You’d be hard pushed to come up with an individual more synonymous with glamour than Sophia Loren. Even the name rolls off the tongue with an air of sophistication. Still going strong at 86 years of age, Loren has lived the type of life that most of us could barely imagine. Yet even hers has been a life plagued by regret. And it’s one with a big romantic theme at that.
If you were told to name a screen icon from the golden age of Hollywood cinema, who would you select? Audrey Hepburn, perhaps? Gregory Peck? Marilyn Monroe? Bette Davis? Marlon Brando? There’s no denying that list includes some truly stellar names. But, undoubtedly, they are all icons in whose company Loren well and truly belongs.
Despite being well into her ninth decade, Loren’s famed glamor and vivaciousness remains undimmed. Incredibly, she is still making movies: 2020 has seen the release of Netflix film The Life Ahead. The actor now has nearly 100 official credits to her name in what has been a long and distinguished career in the notoriously fickle movie business.
For some, Loren’s personal life has been every inch the match of her stellar career in terms of perceived glamor. But only in recently released memoirs has Loren decided to shed a little more light on events behind the camera, including a now-legendary affair with another screen icon. And in an even more recent interview, Loren has also admitted her one major romantic regret. It is not what most would guess at.
But who is Sophia Loren? Most will know the name, but very few the details. Originally named Sofia Villani Scicolone, the future actor was born out of wedlock in Pozzuoli, a small town just outside of Naples in the south of Italy. Her mother – Romilda Villani – was the mistress of one Riccardo Scicolone. Yet Scicolone – whose name Loren bore – had no intention of leaving his wife, despite the fact he went on to have two children with Romilda. Loren’s younger sister Maria was not even granted the benefit of Scicolone’s name.
And so Loren grew up with an absent father; a man who belonged to another woman. Loren’s family struggled, particularly through the wartime years. And, of course, the shame of their illegitimacy hung around the necks of Loren and her sister. The older of the two girls was skinny, so much so that her classmates cruelly nicknamed her “Sofia Stuzzicadenti”, which translates as “toothpick”.
But like her mother before her, Loren was a stunner and victory in a beauty pageant was a major stepping stone: she moved to Rome and became a model. One of her employers suggested a name change to Sofia Lazzaro. She then began to appear in movies and a producer suggested yet another change in name to something a little less Italian: Sophia Loren. Even the Italian spelling of ‘Sofia’ was altered.
And so the movie star Sophia Loren was born, with a major figure in shaping the actor’s legendary career being Italian film producer Carlo Ponti. Some 22 years her senior, Ponti was to become a mentor to the young actor. And despite the fact he was married, he would become significantly more than that too.
There were other men in Loren’s life, perhaps most notably Marcello Mastroianni, of whom Loren spoke effusively to Vanity Fair magazine. “We made films for 40 years together. I love each one of them, since the first film we did together,” Loren said. Yet Mastroianni was never to be Loren’s leading man off screen. That honor was reserved for Ponti.
Loren soon became the darling of Italian cinema. Then, with Ponti’s guidance, the actor made the move to Hollywood. She needed a crash course in English, but it wasn’t long before she was turning heads on the other side of the Atlantic too and later around the world. Loren was to go on to become a bona fide star of the so-called “Golden Age” of American cinema.
In terms of critical recognition, Loren’s career highlight came in 1962. At the 34th Academy Awards, Loren was named Best Actress for her performance in Two Women. In claiming the gong, the Italian actor had fought off notable competition in the shape of Audrey Hepburn for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Natalie Wood for Splendor in the Grass.
Loren had been so unconvinced at her prospects of winning the Best Actress award that she had failed to even attend the gala event. Unable to view the ceremony on television at home in her native Italy, instead Loren had been awoken by a phone call from none other than screen legend Cary Grant. “Darling, have you heard?” Grant inquired. “Heard what?” came the innocent reply. “You won! You won the Oscar!” he revealed, to Loren’s obvious bemusement and delight.
But why would Cary Grant care so much? Why did the English actor and matinee idol so desperately want to be the first to tell Loren about her monumental win? Loren was with producer Carlo Ponti, after all. It all boiled down to a legendary romance between Loren and Grant. In fact, their love affair is surely one of the most emotive in Hollywood history.
