Biography / Profile
Paul A. Hesse Studios, a public domain image – gratefully via Wikimedia Commons
She is older now, unphotographed often at the awkward end of life’s cigarette. Her remarkable beauty and grace are still arresting but weary despite a determination to persist. Sheltered in something of a self-imposed exile in her Geneva home Sophia Loren, and her audience await the inevitable: The sad loss of our almost mythical modern Helen of Troy. Time is a cruel master that many beautiful women have good reason to fear, but history is not, and it is history that will smile lovingly on Sophia Loren, the way all men have and always will. History will write Sophia Loren’s swan song, and it’s chorus will carry the words ‘Forever Beautiful.’
If you are in danger of thinking that this is hyperbole, think again. This is the same Sophia Loren who once promised that, should her beloved S. S. C. Napoli maintain their rare form and gain promotion to the Italian Serie A soccer league, she would perform a public striptease in their honor. Men and women with scant interest in the sport held a collective, hopeful breath for three weekends. She was 72 at the time. When she reneged, calling the whole affair a joke, everyone felt cheated. Even the Catholic Church is on record saying that although they deplore the fledgling science of genetic cloning as an abomination before God, in the case of Sophia Loren, they were prepared to make an exception. The writer John Cheever summed her enigmatic presence up by saying that her pictures are what “lonely men carry around in their wallets.” One imagines that Sophia has comforted half the world in her lifetime, be it from the dark interior of a lonely wallet, the dancing shadows of a cinema screen, or the shine of her beauty from a poster on an adolescents’ bedroom wall.
More than one generation has used the words “Sophia” and “Loren” to define what the modern world understands as feminine beauty. She completes the quartet of sirens from cinema’s inception through its golden age, from Garbo to Dietrich to Monroe—to Sophia, all of which serve to shape our modern conception of feminine intelligence, charm, moxie, and grace. For this author at least, Sophia is the standout of this group, and her presence is the definitive lecture on the gamut of feminine epochs, from unrefined emergent nymph to sex siren, to both fierce and nurturing mother, through to the elegant grand dame in seemingly eternal bloom. Her cinema remains a testament to the female character and is littered with those enormous Etruscan eyes, lips, hips, and that décolletage. Her gaze into the camera is a reward of its own, and no one in the audience could ever claim they had not dreamt of “falling asleep in a magical moment on Sophia’s bosom,” as her director Lina Wertmüller once put it.
But her audience too is older now, and we know a few things about beauty–most pointedly that it seldom exists without a shadow of sadness to compliment it. For Sophia Villani Scicolone, this is a stark childhood of illegitimacy, poverty, and the worst deprivations of a war-torn Italy. It is a slippery start indeed, a beginning of scrimping and gleaning and making do; of scavenging on the streets with the defiant humor of the damned, in the insignificance of the small fishing village of Pozzuoli in Southern Italy. Here we find a Sophia before the cameras and the flashbulbs, surviving, surviving, only just surviving. Hiding from air-raids in the rat-infested train tunnels her biographer would later describe as teeming with “sickness, laughter, drunkenness, death, and childbirth,” forever under the yolk of her illegitimacy in a proud, judging, and condescendingly Catholic Italy. She is so thin here her schoolmates call her Sophia Stuzzicadenti, Sophia the Toothpick.
If this is the bitter, dusty start of the fairytale, then we see it take a favorable turn at fourteen. It is as if a fairy godmother enters the scene and a wand is waved, a kiss given, and a princess awakened. She is in a beauty pageant, The Queen of the Sea, and her Twelve Princesses. Wearing scuffed school shoes her mother has given two thorough coats of white paint, a dress made by her grandmother from the pink curtains that hung in the house that now holds the family of eight. She comes second. She wins thirty-five American dollars, a couple of rolls of wallpaper, and a ticket to Rome, where the photographers will first find her, and the fuse on this giant firework has its first lick of the flame.
Her name is not glamourous. It is the name of a peasant girl, so it is changed to Sofia Lazzaro, and again soon after by a low-budget director who wants her to seem less… Italian. History is not without a sense of irony. Those two words, “Sophia Loren,” soon come to define everything that is Italian. Her walk is copied by women everywhere and summoned up by dreaming men. “It’s like watching all of Italy walking,” Roberto Benigni gushed at the Academy Awards tribute to her, “There’s the Tower of Piza, here’s Pitti Palace, there’s the Uffizi… the gondolas of Venice.” It’s the walk of a woman balancing that suitcase on her head in De Sica’s Two Women (her oscar-winning performance), the walk of Marriage Italian-Style (a second Oscar nomination for her). It is the walk of a gladiatorial victory. The Rolling Stones serenade this walk in Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren) on Exile on Main Street. It is a walk that can make dead men groan, regardless of the prevailing climate. If the sexual vibration of a queen bee of questionable morality could be rendered physically, it would be thus. It’s the rolling sexual thunder of whatever the female equivalent of machismo is, in unapologetic full stride. A walk which could give you a black eye. A walk you can watch all day long. A walk you miss, in your bones.
Falling in love with Sophia is not just expected; it is required by the gods. It is infectious and unstoppable. At a dinner party hosted by Helmut Newton’s model and muse Jo Champa, they lined up like little boys to have their photograph taken with her. “They” being Al Pacino, Andy Garcia, John Travolta, Warren Beaty, James Caan, etcetera, etcetera. Pacino went twice and claimed he wasn’t smiling in the first picture. She was fifty-seven years old at the time – Driving Miss Daisy territory by Hollywood standards. Richard Burton captured her perfectly, “Beat me at Scrabble twice, in English yet,” he said, “see her move, swaying like rain.” This is a woman who can change the weather with her smile, a flash of the eyes, a wink, but to most men, she is food, even to herself. She famously quipped, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” Recognition that here we have a walking, talking, dazzling sustenance for the soul. Noel Coward thought that she should have been made of something more refined than pasta and suggested that she might have been “sculpted in chocolate truffles so the world could devour her.” Peter O’Toole wanted to eat her, and many of us still do.
Regardless of whether it’s black and white or in color, Sophia Loren will always be that high-water mark of beauty, celebrity, and effortless elegance. No doubt she will be reified and canonized, and a host of new filmmakers and aspirant starlets will revisit her work and interrogate every movement, shadow, and line to learn her secrets. But Sophia isn’t just the starlet of the golden age of cinema; she remains one of the great pillars propping it up. In much the same way that she isn’t a reason to head off to the movies—Sophia Loren, and the very few like her, is the reason we invented the medium in the first place. There are many beautiful women, but so few who personify beauty.
We are all already in love with Sophia Loren whether we like it or not. There are those who know this, and those still waiting to discover it—that is all.