Few actors from the past or present have embodied the otherworldly aura of a movie star quite like Sophia Loren. The tall, dark, and stunning Italian actress is the definition of Hollywood royalty—but her life was no fairy tale. From her harrowing childhood to her."..complicated" love life, there were incredible secrets behind Sophia Loren's sultry smile.
Sophia Loren may look like she was born in an extravagant Italian villa, but looks can be deceiving. Though Sofia Costanza Brigida Villani Scicolone was born in 1934 with Italian royalty in her blood, don't go thinking she grew up with a silver spoon in her mouth. Sure, her father had noble roots—but they didn't mean much by 1934.
By then, he was a simple construction engineer. He was also a terrible father.
Riccardo Scicolone may have gotten Romilda Villani pregnant, but that wasn't enough to keep him in the picture. He abandoned his young family, leaving Villani and young Sofia without any financial support. In fact, Sophia Loren only met her father three times in her entire life. Once she became a star, she had no time in her life for the deadbeat who left her.
But she wasn't a star yet—and she still had a painful childhood to endure.
In 1938, Loren's parents had another child, Maria. But her father hadn't learned his lesson. If anything, he'd only grown more cruel. Sophia at least was able to take his last name—with Maria, he wouldn't even acknowledge that she was his daughter. Eventually, when Sofia Scicolone became Sophia Loren, she paid her dad just to recognize Maria and allow her to take his last name.
So no, Sophia Loren didn't have a strong father figure in her life—but at the lowest point of her childhood, that was the least of her problems.
Sophia Loren grew up in the outskirts of Naples—at the time one of the poorest regions in all of Italy. Her mother made ends meet, but the luxuries of show business must have seemed a million miles away. Loren was tall for her age, but incredibly skinny. The other children in the neighborhood would tease her mercilessly, dubbing her "The Toothpick".
Well, they wouldn't be laughing for long.
Everything changed for young Sofia Scicolone one summer when she was 15. She and a group of friends were in Rome, and like all teenagers, they were looking for something to do. They weighed their options and decided to take in the Miss Italia pageant. They found a table, and while Sofia chatted with her friends, a stranger brought a note to their table. It was for her.
I doubt she knew it yet, but Sophia Loren was born that day.
The note was from a strange, older man named Carlo Ponti. Ponti happened to be one of the judges for Miss Italia. He took one look at "The Toothpick," quickly growing into her frame, and marveled at her beauty. She simply had to enter the contest. Now, most teenage girls would be terrified by this sudden attention from a strange, middle-aged man.
But Sofia Scicolone wasn't ordinary. Her entire life, her mother had told her that she was a star—and it was time to prove it.
15-year-old Sofia Scicolone entered the 1950 Miss Italia Pageant as Sofia Lazzaro. She had no experience—but when you're Sofia Loren, you don't need experience. She took home the title of Miss Elegance—second place to the Miss Italia Crown. For a teenaged first-timer, I'd say that was pretty good. But the beauty pageant was just the beginning.
Carlo Ponti had his hooks in Loren now, and neither of them would ever be the same.
Carlo Ponti wasn't just a beauty pageant judge—he was a film producer. He quickly hired Sofia Lazzaro to appear in some of his movies. Apparently, one name change wasn't enough, because soon after, he told her he was changing her name: She was now Sophia Loren. With Ponti in her corner, there was no telling how far this bright-eyed young starlet would go—but Ponti's interest wasn't entirely pure.
The age gap between Loren and Ponti would never close, but as she grew into a young woman, her relationship with the film producer took a turn. She has always claimed that they were nothing more than friendly in the early days—but once she turned 19, all bets were off. They became lovers, but it was so much more than that.
Sophia Loren saw a future with Ponti—but it wouldn't come as easy as she hoped.
Sophia Loren was young and in love, and she only dreamed of one thing: "A legitimate family". She never forgave the father who abandoned her and her mother, and she dreamed of a man who would never do the same to her. She wanted the family life she never had—but it wasn't that easy. You see, Carlo Ponti had a secret.
