Awards Spotlight: The Legendary Sophia Loren Talks About Her Poignant Return to the Screen

She won her first Oscar for 1962's "Two Women" — now, she's going for another in this touching drama directed by her son.

At age 86, Sophia Loren has collected 10 Donatellos, five Golden Globes, one BAFTA, one Grammy, two Oscars, not to mention a pile of lifetime achievement awards. Her directors over the 70 years since she arrived in Rome from Naples at age 17 include Vittorio De Sica, Ettore Scola, Charlie Chaplin, Sidney Lumet, and Martin Ritt, while her co-stars range from Cary Grant (whom she ditched to marry Italian producer Carlo Ponti), Marlon Brando, and Richard Burton, to her favorite, Marcello Mastroianni, with whom she made a dozen films.

“Marcello was a wonderful person, a great actor, and the funniest man I ever met in my life,” she said in our Zoom interview (above). “To play with him was absolutely beautiful, wonderful. He had always jokes to tell and when telling the joke, I don’t know why, he was taking his shoes off and licking his feet, laughing at himself and at me. We had a wonderful friendship.”

She was nominated again in 1965 for raucous comedy “Marriage Italian Style” opposite Marcello Mastroianni, and accepted an Honorary Oscar in 1991. Last fall, she returned to Hollywood to present an Honorary Oscar to Lina Wertmüller, nervously holding hands with Isabella Rossellini backstage, the daughter of movie star Ingrid Bergman and Italian director Roberto Rossellini.

Now her favorite director is her son, USC grad Edoardo Ponti, who brought her back to the screen after a six-year break to star as Madame Rosa in Golden-Globe nominated “The Life Ahead,” their third film together. The handsome movie (completed during the pandemic) tells a heart-tugging immigrant drama about marginalized outsiders in a straightforward, naturalistic way. Like the 1977 foreign-language Oscar-winner “Madame Rosa” starring Simone Signoret, Ponti’s film is adapted from Romain Gary’s 1975 French novel “The Life Before Us.” He moved the setting from France in the ‘70s to a contemporary Italian seaside town, but the story is much the same.Actress Sophia Loren, with Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni on TV?s Dick Cavett Show, Sept. 21, 1977. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)

Actress Sophia Loren, with Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni on TV’s Dick Cavett Show, Sept. 21, 1977. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)

AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler

Madame Rosa is a wiley Auschwitz survivor and former prostitute who cares for the children of streetwalkers. Her doctor asks her to take in an angry 12-year-old orphan, Momo (Ibrahima Gueye), who reluctantly gives back her stolen purse. At first, the sullen Sudanese boy seems rebellious, fighting with her other kids and selling drugs for a local hood to schoolchildren. But Madame Rosa makes a worthy adversary, as she and her warm neighborhood allies inevitably bring him around.

Even though she is still plagued by anxiety whenever she takes on a new role, Loren is happy to be on set with her director son. “I trust him completely,” she said. “And I am absolutely right…Anxiety gives me strength. I am not doing something usual. It’s impossible, to feel things you have to feel, otherwise it will ruin everything. It’s a big thing. I am very keen about it. I like to suffer so much, when I do pictures.”

For one scene when Madame Rosa freezes, motionless, without seeing or hearing anything, Ponti asked her to come up to the roof where rain was pouring down. “He told me not to move, and mostly don’t blink,” she said. “The rain was very hard. ‘Azione!’ I did not blink. I was almost blind. The scene was long, all this rain! I heard ‘stop!,’ we were finished. I went downstairs, it was like I was drunk. I love that scene. It’s very dramatic.”

The veteran of 120 films understands the challenges of working with non-pros; she was eager to support Senegalese emigre Gueye, who won the role of Momo over 350 kids auditioned by Ponti. The rookie actor was so upset by having to be mean to Loren, whom he adored, that he asked her if it was okay. Ponti had the group of kids live in the same house with Loren so they could get more familiar with each other.

“He was my kid, my baby,” she said. “I knew he was intelligent and sensitive. Each time I looked at him, he was looking down with his eyes. If he sticks with it, he’s going to be good actor. Everybody has to be helped; it’s not an easy thing to do in your life. They were living with us when we are shooting, leaving in the morning to go to work, just to be friendly. We had a pool, we swam together, we were eating together, like a family.”

Back when Loren was a 17-year-old actress in Rome working as an extra on “Quo Vadis,” starring Elizabeth Taylor, she had no idea she would become a Hollywood movie star. She was worrying about her next meal, and getting home safely to her single mother and sister. Their wartime experience in Naples informed her first major film, “Two Women,” in which she improbably, with the help of makeup, took over the mother role intended for Anna Magnani, who turned down De Sica.

“That’s how it happened, by chance,” said Loren. “He picked me for the lead, something I never expected, two months later we started filming.” The director gave her lessons in acting that served her well: “Simplicity, authenticity and to be truthful,” she said. “We come from a country, Naples, we are like that, the best people in the world. We like to eat, to laugh. We like life.”

Isabella Rossellini interviews Sophia Loren and her director son Edoardo Ponti.

That’s how, back in 1962, Loren became the first actor to win an Academy Award for a foreign-language film, for De Sica’s neorealist wartime drama. She wasn’t expecting to win and stayed home, partying until she got a 6 am phone call. “I was afraid, I didn’t expect to win for an Italian film,” she said. A familiar voice was on the line: Cary Grant. “Che parla?” she said. “I’m Cary. You won, you won!” She threw the phone away and started to cry, hugging De Sico and Ponti. “A time like this you never forget. ‘Vinto! Vinto!’”

After launching her jet-setting Hollywood career, Loren decided to settle back in Italy. “I am Italian,” she said. “I wanted to go home, I was so young. I missed my house, my little things in my home, some places I liked, some I adored more. And I wanted to be with my mother, my sister, my family, my friends.”

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