How Sophia Loren went from extreme poverty to screen goddess

AN 80 year old from Naples has delved into an old box of sentimental ephemera and turned it into a book. 

Sophia Loren, one of the screen goddesses of the last century, has just published Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life, which, through letters, photos and recollections, details her trajectory from an impoverished Italian childhood to her life as an Italian grandmother via global stardom as a movie icon.

Although Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow is not by any means a great work of literature and is perhaps best read by serious fans only, this does not discount from Loren’s astonishing journey from a childhood of hunger and poverty to worldwide fame and success. What makes her story so interesting is her background, attitude, and resilience – she presents as resoundingly down to earth, with Madonna-levels of determination.

Before she was ever born, Sofia’s mother Romilda Villani - from Pozzuoli just outside Napoli – wanted to be a star. Romilda was incredibly beautiful, unusually blonde for Southern Italy, and looked like Greta Garbo. The MGM studio, casting around for an Italian version of Garbo, awarded her a ticket to Hollywood for a screen test when she was 17, but her parents refused to let her go. “She never forgave her parents,” writes Loren. “As soon as she could, she left them to pursue her dream: Rome and Cinecitta.” [the principle studio of the Italian film industry].

Instead of stardom, however, Loren’s beautiful mother fell in love with a young aristocratic cad called Ricardo Scicolone, after meeting him in the street in 1933. Romilda became pregnant, Ricardo refused to marry her, and baby Sofia was born in September 1934 in a “ward for unwed mothers” in Rome. Romilda tried to survive as a single parent in Rome, but was forced to return home to Mamma Luisa, her own mother, with Sofia almost dead from malnutrition.

Romilda later returned to Rome, became pregnant with Ricardo again – she genuinely loved him - except this time he would not give his second daughter, Sofia’s younger sister Maria, his surname. Back then, this was a big deal. Years later, Sofia would use one of her first pay cheques to persuade him to give Maria his surname, so that Maria would not be too ashamed to go to school. But prior to supporting her family, Sofia had to negotiate a childhood made doubly challenging by a lack of dad, and later, a lack of food.

“I was really shy,” writes Loren. “My father was absent, and my mother was too blonde, too tall, too lively, and above all, unmarried. Her eccentric, excessive beauty embarrassed me.” As well as being shy, she was so thin her nickname was Sofia Stuzzicadenti – Sofia Toothpick.

The war made her thinner. “Hunger was the major theme of my childhood,” she writes. “My mother was begging for food for us. She’d bring us back a potato, a fistful of rice.” When the Allies marched through Napoli in 1943, a soldier threw Sofia a piece of chocolate, but she had no idea what it was.

After the war, Sofia began her transformation from skinny kid to a star of fotoromanzi (magazine photo romances), and changed her name to Sofia Lazzaro. She was already attracting attention – her PE teacher asked her mother for Sofia’s hand in marriage when she was still 14. Romilda sent him packing – she had bigger plans for her gorgeously blossoming daughter.

She and Mammina – Little Mamma, the name Sofia used for her mother – went to Cinecitta in Rome in 1950. There Sofia got her first bit part in the “Hollywood on the Tiber” movie Quo Vadis, and determined not to have to return to Pozzuoli, she began to get herself noticed. She hung out on the sets of films directed by a young Fellini, and by 1953, was given the lead role in a film version of Verdi’s opera Aida.

And then, when she was in her mid teens, she met her great love. “My story – personal, professional, and above all familial – centres on my encounter with Carlo Ponti,” she writes. “I had attracted the gaze of the great producer.” She was 17, he was 39, and “at the height of his brilliant career.” And married to a lawyer, which meant that for many years, she and Ponti had serious difficulties with the Italian legalities of marriage and divorce.

Initially, their relationship was professional, although there was a feeling of trust and familiarity from the moment they met. He did however suggest she get a nose job at her first ever photo shoot when the photographer complained that she was “impossible to photograph…her face is too short, her mouth is too big, her nose is too long”. Sofia refused point blank.

“I didn’t want a small, turned up nose,” she writes. “I knew perfectly well my beauty was the result of a lot of irregularities all blended together in one face, my face…..Carlo was taken aback at my determination and self-confidence. He would always say that he’d seen the artist in me, even before the actress – that something sparkled inside me. I’m not really sure what he meant, but it sounded like a compliment and I’ve always treasured it.”