Carlo Ponti wasn't just two decades older than Sophia Loren—he was also married with two kids. He had become estranged from his wife and fell into the arms of the beautiful, vibrant young Loren. That complicated things. But it was even worse than it appeared. Not only was Carlo Ponti a married man, but divorce was actually against the law in the staunchly-Catholic Italy at the time.
The legitimate family that Loren longed for was out of her reach. But she had other dreams to tide her over—dreams that lived across the Atlantic, in Hollywood.
Sophia Loren was a star, but she didn't expect anyone to hand anything to her. She worked for her reputation. Between 1950 and 1955, she appeared in a whopping 35 films. She loved the work at first—but few people can keep such a hectic schedule without it taking a toll on them eventually.
One night, Sophia Loren lay in bed when she suddenly found she couldn't breathe. Once the attack subsided, she rushed to her doctor, convinced she had asthma, pneumonia, or something worse. It took mere moments for the doctor to diagnose her: She'd had a panic attack. The stress and anxiety of her schedule had finally gotten to her. From then on, her pace slowed down, and she never again made so many movies in such a short time frame.
But work wasn't the only thing causing her stress...
It's difficult to pinpoint when Carlo Ponti and Sophia Loren's relationship became more than platonic. Sometime between when Loren was 15 and 19, they became lovers—but ask either of them and they'd say they were so much more than that. Ponti gave Loren the love and guidance that she never got from her father.
Meanwhile, to Ponti, Loren was a star. A goddess that comes around once in a generation. But no matter what they felt, they couldn't avoid controversy.
When Loren was 19, Carlo Ponti presented her with a ring. He was still married, but both of them knew what that ring meant. Loren rushed home on cloud nine to show her mother—but she did not get the reaction she was looking for. Her mother said what anyone would say, "What are you doing???" Carlo Ponti was nearly 40, married, and had two kids. Sophia was a young woman just starting her life.
Loren's mother's fears were valid, but they couldn't stop her.
Sophia Loren started acting in Italian films when she was just 16. It took only a few years for the world to take notice. This tall, dark, and stunning young actress made Hollywood studio execs go gaga. They all fought to be the one to sign her to a contract—and Paramount go to her first. She signed a five-picture deal with the studio and headed towards the bright lights of Tinsel Town.
She was in for a greeting that she would never forget.
Hollywood loves its parties. To welcome the sultry Italian star to America, Paramount threw Loren a big shindig. For Loren, it must have seemed like a fairy tale. All the stars of Hollywood, come to welcome little ol' her. Actors and actresses she'd only seen on the screen came up to greet her in the flesh. Then, once the party was well underway, a new face arrived. A stunned hush fell across the room...what was she wearing?!
Jayne Mansfield showed up to Sophia Loren's welcome party fashionably late, and she made a beeline straight for Loren's table. Years later, Loren recalled that was the moment when the party got "amazing". A photographer was on hand to capture the iconic moment, and the image instantly became part of Hollywood history.
But Sophia Loren got a lot more than a peek at Mansfield's goods when she arrived in Hollywood—she finally got what she'd always dreamed of.
Hollywood is quite close to this country called Mexico. And you know what's really easy in Mexico? Getting a divorce. Not long after the pair arrived in America, Carlo Ponti got a Mexican divorce from his first wife. At the same time, he married Sophia Loren by proxy. Just like that, their problem was solved! Loren could finally have the "legitimate family" she'd always dreamed of!
Except, few things are ever so simple. Soon after filing the divorce, Ponti received devastating news.
Loren and Ponti thought they'd found their way around the whole "no divorces in Italy" thing. I guess they counted their chickens before they hatched. Ponti discovered that both he and Loren were now fugitives. Italian authorities told him that if they ever returned to their homeland, they would immediately be apprehended. Ponti would be charged with bigamy, and Loren with "concubinage".
It was completely ridiculous—but it forced Loren to live a lie for years.
