Oscars: Sophia Loren's 'Mary Poppins Returns' Event a Hit With Academy Members

"I've always loved the musicals, but something like this I've never seen," the Italian screen legend told THR as she sat with her friend and 'Nine' director Rob Marshall on Friday night.
Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Disney
Rob Marshall and Sophia Loren

"That is a season highlight," Jonathan Dana, a veteran member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' executives branch, told me at the end of a reception on Friday night celebrating Rob Marshall's Mary Poppins Returns that was hosted by the legendary Italian actress Sophia Loren. "I feel like I'm 25 again," added a beaming Gary Shapiro of the public relations branch, who, like many others, gushed about how gorgeous the 84-year-old hostess looks.

As Oscar nomination voting entered its final weekend, Dana and Shapiro were among more than 100 Los Angeles-based Academy members who showed up at The Montage Beverly Hills to see Loren — and Marshall, a dear friend of hers since their collaboration on 2009's Nine — fete Disney's latest movie musical. Others included Jon Voight, Terry Moore, John Savage, Cara Williams, Randal Kleiser, Candy Clark, Colleen Atwood, Nia Vardalos, Carol Connors, Ellen Greene, Academy governor Jon Bloom and former Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs — all of whom get to nominate five titles for best picture, and many of whom also get to vote in other categories in which Mary Poppins Returns hopes to compete, such as lead actress (Emily Blunt), cinematography, costume design, original score, original song ("Trip a Little Light Fantastic," which was written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who were also at the event), sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects.

Mary Poppins Returns is a charming motion picture, but on any night, particularly on one near the end of the long "phase one" of the awards season, I'm not sure any film or host could have evoked the sort of turnout or enthusiasm from Academy members that Loren did. Loren, who lives in Geneva, but occasionally visits Los Angeles to see her sons, Carlo Ponti, Jr. and Edoardo Ponti, and her grandchildren, rarely appears at industry events. But she told me, as I huddled at a table with her and Marshall before they were swarmed by giddy Oscar voters, "I'm here for him," gesturing towards Marshall, and adding, "I've always loved the musicals, but something like this I've never seen, I must say. It's so beautiful. It's so great. It's so touching." Added Loren, "In Italy, we cannot do this kind of thing. That girl that sings?" "Emily," Marshall said, referring to Emily Blunt. "Beautiful!" Loren exclaimed. Marshall, visibly moved by the whole conversation, whispered to me, "We haven't talked yet, so I'm hearing this for the first time."

Loren and Marshall's friendship dates back to Nine. He recounted, "I called Sophia on the phone — I was scared to death because I'm calling my idol — and she immediately was disarming and I could tell how lovely she was in five seconds. She's so warm and she's so inclusive and so divine." "And so shy!" she interjected jokingly. "We became family very quickly," he added. "I'll never forget that at the end of that conversation — she had seen my films — she said, 'Yes!' [to doing Nine]. I couldn't believe it." Would Loren do another movie musical with Marshall, who also directed 2002's Chicago, which won the best picture Oscar, and 2014's Into the Woods? "I wish I could do what the singers do in this film," she said of Mary Poppins Returns. He countered, "Yes, but Sophia has a huge recording background. She's done so many great songs — "Americano," "Zou Bisou Bisou" — and I have them all!" Bringing the conversation back to Nine, Marshall said, "It has been a decade — and Sophia hasn't changed at all, not a bit, exactly the same." She shot back, "A friend always lies!" And he responded, "No, it's true. The most beautiful woman in the world. The most beautiful woman that ever lived. That's for sure."

A half-hour later, after Loren had gamely gabbed and posed for photos with Academy members, Marshall was handed a microphone and addressed the crowd. "We're all, like, buzzing, because someone very special is here," he said. "I worked with this amazing woman a few years ago, and I will tell you right now that was the greatest experience of my life. To be with this woman, the greatest legendary actress of our time—" Loren nudged him. "She doesn't want me to talk about her, she only wants me to talk about the film," but a few moments later he added, "She's such a great friend, she's such a beautiful woman, inside and out, she's so divine—" She nudged him again, so he focused on Mary Poppins Returns. "This film, for me, came directly from here," he said, pointing to his heart. "It was such an important film to make, especially in this time. My guiding force throughout making this film with my beautiful team — a lot of whom are here tonight — was to send a message of hope and light into a dark world. That was something that was so key to me." Marshall continued, "This took three years, and it was a balancing-act the whole time. We wanted to pay great homage to the first film [1964's Mary Poppins, directed by Robert Stevenson], but at the same time create something completely new and original. I had never done an original musical film before, so this was very important to me."