“If you haven’t cried, your eyes can’t be beautiful.”—Sophia Loren
Named by the American Film Institute as the 21st greatest female star of Classic Hollywood Cinema, Italian actress Sophia Loren was one of the biggest stars of her time. She was the first actor or actress to win an Oscar for a foreign-language performance, with an Academy Award for Best Actress for her wonderful work in Vittoria De Sica’s 1961 film Two Women. Loren has multiple accolades to her name including a Grammy Award, five special Golden Globes, a BAFTA Award as well as an Academy Honorary Award for lifetime achievements.
Loren reflected on her long career, “Actually, when I was 20, I didn’t think that one day I would live to 80, but you do. You think, ‘My god, all this time went by? I can’t believe it.’ Of course, the roles change – you cannot at my age do the story of a woman of 30 or 40 years old. It’s impossible. It’s a very normal way of being in the movies all the time and changing roles. It becomes a little more difficult sometimes, but if you have faith in what you do, and if you have faith in yourself, a little time goes by and you can find the right thing for you still.”
“I always just wanted to act,” Loren recalled. “It takes years to know you are a star. Maybe I knew when my mother said I was a star. I became interested in acting when I watched movies as a young girl with my aunt. I would see a different kind of life, and I said to myself, “the life I am living is not the only kind of life”. There was another kind of life that I thought I could aspire to when I was older.”
On her 86th birthday, we revisit some of her best film performances as a tribute to one of the greatest talents in the world of cinema.
Sophia Loren’s 10 best films:
10. Boccacio ’70 (Federico Fellini, Mario Monicelli, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica – 1962)
Based in part on the works of Renaissance author Giovanni Boccaccio, this collaboration between the titans of the Italian film industry features world stars like Loren, Anita Ekberg, Romy Schneider and Marisa Solinas. A commentary about morality, modernity and love, Loren features in De Sica’s segment, “La Riffa” (The Raffle), as a carnival worker who decides to offer herself for a night as a prize for a lucky draw in order to pay off pending taxes.
“Boccaccio ’70 is a joke,” said Fellini. “I accepted this competitive co-0peration because the title is a challenge to censorship. All of us are fighting censorship because it is just a political weapon.”
9. Prêt-à-Porter (Robert Altman – 1994)
Towards the end of her career, Loren’s on-screen appearances became less frequent. It was a welcome surprise when fans learnt that she was teaming up with regular co-star Marcello Mastroianni for Robert Altman’s ensemble satire about the French couture industry.
They star as former lovers who meet again after several years apart during Paris Fashion Week, when a flurry of models, designers and the likes are all coming to Paris. She earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.
Altman refused to apologise for the running gag about stepping in dog shit in Paris, “Have you ever been to Paris? Then you’ve stepped in dog shit. All the dogs in Paris must eat the same food because they all shit the same colour. I was once in a restaurant there and a man was ordering a bottle of wine. Sat beside him was a dog. Around its neck was a napkin.”
8. The Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann – 1964)
Although Mann’s 1964 epic did not do well at the Box Office, it is undoubtedly an important film that chronicles the life of Marcus Aurelius. Loren stars as Lucilla, daughter of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) and lover of General Gaius Livius (Stephen Boyd) who has an eye on the throne. The film did win an Academy Award nomination for Dimitri Tiomkin’s score.
Her co-star Stephen Boyd was very fond of Sophia as interviews during this time (and even later on) confirm. Stephen said, “I wouldn’t exactly die for Sophia, but I’d come close to it.”
7. Arabesque (Stanley Donen – 1966)
In Stanley Donen’s 1966 film, Gregory Peck stars as a hieroglyphics professor who finds himself caught up in an international matter when he’s asked to decode a cryptic Arabian message. Sophia Loren does well as the mysterious beauty who helps him with the puzzle.
This is the role that helped establish Loren’s American on-screen persona. The chemistry between Loren and Peck is crucially compelling, contributing to the appeal of the Arabesque.
