Anita Ekberg, who has died aged 83, became an international symbol of lush beauty and unbridled sensuality in the 1960 Federico Fellini film La Dolce Vita.
Ekberg had kept a low public profile in recent years. She did make an appearance in 2010 at a film festival in Rome, where a new restoration of La Dolce Vita was having its world premiere.
In December 2011 it was reported that she was almost penniless, had no family to help her and was seeking financial assistance from the Fellini Foundation while living at a nursing home in Italy, her adopted country.
Fellini cast Ekberg in La Dolce Vita as a hedonistic American actress visiting Rome. A single moonlit scene – in which she wades into the Trevi fountain in a strapless evening gown, turns her face ecstatically to the fountain's waterfall and seductively calls Marcello Mastroianni's character, a jaded journalist, to join her – established her place in cinema history.
Ekberg won a Golden Globe, sharing the 1956 award for most promising newcomer with Dana Wynter and Victoria Shaw, but most of her roles focused on her face and figure.
When she travelled overseas to entertain US troops in the 1950s, it was as a sex symbol. Bob Hope introduced her as “the greatest thing to come from Sweden since smorgasbord” and joked that her parents had won the Nobel Prize for architecture.
Beauty a handicap
Decades later, she told
: “When you’re born beautiful, it helps you start in the business. But then it becomes a handicap.”
Kerstin Anita Marianne Ekberg was born in 1931 in Malmo, Sweden, one of eight children of a harbour master. She did some modelling as a teenager and was later named Miss Sweden, travelling to the United States as a special guest at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
She did not take home the Miss Universe title but did win a modelling contract and was soon acting as well.
Her first credited film role was in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953), in which she played a voluptuous guard on the planet Venus. During the next decade or so she was kept busy in Hollywood movies, including Blood Alley (1955), a drama with John Wayne, in which she played a Chinese woman; 4 for Texas (1963), a Western with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin; Call Me Bwana (1963), a comedy with Hope; and two comedies with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Artists and Models (1955) and Hollywood or Bust (1956).
She also made a cameo appearance in the travel comedy If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969) and, on the more serious side, had a supporting role as the alluring, social-climbing wife of Henry Fonda's character in King Vidor's epic production of War and Peace (1956).
But it was La Dolce Vita that made her famous. She worked for Fellini again, as a billboard photograph that comes to life in the segment of Boccaccio 70 (1962) that he directed, and as herself in The Clowns (1970) and Intervista (1987).
Over a five-decade acting career, she made more than 50 feature films. Her last screen appearance was on a 2002 episode of the Italian television series Il Bello Delle Donne.
Romantically linked with Hollywood actors including Sinatra,
, Rod Taylor,
, she married and divorced twice. Her husbands were Anthony Steel, a British matinee idol (1956 to 1959), and
Rik Van Nutter
, an American actor who also appeared in films under the name Clyde Rogers (1963-1975). Steel died in 2001, Van Nutter in 2005. She had no children.
Ekberg was often outspoken in interviews, naming famous people she couldn't bear. And she was frequently quoted as saying that it was Fellini who owed his success to her rather than the other way around. "They would like to keep up the story that Fellini made me famous, Fellini discovered me," she said in a 1999 interview with the New York Times. "So many have said they discovered me."
But she did appear reflective at times. "If you want la dolce vita, it is how you look at life," she told the New York Observer the same year, while in the United States to publicise The Red Dwarf, a European film in which she played an ageing opera star. "When I go back to Rome, my roses will be in bloom again."
During an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera on the occasion of her 80th birthday, she was asked if she was lonely.
She said yes, a bit. “But I have no regrets,” she added. “I have loved, cried, been mad with happiness. I have won and I have lost.”