Sophia Loren's heart belonged to Carlo Ponti, but she couldn't show it. The couple snuck back into Italy for a time, but had to keep their relationship a secret. Even when they left to live abroad—eventually getting married for real in France—they still hid their relationship, for fear of consequences back home. They eventually even had to get their marriage annulled for fear of the repercussions.
No matter how either of them felt, Loren's relationship with Ponti was in limbo—and that gave her eyes time to wander.
Sophia Loren adored her older husband/father figure, but now she was in Hollywood—and Hollywood might have better man candy than anywhere else on Earth. One night, she learned that she was to meet none other than Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant. She found Sinatra charming and amicable, while Grant was rude and off-putting.
But Hollywood is a small town, and she'd run into Grant again before long.
Hollywood might have been intimidating for a young girl from the outskirts of Naples, but the town welcomed her with open arms. Her five-picture contract with Paramount put her on the map. Within just a few years, she was a household name. Sophia Loren was officially an international film star—but that wasn't enough. She would soon be the biggest actress on the planet.
The 50s gave way to the 60s, and Sophia Loren's star continued to rise. She made movies in both Europe and America, and people everywhere adored her. Her rise to the spotlight finally peaked in 1964, when she earned an unbelievable $1 million paycheck to star in The Fall of the Roman Empire. Sophia Loren was finally the star that both her mother and Ponti had always told her she was.
Unfortunately, being a star comes with some brutal complications.
Sophia Loren might have become rich and famous, but she still had problems. The most painful was her inability to bear children. Though she became pregnant several times, she suffered miscarriages each time. As if those losses weren't devastating enough, it would soon get even worse. The tabloids caught wind of Loren's struggles and began speculating wildly about her complicated pregnancies.
But that wasn't the only fodder they had to work with.
When the tabloids weren't covering her pregnancies, they'd try to dissect Loren's complicated marriage history, or tax evasion charges, or maybe those whispers about an affair with Cary Grant. Just like any other actress, Sophia Loren had to put up with constant intrusions into her often-painful personal life. And, just like any other actress, she had to deal with some miserable co-stars.
In 1960, Sophia Loren got to star in a movie with one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history: Clark Gable. She was completely starstruck—until the work began. Then she realized Clark Gable wasn't the man she thought he'd be. The first day got off to a good start, but then at 5pm, Gable's watch started ringing. He gave a cheerful, "Bye bye!" then headed home, even though they weren't done filming.
It was odd, but maybe he had an appointment? Not quite. Sophia Loren might have been the starlet, but Clark Gable was the diva.
Turns out, by 1960, "working hard" wasn't really in Clark Gable's contract. No matter what was happening on set, when his 5 o'clock bell went off, he hung up his hat and got out of there. Loren, who had spent the last decade working her behind off to establish herself, was less than impressed. But Clark Gable still wasn't as bad as Marlon Brando.
Marlon Brando wasn't exactly one for first impressions, but the first thing he said to Sophia Loren was just cruel. He barged into her dressing room on the Paramount lot, took one look at the paintings she'd hung on the wall, and said, "You’re sick. Emotionally disturbed. You should see a psychiatrist". What a great start to a professional relationship!
And that was just the beginning.
Marlon Brando didn't know how to give a first impression, and he definitely didn't know how to keep his hands to himself. Before filming a scene, he came up close to Loren and stroked her back. She said, "Don't do that, I don't like it". Then as soon as the cameras started rolling? He did it again. Loren turned and glared at him, then said she'd slap him in the face if he ever touched her again.
Do you think he did?
Marlon Brando, like many men in Old Hollywood, didn't like the word, "No". When Loren threatened to slap him, he put both of his hands on her. Sophia Loren might have been one of Hollywood's great beauties, but she had a temper that few of her fellow actress could match. She exploded and screamed right in Brando's face: "Don’t you ever dare to do that again. Never again!"
And he didn't. Would you?
