Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.
Not since Ingrid Bergman had a foreign actress achieved the stardom and success that Hollywood afforded Sophia Loren. Others came and went, but Sophia was a star for 30 years and she’s still working today.
She received the Cecil B. deMille award in 1995.
Initially a beauty contest winner, at 7 she enrolled in Italy’s National Film School and appeared in minor roles in Italian films. She was an extra in MGM’s Quo Vadis when it was filmed at Cinecittà Studios.
It was at that point that future husband Carlo Ponti saw her potential as an international star. He changed her name (from the original Scicolone) and starred her in numerous Italian films, none exportable but which gave her the opportunity to star opposite Anthony Quinn as Attila and work with Italy’s best directors including Alessandro Blasetti, Dino Risi, Mario Camerino, Mario Soldati, and of course Vittorio De Sica.
It was De Sica’s The Gold of Naples which made Hollywood take notice, so she was Alan Ladd’s woman in Boy on a Dolphin, Cary Grant’s passion in The Pride and the Passion, and John Wayne’s obsession in Legend of the Lost. Ponti was now convinced she could be a Hollywood star, and Paramount signed her to a five-picture contract during which time ironically, she returned to Italy to make the film that would change her life forever.
It was De Sica’s Two Women which earned her the best actress award at the Cannes Festival and she became the first actress to win the Academy Award for a non-English speaking role. Following that triumph, she became the world’s most popular actress and was voted world film favorite six times over a thirteen-year span.
The Paramount contract afforded her myriad opportunities, thanks also to Ponti’s insistence that she works with only the best directors. So she worked with Delbert Mann who had just won the Oscar for Marty on Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms (which failed to translate to the screen but which gave Anthony Perkins a chance to shine.) She was Carol Reed’s choice for The Key opposite William Holden.
As part of her Paramount commitment, she again starred opposite Anthony Quinn in Martin Ritt’s The Black Orchid, one of her more challenging roles. Her next Paramount film was Mel Shavelson’s Houseboat, her second film with Cary Grant (who was rumored to be actively pursuing her.) It was a box office hit, and after that, she elevated Sidney Lumet’s That Kind of Woman with Tab Hunter.
Her last Paramount commitment, George Cukor’s Heller in Pink Tights, was a critical success but not a public favorite. So now, no longer under contract, what did she do?
Michael Curtiz’s A Breath of Scandal, one of his last and lesser films. She returned to Paramount for It Started in Naples with Clark Gable, for which she received her first Golden Globe nomination as best actress in a comedy or musical, and then worked with Peter Sellers on Anthony Asquith’s version of George Bernard Shaw’s play, The Millionairess, but neither caught on with the public.
Two Women, of course, changed all that. Playing the mother rather than the daughter finally earned her the international acclaim Ponti had envisioned for her. From then on, she was the most sought-after actress in the world. But unfortunately, even though she had the pick of roles none of them did her justice.
She was decorative in Charlton Heston’s El Cid, she was a strong Dulcinea in Man of La Mancha, but the film was an unmitigated disaster. Her European films - De Sica’s The Condemned of Altona and Anatole Litvak’s Five Miles to Midnight - weren’t much better.
It was De Sica’s Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow and Marriage Italian Style, for which she was again nominated for a Golden Globe, which pointed her in the right direction: comedy. In both her costar was Marcello Mastroianni. All told she made seventeen films with him, these two being the most famous. But instead of following De Sica’s advice she returned to playing dramatic roles.
She was the token female costar in The Fall of the Roman Empire and Operation Crossbow and she played Paul Newman’s obsession in Lady L. Finally, it was Stanley Donen’s Arabesque opposite Gregory Peck which returned her to her past glory. So much so, that Charlie Chaplin cast her opposite Marlon Brando in his comeback film, A Countess from Hong Kong, which unfortunately failed on every level. Francesco Rosi’s More than a Miracle was a fabulous return to form for her, but her subsequent films all made in Italy were bitter disappointments.
She occasionally returned to making English language films, including a supporting role in Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear, for which she received her only Golden Globe best-supporting actress nomination; she played opposite Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in Grumpier Old Men and was one of the women in Federico Fellini’s life in Nine, the failed movie version of the Broadway musical inspired by 8 1/2.
Since then, she has devoted herself to encouraging her son, an aspiring director, and will be seen later this year in his film version, a remake, of Romain Gary’s Madame Rosa, a part memorably played by Simone Signoret in the Oscar-winning film.
Her classic movies? Two Women and Marriage Italian Style.