Magic of Sophia Loren


With Jack Lemmon and Walter Mathau in "Grumpier Old Men".

With Jack Lemmon and Walter Mathau in "Grumpier Old Men".  

MALAYALAM actor Prem Nazir starred in a record-breaking 720 films. It was routine for the Ganesans, the Rama Raos and other stalwarts to feature in 300-plus films while Hindi actor Anupam Kher did 300 films in 20 years. The story is slightly different in the West. Stalwarts like Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck and Marlon Brando in careers that spanned decades, featured in about 70-80 films.

Thus it came as a surprise to discover that the unforgettable Sophia Loren was now working on her 100th film, titled "Between Strangers" written and directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti. A family drama, "Strangers" also stars highly acclaimed actors like Mira Sorvino, Gerard Depardieu, Malcolm McDowell and Deborah Kara Unger.

Don't expect a glamorous, sex-goddesses role for the star. Now 69, Sophia Loren can no longer hide the wrinkles, the grey hair or bags under the eyes. But the elegant star does not bother and can still wow people with her special kind of charm. She wants a role to display her acting talents and has got one in this one. "Between Strangers" is a film about three women, of different generations. Loren plays a housewife trapped in an unhappy marriage with a wheelchair- bound husband. Sorvino is a photojournalist haunted by the circumstances under which she shot an award-winning photograph. Unger is a musician, who, in her obsession to track down her convict father, neglects her husband and child.

With her son Eduardo Ponti.

With her son Eduardo Ponti.  

The three stories unfold dramatically on the screen and the women find their lives held together by the vision of a young girl who represents a bygone childhood. They are liberated by this vision and are able to chart new courses in their lives.

The intense emotion-filled drama without any frills is a far cry for Sophia who was among the hundreds of extras in the MGM extravaganza "Quo Vadis" released in 1952. Two years earlier, Sophia had made her debut with a bit role in the Federico Fellini film, "Variety Lights".

Why a film career? Anything to provide a meal was enough for the poor, illegitimate girl roaming the streets of Naples in war-hit Italy. Her one base of support was her seamstress mother, who often starved, so that her two daughters could get a meal. Italian talent spotter and later film producer Carlo Pontidiscovered the true potential of the underpaid, underfed 16-year-old girl. He made her sign a contract, made her his prot�g� and finally married her. It was an unusual marriage. Though more of a father figure, Sophia often publicly exhibited her love for Ponti and her name was never linked with that of any actor. Not that the men did not try. Suave Cary Grant, who starred with Sophia in "Pride and the Passion", wanted to marry her. Even the dignified Sir Alec Guinness was so enamoured of his co-star in "Fall of the Roman Empire" that he searched the Swiss mountains for a rare edelweiss to lay at her feet.

Carlo Ponti guided not only Sophia's life but also her career. He brought her to Hollywood, made her do the party rounds and talk to the press. Of course, her Junoesque figure was exploited in the films and made much of in the media.

From Ponti, Sophia inherited professionalism. However bad and indifferent the roles were, she was attentive and gave her best. Cast opposite Marlon Brando in Charlie Chaplin's "The Countess of Hong Kong", Sophia was appalled at Brando's indifference and boredom as he sleepwalked through the poorly sketched role. She gave her best, always reporting to the sets on time.

She basked in the adulation of the fans and went out of her way to greet them. Rejecting the suggestion of the studio bosses that she avoid the milling crowds at a San Francisco premiere of "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" by ducking through a side exit, the star snapped, "I'm here for the people to see me, that is why I've come here all the way from Italy."

She had one fan who was always with her and, once, he was on the same flight with her to Los Angeles. "How did you get here?" Sophia asked him. "I read you'd be on his flight," he replied. "And I used my savings to buy a ticket." Sophia kissed him warmly but did not spoil his special moment by offering to pay for the ticket.

Utterly deglamourised in real life, Sophia never understood the weird things stars did for publicity. She never met Marilyn Monroe whose turbulent life ended in suicide. When the Italian press asked for her reactions, Sophia could only say, "That poor girl, that poor girl!"

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