Marlon Brando never touched Sophia Loren without asking again—but as you can imagine, their working relationship was in the toilet. Brando talked about Loren behind her back. He said that her breath reeked from all the Italian food she ate. He said it was "worse than a dinosaur's". Just some great, mature behavior from an iconic leading man—but he could get even pettier.
Making the movie was miserable for both of them, so when it came time to film their big kiss, Brando couldn't help but mess with her.
Kissing scenes are awkward for even the best actors. Locking lips with a co-worker, with cameras and lights pointed straight at you, while dozens of people stand around and watch? Not my idea of a fun day at work. Well, Brando apparently wanted it to be even more miserable. After the pair smooched for the first time, Loren recoiled. Brando had whispered something in her ear—and it wasn't sweet nothings.
Loren stormed over to the crew after the first take: "Do you know what he just whispered to me? That I have long hairs growing out of MY nose?!" Talk about a guy who knows how to put a woman in the mood! Unsurprisingly, that take was a bust, so the director made them do it again. And again.
On the third take, Brando seemed to have realized that name-calling wasn't working. He wanted to draw blood—literally.
If Sophia Loren thought that Clark Gable leaving early was bad, she had no idea what she was in for with Marlon Brando. He'd insulted her, groped her, and commented on her appearance. There was only one move left: On their third and final kiss, Brando clamped down. He bit Loren's lip so hard that she started bleeding.
No surprise that the two of them never worked together again...but even then, I think Brando wasn't even the most disturbing co-star she worked with. That award goes to Peter Sellers.
When Sophia Loren signed on to 1960s The Millionairess, the studio hadn't yet hired the male lead. They reached out to iconic British comedian Peter Sellers, but he wasn't at all interested—that is, until he learned that Sophia Loren was involved. That was all he needed to hear. As he put it, "I don't normally act with romantic, glamorous women," so he leaped at the chance to act with Loren.
Still barely 25, Loren was likely happy to learn that such a big star wanted to be in a movie with her. She had no clue what she was in for.
Loren and Sellers got along famously while filming The Millionairess, but Loren assumed their relationship was completely platonic. She was dead wrong. Sellers grew more and more obsessed with her as the days passed. Eventually, he couldn't take it any longer. On a night out with both Loren and his wife, he pronounced his undying love for her in front of everyone.
This couldn't end well...
Sophia Loren had no romantic designs on Peter Sellers, and spent their entire time working together fending off his advances—but none of that slowed Sellers down at all. One night, he even woke his young son just to ask, "Do you think I should divorce your mummy?" That's a scarring question to ask any child, but Loren didn't even want to be with him!
To this day, the true details about what when on between Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers are a mystery. Some of Sellers' friends, like comedian Spike Milligan, assert that the pair had a physical relationship. Others say they were nothing more than close friends. Not even Sellers' wife ever found out the truth, commenting, "I don't know to this day whether he had an affair with her. Nobody does".
For her part, Loren has always claimed that nothing ever happened between her and Peter Sellers, though she continued to fight off his advances for years. Her and Cary Grant, though? Well, that's a little more complicated.
Sophia Loren first met Cary Grant at that Hollywood party with Frank Sinatra, but his first impression was almost as bad as Brando's. First of all, he showed up two hours later. Loren had been anxious to meet him, but by the time he showed up, she was checking her watch. He approached her, only for the first words out of his mouth to be about how Italians all of strange names.
Loren had envisioned the charming Cary Grant of the screen, not this unpunctual oaf. But first impressions aren't everything—soon, Grant would have her questioning everything she knew.
Sophia Loren met Cary Grant at a strange time in both of their lives. Grant was currently trapped in a miserable third marriage. Loren, meanwhile, still loved Carlo Ponti, but the legal mess surrounding their marriage left their future in limbo. Maybe Ponti could never give Loren the "legitimate family" that she dreamed of. And Cary Grant? Well...he was Cary Grant.
Loren and Grant first starred together in 1957's The Pride and the Passion. Despite their rocky first meeting, the more time they spent together, the more they became infatuated with each other. Grant opened up to Loren in a way that she never expected. He even revealed to her his darkest secret...