6. Houseboat (Melville Shavelson – 1958)
This film is often cited as Sophia’s “break-out” performance in America. The endearing family drama features Cary Grant as Tom Winters, an estranged father of three who has to raise the children on his own. He is helped by Cinzia (Loren), the daughter of a rich composer who is desperate to escape her privileged life and works as a maid for the family.
Co-star Mimi Gibson recalled, “Without question [it was my favourite film]! Houseboat was fun, wonderful and I loved it…Sophia was very wonderful and very sexy. I’d never seen anyone like her.”
5. A Special Day (Ettore Scola – 1977)
Marcello Mastroianni earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for his performance in Scola’s 1977 film but Loren delivered a fantastic performance as well. The film recalls the historic moment in 1938 when Adolph Hitler paid a visit to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, propagating fascism throughout Europe. A Special Day focuses on the story of two neighbours — a liberal journalist (Mastroianni) and a housewife (Loren) who avoid the parade and find comfort in each other.
Scola elaborated on the subject matter, “From childhood, history was a subject that fascinated me, and what I kept wondering was how everyday life might have been different if Caesar or Mussolini had changed course. My sympathy always went to those millions who didn’t participate in those choices, but had to follow them.”
4. El Cid (Anthony Mann – 1961)
Anthony Mann’s intelligent saga about Spanish warrior Rodrigo Diaz (a.k.a El Cid, played by Charles Heston) follows El Cid as he overcomes personal and political problems to lead the Christian nation in their fight against the Moors. Loren is brilliant as the beautiful Dona Ximena, El Cid’s romantic interest.
Martin Scorsese loved the film so much that he persuaded Miramax Films to put it back into theatrical circulation. He called it “one of the greatest epic films ever made.”
3. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Vittorio De Sica – 1963)
Vittorio De Sica’s 1963 film anthology consists of three short stories about couples in different parts of Italy. In “Adelina of Naples,” Loren plays a poor woman supporting her out-of-work husband by selling black market cigarettes. In “Anna of Milan,” she is an opulent housewife who has to choose between her wealth and her artist lover. And in “Mara of Rome,” she is a prostitute at the service of a high class, neurotic client. All the leading male roles are played by Mastroianni. The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
While speaking about her famous strip tease scene in the film, Loren said, “It was part of the picture, part of the scene we had to do. And it was really fun to give Marcello Mastroianni a chance to be terribly funny, as he was, actually. And that was, I think, really the brilliancy of the film.
“We had a lot of fun bringing that scene to life. And I think that still shows today. I love that people still appreciate it and it makes them laugh a lot. It makes me happy to still make audiences smile.”
2. Marriage, Italian Style (Vittorio De Sica – 1964)
Set during World War II, Marriage, Italian Style is the story of a rich businessman (Mastroianni) who meets a poor prostitute (Loren) on a vacation and brings her back to his home to be his housekeeper/lover. The film earned Loren Golden Globe and Oscar nominations in Best Actress and competed in Best Foreign Language Film.
Loren cherished the part , “It’s a beautiful role for a woman. You can cry, you can laugh, but the tragedy of the woman at that time is always there.”
1. Two Women (Vittorio De Sica – 1961)
Two Women was the film that informed audiences about the tremendous acting abilities of Sophia Loren. Instead of being dismissed as a sex symbol, she became world-renowned leading lady who was brilliant in the role of an ordinary women with extraordinary problems.
She is fantastic as a widow who does her best to protect her young child (Eleanora Brown) from the horrors of World War II. Her efforts brought her enormous success with BAFTA, Cannes and Academy Award wins for Best Actress (the first time a foreign-language performance prevailed at the Academy).
The acclaimed filmmaker said, “I think that Two Women was a good serious film and that Sophia Loren was marvellous in it. She is a truly beautiful woman; a good actress, with a great personality.”