In Loren’s 2014 memoir, the star opened up about her relationship with Grant. The famed actor was 30 years her senior and married to his third wife. Yet neither of those facts managed to dissuade him from vigorously pursuing Loren when they began working together on the 1957 movie The Pride and the Passion.
Loren was just 23 at the time of filming The Pride and the Passion. And despite the fact she had already appeared in nearly 40 movies at that time, it was her very first American production. As well as the screen icon that was Grant, the movie also starred another huge name in American popular culture: one Frank Sinatra.
You can imagine Loren being like a rabbit in the headlights. Or to be more precise, a young actor in a very bright spotlight. Now starring along two bona fide legends of the silver screen, it must have been an extraordinary experience for the young Italian. Unsurprisingly, it is a period that largely went on to define Loren’s subsequent life and career.
In The Pride and the Passion, Loren plays Juana, a young Spanish dancer. In fact, one of the actor’s most iconic scenes in the movie is when she dances a seductive flamenco for a group of captivated peasants. Among them is Grant, playing the dashing English hero of the film.
Grant’s look of infatuation was no mere acting. Privately the matinee idol had fallen for Loren, and began to pursue her with a dogged determination. Loren’s 2014 memoir was inspired by the find of a hoard of private letters and mementos in her home in Switzerland. Among that cache was private correspondence sent by Grant to Loren at that time.
In one desperate letter, Grant implored Loren to pray with him for guidance. Specifically, to lead them to each other. “You’ll be in my prayers,” Grant penned. “If you think and pray with me, for the same thing and purpose, all will be right and life will be good,” the actor added. Flowers were also sent to Loren on a daily basis.
Complicating matters somewhat was the fact that Grant was married. And Loren was soon meant to be – she had long been in a relationship with producer Ponti. But Grant was not to be put off. And there was seemingly a running spiritual theme to his notes. “Forgive me, dear girl. I press you too much. Pray – and so will I – until next week. Goodbye Sophia. Cary,” another Grant-penned letter read.
Rumors have abounded that Grant actually proposed to Loren on the set of The Pride and the Passion. It never happened. “Cary Grant was a very handsome man and a wonderful actor, but he didn’t propose,” she later told British magazine the Radio Times. And in the end Loren rejected the actor’s advances.
So why did Loren ultimately turn down one of cinema’s greatest leading men? It’s a question that Loren answered in a 2012 interview with Vanity Fair. “You know, I had to make a choice,” Loren explained. Indeed, she did. And it was a choice that was going to define the rest of her life, both privately and in terms of her career.
So why did Loren ultimately choose Ponti? The actor’s explanation is logical to say the least. “Carlo was Italian; he belonged to my world,” the star stated. “I know it was the right thing to do, for me,” she concluded. And there it was. Despite her tender years, Loren was able to make a rational decision. It may not have been what a rebellious young woman would have done, perhaps, but it was right for Loren.
But Loren’s next line, as spoken to Vanity Fair, is revealing. “At the time I didn’t have any regrets,” she said. As for now, who knows? “I was in love with my husband. I was very affectionate with Cary, but I was 23 years old. I couldn’t make up my mind to marry a giant from another country and leave Carlo. I didn’t feel like making the big step,” Loren added in her revealing interview with the popular magazine.
Not that marrying Ponti was a simple choice: the producer was still married. When news of Loren and Ponti’s marital union broke, an Italian resident brought a charge of bigamy against the producer and accused Loren of being Ponti’s “concubine”. The couple spent eight years trying to solve the issues surrounding this union. They were effectively driven from the land of their birth in the process, becoming exiles.
Loren and Ponti were actually married in a courtroom in Mexico the day that Ponti was granted his divorce there. The pair were wed in absentia by two lawyers. Loren and Ponti famously read about their marriage the next day, while the actor was congratulated by her co-star Grant on set. These events unfurled during the filming of Houseboat.
