Considered among the elite of cinema in the mid-20th-century, alongside the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, the Swedish actor Anita Ekberg became an icon of the industry thanks to her European good looks and staggering acting talent. Raising the profile of Italian cinema and of the director Federico Fellini, Ekberg’s starring role in the iconic La Dolce Vita would become her magnum opus with the actor becoming a star and sex symbol across the world.
Born in 1931 in Malmö, Sweden, Ekberg pursued a career as a fashion model in her early life, entering the Miss Malmö competition in 1950 that led to her winning the Miss Sweden competition the very same year. This initial chance opportunity spiralled, eventually sending the 19-year-old to the 1951 Miss Universe competition where she would miss out on the prize but find herself a starlet contract with Universal Studios as a consolation.
Receiving lessons in drama and dancing among other skills, Ekberg inextricably found herself on the course of becoming an actor, appearing in several minor background parts that started with The Mississippi Gambler in 1953. Dropped after six months by Universal, Ekberg preferred socialising in the playground of Hollywood rather than pursuing film roles, though such wasn’t a problem for the young actor whose astute personality had led her to romantic flings with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Yul Brynner and Errol Flynn.
Creating a dialogue with gossip magazines such as Confidential, Ekberg created a demand for her image and soon became a pin-up girl of the mid-1950s, thanks to appearances in the influential magazine, Playboy. Having created an excitement around her own personality, Ekberg managed to break into the film industry, playing a minor role in Blood Alley in 1955 with John Wayne and Lauren Bacall, a movie that marked her first-ever speaking part.
Soon, the actor was shoved into the forefront of the industry with her greatest opportunity to date arising when she was cast in War and Peace in 1956 where she was advertised as ‘Paramount’s Marilyn Monroe’ whilst she appeared alongside Audrey Hepburn. It was then that her popularity snowballed, enjoying a period of great joy in late ‘50s Hollywood, appearing in Valerie, Paris Holiday, The Man Inside and A Lot of Woman before the end of the decade.
No doubt, Ekberg’s career peaked in 1960 as she appeared in La Dolce Vita for Federico Fellini, after several years of building up her own celebrity profile. As Sylvia Rank, the dazzling dream woman of the film’s lead, La Dolce Vita showed Ekberg in her absolute prime, helping to turn the film into one of the most iconic European arthouse releases of all time with thanks to her own powerful performance.
Settling in Rome shortly after the release of the Italian-made film, Anita Ekberg bathed in the success of La Dolce Vita for many years though was ultimately unable to recapture her previous stardom. As the actor told Ajesh Patalay of the Sun Herald, “Things became a little bit boring for me after La Dolce Vita because every producer or director in Italy, England and America wanted me to recreate the same role – the movie star from America who comes over to Italy”.
Though she remained in the film industry and enjoyed several successful films, including Call Me Bwana with Bob Hope in 1963 and 4 for Texas the very same year with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, her popularity had no doubt dwindled. Drifting across the surface of the industry until the end of the 21st century, Ekberg ebbed away from popularity and by the 1970s Ekberg had essentially disappeared from the public consciousness.
Passing away in 2015, at the age of 83, Ekberg is remembered as an icon of European cinema and as a fleeting star of the Hollywood screen. Though her success was a flash in the pan, her legacy as a cinematic leading lady holds far more significance, with her brief time in the limelight representing so much more than her filmography suggests.