That’s what’s so great about Sophia Loren. You tend not to use the word ‘humble’ in the same sentence as ‘icon’; perhaps Tom Jones is an exception. They both had early poverty in common. “With my first earnings, which we stuck under the mattress, the three of us – Mammina, Maria and I – moved into a small furnished room,” she writes. “It was a tight fit, but we were happy to be together.”

At no point in her long career does she mention disorders, breakdowns, rehab, tantrums, or any of the other stuff that contemporary stars have normalised. The skinny kid from Pozzuoli “has always lived inside me, reminding me not to take anything for granted. This has been my greatest fortune.” She adored Carlo Ponti all her life, until his death in 2007 aged 94.

They were eventually married in 1957 seven years after their first meeting – they had to deal with charges of bigamy and concubinage (an actual crime in Italy until 1969), and marry in Mexico only for the legalities not to be recognised in Italy, until eventually they took French citizenship just so he could divorce (this was suggested by Ponti’s lawyer ex wife, as keen to get out of the marriage as he was).

Ponti was instrumental in the transformation of small town Italian Sofia Scicolone to international star Sophia Loren. As her career accelerated under his gaze, “It was Carlo who helped me shed my Neapolitan accent…suggested I read some very good books aloud…taught me how to answer questions during interviews and even how to dress well and find my own sense of style.” Her life quickly became “like a minefield through which I slowly made my way. I went from launch to launch, movie to movie, dinner to dinner. Facing each challenge allowed me to get closer to what I had dreamed of becoming.”

Ponti appointed an Irish language coach, “the legendary Sarah Spain”, to teach Sophia English. Not just grammar, but the work of Eliot, Shaw, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Vogue, Disney, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong. Through him, she landed her first serious movie part opposite Cary Grant, for which she would be paid proper star money - $200,000 – despite still being almost unknown outside of Italy.

Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Sophia Loren

1. Her real name was Sofia Scicolone, which she changed to Sofia Lazzaro early in her career. An Italian producer suggested she shorten it further — looking at a poster on the wall behind him, of Swedish actress, Marta Toren, he began reciting the alphabet: Toren, Soren, Roren, until they hit the L. “And while we were at it, he also decided to replace the ‘f’ with ‘ph’, and, voila, it was the right name for an international star.” She is called Sofi by her family.

2. She did not have a relationship with her father. He did, however, give her his surname, and because his family were minor nobility she would have been able to call herself Viscountess of Pozzuoli, Lady of Caserta. She never did.

3. She is a foodie: “Food makes people happy, it takes you back home, it says so many things that words can’t say.” She once arranged for Omar Sharif’s mother to fly from Cairo to Rome, where she and Sharif were filming, to cook in a secret competition with her own mother, to see whose aubergine dish was the most delicious. “Mrs Sharif won by a slim margin.”

4. The explanation behind the famous photo of Sophia looking sideways at Jayne Mansfield’s fabulous bosoms is because, just as the photo was taken, Sophia feared that Jayne was about to pop out on Sophia’s dinner plate. Sophia, imbued with a serious Catholic modesty, was petrified that this would happen. It didn’t.

5. For the 1963 film, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, from which her new book takes its title, Sophia has to learn how to perform a striptease. She was taught by an expert from the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris.

6. Of the 96 movies she made, not all are household names. Some of her lesser known work includes The Piano Tuner Has Arrived, A Day In The Lower Court, and Too Much Romance…It’s Time For Stuffed Peppers. Oh, and Cars 2.

7. She has famously attributed her amazing appearance to pasta — “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti” — and told People magazine, five years ago, when she was 75, that she has not had cosmetic surgery, as she doesn’t like how it makes everyone look the same. At 80, she continues to look almost unnaturally ageless. She recently told BBC Radio that the best way to age is “to walk with dignity.”

8. Her 56-year marriage to producer, Carlo Ponti, with whom she fell in love when she was 17 and he was 39, lasted until Ponti’s death, and produced two sons, Carlo Jnr and Edoardo — or Cipi and Edo, to their adoring mum. She has four grandchildren, and loves being their Nonna.

9. In 1977, she chose to go to jail for 17 days for tax evasion, rather than remain exiled, because her mother lived in Italy. She was exonerated 42 years later, when it was proved that she had not mismanaged her financial affairs — so she had gone to jail for nothing.

10. She suffered several miscarriages, and to distract herself while carrying her first child to term, she did a lot of cooking. The recipes became the basis of her first published cookery book, In The Kitchen With Love.


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