She was called “Stuzzicadente” (toothpick). And as a girl during World War II, in her small hometown near Naples, Italy, legend has it that she and her family took refuge in the railroad tunnels to avoid being killed by bombs. She tucked in her skinny toothpick legs from the tracks to avoid being killed by passing trains, too. Tough initiation into the world? Definitely. But then Sophia Loren (born a melodious Sofia Villani Scicolone) continues to reign as that tough, talented, beautiful movie star. She’s eighty-something years young this September 20th (as a lady will never reveal another lady’s age if she can avoid it), and here’s wishing a Buon Compleanno to the iconic Sophia.
Her first Hollywood role was as an extra in the 1951 epic about early-Christianity called Quo Vadis, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s that Sophia made her official splash, starring in movies like The Pride and the Passion (1957) and Houseboat (1958), both of which also starred her Hollywood love Cary Grant. Yes, legend has it that the debonair, A+ Hollywood megastar was in complete and total amore (love) with the Italian goddess. A toothpick no longer, she had grown into a voluptuous, tall Italian beauty with the power to make men swoon, faint, and race around finding flowers – not to mention she was a stellar actress worthy of all that mayhem. So did Sophia and Cary marry? No. She instead married Italian film producer Carlo Ponti, who would go on to produce 1965’s breathtaking epic Doctor Zhivago. But Sophia and Cary’s passionate love affair was undoubtedly the stuff of Hollywood legend (that word again!).
The word “legend” perfectly describes Sophia Loren. She’s made an indelible impact on Hollywood and pop culture. As the first actor to ever win an Oscar for a foreign-language film (1961 Italian film called Two Women), Sophia thrust open that West Coast America door to reveal not just the gorgeous breeze of an Italian Mediterranean Sea, but the gorgeous talent that lived within. Anyone that’s witnessed Sophia Loren on-screen can attest to this. She is magnetic, mesmerizing. As the saying goes, “A picture paints a thousand words.” That’s Sophia in a movie. With one look, she can reach right into our heart. She doesn’t even have to speak lines. Screen presence? Raw talent? She has it in spades, or like those perfect pearls plucked from that deep blue Mediterranean Sea.
After her Oscar-winning performance in 1961’s Two Women, Sophia went on to star in a huge string of both Italian and Hollywood movies, bringing international recognition and acclaim to an Italian movie industry that had arguably always been thriving. The actress shed a light on international film, helping to bring it to a mainstream “meat and potatoes” American audience. In pop culture terms, Sophia was “hip.” France had Brigitte Bardot. Italy had Sophia Loren. For dedicated cinephiles with a penchant for astronomy, it was like a magical, awe-inspiring total solar eclipse. Think Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), Marriage Italian-Style (1964), Sunflower (1970) and The Cassandra Crossing (1976). These are just a few. Sophia was also particularly good in “epic” genre films like El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).
The Millennial Sophia
As for the 2000s, Sophia has starred in films such as Too Much Romance… It’s Time for Stuffed Peppers (2004) and Nine (2009). She’s also lent her voice to the sweet animated flick Cars 2 (2011) and done TV miniseries, documentaries, and more – proving her star power right up until today. She is perpetually dazzling in her talent, and prolific in her filmography. There’s a bravery and steadfastness to both her career and life that’s wondrously commendable. Ranked #21 on the AFI’s (American Film Institute’s) list of Greatest Female Stars of Classic Hollywood Cinema, she’s the sole surviving actress on this list. It’s a stark revelation.
Sophia Loren hearkens back to a bygone era, but lucky for us, she’s still with us today. Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, and others, our love is everlastingly written in the night stars where these divas now reside. But Sophia Loren? She might be just up the road in her Switzerland or Los Angeles homes. How fortunate we are indeed.
So in honor of the amazing Sophia Loren, here are five obscure gems that showcase this tough, talented, beautiful movie star. We all loved her in Houseboat (1958), Marriage Italian-Style (1964) and Pret-a-Porter (1994), a film also starring her frequent Italian on-screen paramour Marcello Mastroianni. (These two were the Italian Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn of their day. What a glamorous Italian dynamic duo!) But what about Sophia’s lesser-known films? Here are some glittery treasures.