Hollywood stars have to keep some secrets if they want any kind of normal life—but Grant felt safe sharing his secrets with Sophia Loren. He revealed that his father had put his mother in an insane asylum, then lied to the family and claimed she was dead. Loren couldn't believe her luck. Not only was she spending her time with Cary Grant, but he was open and vulnerable with her in a way that she'd never experienced before.
It was like a fairy tale—but unfortunately, this fairy tale didn't get a happy ending.
Cary Grant's wife at the time, Betsy Drake, was a screenwriter, and she'd written a movie for her to star in with her husband: Houseboat. Maybe she thought working together would save their marriage? Well, Grant wasn't on board for that plan. He insisted the studio rewrite Drake's part...so that his new sidepiece Sophia Loren could take the role.
It was a pretty scummy move—and wouldn't you know it, it backfired horribly.
Sophia Loren was still only 22 years old when her affair with Grant began. She was in love with Carlo Ponti, but her future with him seemed in doubt. Meanwhile, Cary Grant was 52 and already on his third marriage. Then, Grant just had to go and make things even more complicated. One night, a solemn Grant invited her out to dinner. As they ate, he suddenly looked at her and said, "Will you marry me?"
Now things were going to get really messy.
Loren gave Grant the only answer she could: "I don't know". Choosing between her two men wasn't going to be that simple. The next day, she flew to Greece to film a movie. When she arrived, she found a surprise waiting for her: a bouquet of roses and a pale blue note with the words, "With only happy thoughts" written on it.
The letter inside was heartbreaking.
Cary Grant could always...come on a little strong. During his courtship with Loren, he was a fan of grand romantic gestures like sending hundreds of flowers to her room. This time, there was just a single bouquet and a note that read, "Forgive me, dear girl—I press you too much. Pray—and I will do the same. Until next week. Goodbye Sophia, Cary".
Now, Sophia Loren had a serious decision to make.
Loren had to admit that Cary Grant was the complete package. Sure, he was a Hollywood movie star, but he was so much more than that. She called him, "wonderful," "charming," "handsome," and "very romantic". He constantly showered her with gifts, flowers, and professions of his love. And he wanted her to be his wife. Perhaps he could give her the legitimate family she'd always dreamed of?
But of course, it wasn't that simple. There was a dark side to choosing Cary Grant, as well.
It wasn't like Loren was choosing between Grant and some deadbeat. She still had Ponti, who loved her and supported her—and he was Italian. Plus, there was the optics. Both Loren and Grant were married when they got together, and Loren had seen firsthand who the press treated women of divorce. She had watched as the tabloids had eviscerated Ingrid Bergman for divorcing her husband.
Could she risk that herself to be with Grant?
In the end, Loren knew in her heart which choice she had to make: "Carlo was Italian; he belonged to my world... I know it was the right thing to do, for me". Once the legality of their marriage was sorted out, they would remain happily together until Ponti's passing in 2007. But Loren couldn't enjoy her happily-ever-after just yet—she still had to see Grant every single day.
Remember how Cary Grant had the female lead in Houseboat rewritten for Loren? Well, now it was time to reap what he sowed. Loren broke off their relationship and stayed with Ponti, making things painfully awkward on set. Grant still held out hope that one day, Loren would change her mind and come back to him—but that day never came.
Loren and Ponti officially married—for real, this time—in 1966. But at least some stories have happy endings: Grant and Loren remained close friends, and Grant even sent his congratulations when Loren and Ponti had children.
As the years passed, Sophia Loren's star grew. At first, she was an exciting new actress. Then, she was a movie star and a sensual symbol. By the 1980s, she transcended again: this time, to icon status. She released the first of many biographies. She turned her life story into a biopic, where she played both herself and her mother. Loren even launched her own perfume—the first female celebrity to do it.
There's a reason Sophia Loren still holds a mystique about her that no other star, past or present, has matched. All her contemporaries have one big disadvantage: They're not Sophia Loren.
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