When Sophia Came to Venice

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The once-little-known Italian star caught every paparazzo's eye in the 1950s with her beauty and went on to win the festival's best actress award for "The Black Orchid."

When Sophia Loren first visited the Venice Film Festival in 1955, she was a 20-year-old up-and-coming actress who'd endured World War II in the slums of the tiny Italian seaport village of Pozzuoli. With her voluptuous looks, catlike amber eyes and fashionably seductive style, the former beauty pageant winner was a magnet for photographers, even though she was merely a guest of the festival. She'd already met and likely had begun an affair with the married producer Carlo Ponti (her future husband of 50 years). She also had two starlet rivals in Silvana Mangano, wife of producer Dino De Laurentiis, and Gina Lollobrigida. But she soon outpaced them. "She became the personification of the sultry Italian woman," says Warren G. Harris, author of Sophia Loren: A Biography. In 1958, she returned to the festival, winning the best actress award for her portrayal of a gangster's widow in the drama The Black Orchid. Four years later, she won the best actress Academy Award for
Vittorio De Sica's Two Women, the first time an acting Oscar had been presented for a non-English-speaking performance.