But their union was condemned from the start, with the Vatican threatening to excommunicate the pair. Loren later admitted that it was one of the saddest days of her life. Worse, the couple later discovered that their Mexican “wedding” had in fact never been legal. Now they were free to return to their native Italy to visit, but could not be seen together through fear of prosecution. In an official biography of the screen icon, Loren’s sister Maria said that her sister had been “publicly humiliated”.
Loren and Ponti finally tied the knot – officially this time – in France in 1966. But, of course, the pair could not have an official church wedding. Loren’s sister Maria spoke about the impact that had on her famous sibling. “As illegitimate children, we had dreamed of the day we would be married and have proper names of our own,” said Maria, Sophia’s younger sister, as quoted in A. E. Hotchner’s biography of the star, Sophia, Living and Loving: Her Own Story.
And so the rest of Loren’s career and life has played out. But in that recent Radio Times interview, Loren has revealed that she does, in fact, have something about her past she wishes she could change. Her greatest regret, if you will. So what was it? Her affair with Ponti? Not marrying Grant and cementing their tumultuous affair, perhaps? Or an iconic screen role that she turned down, maybe? It was none of these things.
“It’s very hard to say you have no regrets. In life, you always go through so many experiences, but I have always tried to live with no regrets,” Loren told the Radio Times. But what was it in particular that Loren did, in fact, regret, despite her commitment not to fall into that trap? There was clearly something she longed to get off her chest.
“I think I’ve reached a peaceful life,” Loren continued. “I have everything I ever wanted, which is a wonderful family with beautiful children and beautiful grandchildren,” she added. You can almost sense the ‘but’ coming. And it does, in the form of the only regret that Loren holds in terms of a life spanning over eight glorious decades.
“The only thing I regret a little is that I never got married in a white dress,” Loren adds, rather surprisingly. “That was the dream of my life, which is still inside me,” the icon concludes. Wow. Something that could be interpreted as rather trifling for many would appear to be Loren’s biggest lament.
But perhaps it is not surprising. After all, Loren admits that she tries to live without regret. And then, of course, this is a woman who was born into illegitimacy when it was something taboo. Perhaps the white wedding would have been something pure in what she deemed to be an impure start to her life. Who knows, because Loren doesn’t say.
Loren’s memoirs are a revealing read. Titled Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life as a Fairy Tale, it is the star’s effort to portray her truth. “I wanted to give in the book the facts of my life,” Loren told The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in 2014. “How I succeeded. How my life was during the war. People have written books about me and sometimes it was not real,” she added.
“I wanted to say what happened to me, because I am proud. I was really a nobody, a little girl, unhappy, in desperation because of the life I was living with my family and no father,” Loren again told The Sydney Morning Herald. The absence of her father profoundly affected the young Loren, in many ways shaping her life.
Yet even with those obstacles, Loren still went on secure legendary status as a star of the classic era of Hollywood cinema. And now modern audiences have the chance to be dazzled by the screen allure of Loren, despite her advancing years. The actor is appearing in Netflix movie The Life Ahead, directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti.
In the movie, Loren plays a woman who is the survivor of the Holocaust. She runs a daycare center, but finds herself the victim of a robbery at the hands of a young migrant child. Loren’s character then establishes a friendship with her young assailant in what is a heartwarming tale. And it is a role that once again enables the star that is Sophia Loren to shine brightly.
Loren still sparkles on screen. Age has not been able to diminish her star appeal or the glint in the eye that has captivated generations of audiences. Loren is still every inch the movie star. She may never have been able to secure the white wedding of her dreams, but this is still a woman who has lived many other young girls’ fantasies, a true icon.
And an icon Loren is – not just of the movie business, but of femininity too. “Head her in the direction of a camera, set her Etruscan eyes dancing, and Sophia is one of the most magnificent women in the world,” wrote journalist Pete Hamill. “There is Garbo, Dietrich, Monroe – and Sophia. Who else inspires the whole range of feminine charms, from sex to motherhood?” So said director Lina Wertmüller. The Rolling Stones even wrote a song about her.
But there is one last surprise. Loren did in fact enjoy a white wedding, but only on screen. And who was the lucky man? None other than Cary Grant in the movie Houseboat. So Loren did, in a way, get the wedding of her dreams to a man who was madly in love with her. Sometimes truth is even stranger than fiction.