1. Between Strangers (2002)
Here’s indie film finesse. Both a Venice and Toronto Film Festival pick, Between Strangers is an enticingly quiet film. Directed by her son Edoardo Ponti, it’s contemplative, rich with emotion. Sophia shines as a sad, regretful older woman who’s hiding a decades-long secret. She forms one part of an intricate, ultimately intersecting, tapestry of women who must come to terms with the male relationships in their life, whether they be a husband or a father. Shot on the streets of a breezy, warm Toronto, it’s a movie that flows through you. And Sophia does, too. Known for conveying so much visually, without the requirement of speaking lines, Sophia’s acting skills feel at home here. And at the film’s conclusion, we are crying right alongside her. It’s poetic tears of pain, but also joy.
2. Grumpier Old Men (1995)
Blink and you might’ve missed this movie when it was released back in the mid 90s. But Grumpier Old Men is definitely worth a 2021 stream. Rom-com sequels tend to inspire less of a following and fanfare than sci-fi or horror sequels, but Grumpier Old Men is a charmer. It’s heartwarming, belly laugh-inducing, and it has an all-star cast. Think not just Sophia Loren, but legends Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, and Ann-Margret. Better still, these double-daters are laughing it up in shivery, ice-fishing Minnesota. (All hail Catfish Hunter!) But the cold is no match for the sunny, sexy Sophia Loren. She and her on-screen “Italian mama” are downright hilarious. There’s also adorable banter between Sophia’s character and Walter’s. Look out for the “piccolo fish” chat these two superstars engage in while they’re out on the water. Blush-worthy!
3. Arabesque (1966)
In the same vein as 1963’s hugely popular spy thriller flick Charade, Arabesque is Sophia Loren and legendary Gregory Peck’s version. The 1960s proved to be an exciting decade for the “spy” genre, no doubt due in part to the James Bond/007 franchise bursting into theaters in 1962, and Arabesque is a lovely addition to the bunch. This movie keeps you guessing right up until the very end. Just when you think you’ve all Sherlock Holmes-ed and solved it, Sophia’s character throws you a curveball. She and Gregory are good together, and seeing them romp around the UK, shrouded in dangerous political intrigue, is truly a treat. They’re two sophisticated, gorgeous actors playing two sophisticated, gorgeous characters.
4. Operation Crossbow (1965)
Another spy flick, this time set in World War II, Operation Crossbow stars a bevy of powerhouse Brit actors like Trevor Howard, John Mills, and Tom Courtenay. Then enter Sophia Loren and American actor George Peppard (of the 1961 Breakfast at Tiffany’s fame). It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole with this movie. About mid-way through you might start to feel like you’re a mechanical engineer and “Wait, the beautiful Sophia Loren? Who cares? I want to learn more about that V-1 flying bomb, the V-2 rocket, and the A9/A10. Surely the ignition thruster will malfunction if not properly oiled to facilitate the midnight launch when the ground air temps will be too low.” Wait, excuse me? That’s a testament to the filmmakers. You get engrossed in all the thrilling mechanics, making the iconic Sophia Loren somewhat of a footnote. But Sophia is actually quite interesting in Operation Crossbow. There’s a mysterious beauty to her character that she successfully conveys. Again, Sophia Loren masters nuance and looks like a true pro. It’s exciting to watch.
5. A Special Day (1977)
The only foreign-language film on the list, A Special Day is an Italian masterpiece, making the coveted list of “100 Italian films to be saved,” which was compiled in 2008, and focuses on Italian films made between 1942 and 1978. While A Special Day might be well-known in Italy (because of its quality filmmaking and its two “dynamic duo” co-stars Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni), it’s likely a hidden treasure for many outside of Italy. Quiet, poetic, dramatic, and intriguing – just a few words to describe what feels like an arthouse gem. The beautiful cinematography capturing the Italian tenement building, and the interaction between Sophia’s downtrodden housewife character and Marcello’s radio broadcaster character, add up to a positively riveting movie-watching experience. More dramatic still, this story all unfolds in the course of just one day in Rome circa 1938 – the day German dictator Adolf Hitler comes to visit Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Gulp. But, as always, the amazing Sophia Loren shines even in the darkest of movies and circumstances. Brava, Bellissima! And thank you, Sophia Loren, for your admirable contribution to global film.
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I was once an exec for The Economist magazine. Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger from the New York City area. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.