Sophia Loren: ‘I never had a relationship with my father’

More than a decade after her last film, Sophia Loren has returned to acting for a new collaboration with her son Edoardo Ponti. He’s a film-maker who ‘knows every inch of my face, my heart, my soul’

Remember when Elizabeth Taylor “invented” the celebrity perfume with a fragrance named Passion in 1987? Remember when Nigella Lawson made eating and cooking look sexy in the 1990s? Remember when Victoria Beckham launched her successful DVB eyewear line in 2013?      

Well, Sophia Loren did it first. The Napoli FC-supporting Oscar winner beat Liz to the punch with her own eponymous perfume in 1982. She launched an eyewear brand as long ago as 1980. And Gwyneth and Nigella were still toddling when Loren wrote Eat With Me, a “gastronomic autobiography” featuring the star straddling pâté and petting pheasants.   

The best part? The woman who famously said “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti” doesn’t even pretend to have made the Aubergine Mayonnaise Crostini. That task fell to her “faithful secretary”.   

Joan Crawford (L) and Sophia Loren
Joan Collins (L) and Sophia Loren

Loren dismisses the idea that she was any kind of pioneer with these celebrity innovations.   

“I love cooking and the aroma of cooking in the house and I also love the scent of good perfume, so I pursued two of my favourite hobbies.”    

Eat With Me is characterised by glamorous photo shoots, biographical digressions, and such contemporaneous points of etiquette as urging smokers to consider other diners before blazing up, Loren also notes that when the occasion and guests are special enough she herself will prepare a dish “with my own hands”. That remains the case.   

“I don’t write recipes so much but I do still cook,” she says. “Not as much as I used to but when my sons come home for Christmas with their families I like to cook for them.”  

Playing the role of Madame Rosa has been one of the most beautiful and rewarding experiences of my life

If there is one thing we can be sure of in this uncertain world, it’s this: Sophia Loren may not have cooked the Aubergine Mayonnaise Crostini but she is a movie star. Ageism shall not weary her. Nobody sniggered when, aged 72, she offered to do a striptease should S S C Napoli win Serie B, Italian football's second division.   

At 86, she represents, in fact, the last of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She is the only living actor to feature in a list of the greatest stars of Classic Hollywood as compiled by the American Film Institute at the turn-of-the-millenium. Almost seven decades have passed since she made her screen debut in the 1951 comedy, Yes, Yes… It’s Him!.

The movie business, she says, has changed in that time. And a good thing too. “There are more opportunities for more people of all genders and ethnicities,” she says. “Cinema is a reflection of society, all voices need to be heard, a great deal is starting to happen in that direction which is incredibly important. It certainly wasn’t the case when I began.”   

Loren has not made a feature film since her grand entrance in 2009’s Nine, the star-studded musical-comedy inspired by Federico Fellini 8½, and featuring relative newcomer Daniel Day Lewis as Fellini ersatz.  “I love Daniel Day Lewis,” says Loren. “I don’t know if he qualifies as a young actor, but he certainly is young to me and he is fabulous. A true artist.”

She’s returning to the silver screen – and from semi-retirement –  for The Life Ahead, a second major movie version of Romain Gary’s novel The Life Before Us. It was previously adapted by Israeli director Moshé Mizrahi as Madame Rosa in 1977 and starred Simone Signoret. 

“I saw the film when it came out in the 1970s and not since then unfortunately,” she says. “But I love and admire Simone Signoret a great deal. She is a spectacular actress. Our version was based on the famous book.” 

Sophia Loren and Ibrahima Gueye in The Life Ahead. Photograph: Netflix
Sophia Loren and Ibrahima Gueye in The Life Ahead. Photograph: Netflix

The Life Ahead casts Loren Madame Rosa, an ailing Holocaust survivor living in the Italian coastal town of Bari, who forms a special friendship with Momo, a 12-year-old Senegalese immigrant boy.  

“She is tough, she is vulnerable, she is irreverent, she is a survivor,” says Loren. “Playing the role of Madame Rosa has been one of the most beautiful and rewarding experiences of my life. Every film, every character demands something different of you. What made this character unusual were her complexities, she had so many emotional colours, sometimes opposite ones in the same scene. And then her illness was key to get right. We worked hard to make sure that all aspects of her person and illness were as authentic and realistic as possible.”

Following on from a 2013 adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s monodrama, The Human Voice, the 2002 melodrama, Between Strangers, The Life Ahead marks the third collaboration between Loren’s director son Edoardo Ponti. He’s a film-maker who “...knows every inch of my face, my heart, my soul”, she says. 

“Working with my son is one of the joys of my life. We understand each other so deeply, we expect a lot from each other, we inspire each other. I feel with him I can truly work in an environment that allows me to be creatively free and daring. The collaboration between actor and director is key. We are partners, everything flows from that partnership. The fact that my director was also my son rendered the process even deeper and more fulfilling.”

Sophia Loren with her son, Edoardo Ponti, a film-maker who directs her new film, The Life Ahead
Sophia Loren with her son, Edoardo Ponti, a film-maker who directs her new film, The Life Ahead

Loren is almost as enthusiastic about the 10-hour days she worked during production. Every shoot is tough but if you love something as much as I love acting and telling stories then time flies. You feel the fatigue at night going to bed but when you wake up the next morning, you’re ready to tackle another day with the same enthusiasm. I feel lucky to be able to do what I do.”

