'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Gina Lollobrigida (Golden Age Goddess)

Gina Lollobrigida TCM Classic Film Festival H 2016
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Turner

"I'm really moved when I'm with the public," says Gina Lollobrigida, the Italian star of Hollywood's Golden Age, as we sit down to record an episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast in the penthouse of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where she was staying during her rare, brief visit from Rome to Los Angeles for April's TCM Classic Film Festival. "They say 'thank you' to me, that I gave to them beautiful moments. They cry. When I am even in Russia or some place where I think I'm completely unknown, they applaud me like they've seen me all their life, and they cry and they move me." Adds the spry 87-year-old, "I'm very grateful."

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Few people — particularly non-Americans — have ever been as popular with Americans as Lollobrigida, a stunning beauty who rose to prominence in the years after World War II, when Americans demonstrated unprecedented curiosity about other parts of the world, not least the more naturalistic and sexy films emanating from Europe. She could have been a star as early as 1950, when Howard Hughes, who ran RKO, "saw one picture of me in a bikini that my [then-]husband did" and became obsessed. He flew her to America, ostensibly for a screen test, and spent two-and-a-half months romantically pursuing her. Eventually, he sent her back to Italy, but not before making her sign a contract that effectively precluded her from working for anyone else in Hollywood for the next seven years.

Hughes assumed this would compel Lollobrigida to return to Hollywood to work for him, but instead she waited for Hollywood to come to her. Back in Italy, she quickly exploded from an extra into the highest-paid actress in the country thanks to the phenomenal success of Bread, Love and Dreams (1953) and its sequel Bread, Love and Jealousy (1954), in which she starred opposite Vittorio De Sica. (The filmmakers couldn't afford her for a second sequel so they turned to a younger up-and-comer, Sophia Loren, sparking a rivalry that continues more than 60 years later.) When "La Lollo," as Lollobrigida was nicknamed, returned to Hollywood for the premiere of Bread, Love and Dreams and was posed for a photo-op with Marilyn Monroe, Monroe told her, "Here, they call me 'the American Lollobrigida.'"

Post-war quotas and taxes soon resulted in a surge of American-European co-productions, which provided tremendous opportunities for Lollobrigida, including a starring role opposite Humphrey Bogart in the David O. Selznick-produced, Truman Capote-written, Robert Capa-photographed and John Huston-directed 1953 film Beat the Devil (Bogart said Lollobrigida "made Marilyn Monroe look like Shirley Temple") and the 1956 films Trapeze, which was directed by Carol Reed and also starred Burt Lancaster, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, for which Leonid Massine tutored her in dancing. By the late '50s, Lollobrigida's contract with Hughes expired and she was able to make films in America as well, which she did in 1959's Never So Few, opposite Frank Sinatra, and Solomon and Sheba, the last picture ever directed by King Vidor (in the middle of which her co-star Tyrone Power died of a sudden heart attack).

In the ensuing years, Lollobrigida acted in films in America (like 1961's Come September, paired with "great human being" Rock Hudson, for which she was awarded the Golden Globe for best international star) and abroad (she regards 1962's Imperial Venus, a France-Italy co-production, as "my best movie ... best performance ... best script I ever had"). Some got away (she missed out on the chance to play the part eventually played by Anouk Aimee in 1962's La Dolce Vita because "my [then-]husband read the script and he thought, 'That's shit'"), others got remade (1968's Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell became Mamma Mia!).

All the while, Lollobrigida engaged in other pursuits with equal passion — among them photography (she's published three books), journalism (she scooped the media by landing a major interview with Fidel Castro in 1974), sculpture (she's had exhibitions around the world), fashion and philanthropy — and ultimately retired from acting in 1997, 50 years after her big-screen debut. (She tells me, however, that if Steven Spielberg ever wanted her for a role in one of his films, "I wouldn't say no.") Today, Lollobrigida's films are less remembered than she is — for her gorgeous looks, her forceful personality and her resilience. "It's very difficult still — today — to make a step ahead for a woman," she says, adding, "I would like to see [Hillary] Clinton be the president of the United States — I love her and I think she's very talented."