his death in 1996, and Rob Marshall‘s Nine (2009), playing Daniel Day-Lewis‘ mother, her body of work was recognized with lifetime achievement accolades like an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1991 (“for a career rich with memorable performances that has added permanent luster to our art form”) and the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes ceremony in 1995.
But if anyone assumed those tributes were career-cappers, they were sorely mistaken. True, her pace of work slowed in the following years, as she enjoyed spending time with her children and grandchildren in Geneva, Rome and Los Angeles. But, at the age of 86 (though feeling, she says, 16) and an astounding 70 years into her career, she has just given one of her best performances yet.
In The Life Ahead, which is streaming around the world on Netflix and has clocked in at 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, her Madame Rosa is a woman haunted in her later years by her experiences as a child during World War II. While Loren’s war years were horrific in a very different way, they were horrific nonetheless. And, as she puts it, “If you lived through that kind of a life at that time, you will never forget it. So it reminded me of so many things — it reminded me of my grandmother, of my mother. And sometimes, when I think about it, I can cry.” She adds, “It’s really something that is very close to me.”
Moreover, her costar was a 14-year-old Senegalese actor by the name of Ibrahima Gueye, who also comes from extremely humble beginnings and was, according to Edoardo Ponti, therefore able to connect with Loren in a way that not even he can. “He was a wonderful guy to work with,” Loren says of Gueye. “He really acted like a grown-up.”
But for Loren, nothing topped the opportunity to work with her son for the third time, on the heels of the 2002 feature Between Strangers and the 2014 short Human Voice. “It’s wonderful because we know each other so well,” she explains. And while she enjoyed their prior collaborations, The Life Ahead is, for both of them, extra special. As Loren says in homage to her son’s direction of the film, more than her own performance in it, “This is a masterpiece.”