Loren was 25 and at the height of her fame in 1960 when she filmed The Millionairess. During the shoot, her co-star, Peter Sellers, left his wife and children for her, despite the fact that she had dismissed his advances as a “delusional fantasy”. She was also robbed. Three sets of diamonds, emeralds and rubies were listed among the valuables stolen from her room. That’s quite a leap from her origins.

“Hunger was the major theme of my childhood,” she once wrote. “It would take a book to describe it,” she says. Sure enough, her autobiography recalls that her mother begged in the streets during wartime and that Loren had never before seen a chocolate bar when an American soldier gifted her with one. 

Loren was born Sofia Villani Scicolone in 1934 in Rome, to Romilda, a piano teacher, and Riccardo Scicolone, a construction engineer of noble descent. In theory, Loren was bestowed with the title Marchioness of Licata Scicolone Murillo. But her father abandoned the family, leaving Loren to grow up in grinding poverty with her grandparents in Naples. She met her father only three times, aged five, aged 17, and on his deathbed in 1976. 

“I never had a relationship with my father,” says Loren. “I wish he would have been a different person, a different father and different companion for my mother but he was who he was and you don’t get to choose your parents. I was lucky though to have a great mother who loved both me and my sister with all her heart.”  

Carlo showed me that I could make my dreams come true. We were partners in love, in family and in work. I don’t want to think of my life without him in it

In 1950, aged 15, she entered the Miss Italia 1950 beauty pageant and was named Miss Elegance. Two years later, she enrolled in the national film school and appeared as an extra in Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis. In her 2015 memoir,  Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life, she recalls being dismissed from an early screen test because “Her face is too short, her mouth is too big, and her nose is too long.” But Hollywood felt differently and swiftly embraced her as an exotic screen talent. She remains, rather modestly, unsure why she made it where other European actors floundered.

“Maybe that I learnt English very early on so that I could act in another language that wasn’t my own?” she says. “Learning languages is key if you want to act in countries other than your own.”   

Sophia Loren and Eleonora Brown in the 1960 French film La Ciociara. Photograph: John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Sophia Loren and Eleonora Brown in the 1960 French film La Ciociara. Photograph: John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

By 1960, she was an international film star, propelled by a five-picture deal at Paramount Pictures and a first Academy Award win for Best Actress for her work on Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women. She was too nervous to attend the ceremony, feeling certain that she would lose out to an American competitor and citing “fear of fainting”. 

“It’s not that I was intimidated,” she says. “It was so amazing that I had even been nominated. I just never expected that I could win. Bear in mind that no actress had ever won with a foreign language film before. It was so incredible to be celebrated by your peers, by fellow actors that I revered and admired so much.”   

Despite a brief and unconsummated dalliance with Cary Grant, who, she says, was “...a delightful person, funny, elegant and a dear friend”, she was already involved with the Italian producer Carlo Ponti when Grant called with news of her Oscar triumph. 

The couple were married in 1957 but were forced by Italy’s then draconian divorce laws to seek a divorce in 1963 or else face charges for bigamy. Seeking refuge in France they were legally remarried in 1966 and remained together until Ponti’s death in 2007. He had an enormous influence on her career, advising her in everything from her wardrobe to script choices. 

Carlo Ponti and Sophia Loren at the 1961 Festival of Cannes. Photograph: Roger Viollet via Getty Images
Carlo Ponti and Sophia Loren at the 1961 Festival of Cannes. Photograph: Roger Viollet via Getty Images

“What Carlo gave me were the tools to believe in myself,” says Loren. “He showed me that I could make my dreams come true. We were partners in love, in family and in work. I don’t want to think of my life without him in it.”

Her career hasn’t all been plain sailing. She turned down the Alexis Carrington role in Dynasty. Few viewers remember the 1974 remake of Brief Encounter or the 1974 mega-flop Man of La Mancha. Nobody describes Prêt-à-Porter as their favourite Robert Altman film or Nine as Rob Marshall’s finest hour. Still, Loren has blazed up the screen with Clark Gable, Marcello Mastroianni, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Richard Burton, and Marlon Brando. She inspired Peter Sarstedt’s global hit, Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? And to date, she has won a Grammy, five Golden Globes (including the Cecil B. DeMille Award), a BAFTA, the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival and Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

“Every recognition marks a specific moment in my life, in my career,” she says. “These awards are truly all special because the memories they created are indelible and mean a great deal to me. Nothing happens quickly. Nothing happens overnight. I still marvel at the fact that I get to do the job that I do, I love it so much. I take nothing for granted.”    

In 2018, a collective of 100 French women – including film star Catherine Deneuve – responded to the Me Too movement with an open letter defending men’s “freedom to pester” women. Loren, who worked with Harvey Weinstein on Nine, is having none of it.   

“I am so proud of the women who stood up to such horrible and unacceptable mistreatment,” she says. “It is inadmissible and has been going on for way too long. My two granddaughters will be growing up in a better world thanks to the courage of these women, their determination and their strength; I admire and respect them deeply.”

The Life Ahead is on Netflix from November 13th