When she was a child, it seemed impossible that she could ever become a star. She grew up in a tiny town in Southern Italy far away from glitz, glamour, and good fortune. She was impoverished, she was malnourished, she was at risk of death on a daily basis.
It was inevitable that she would become a star. Gritty determination and unwavering self-confidence meant that circumstance would not dictate her path in life. It was with just a small amount of luck and a great deal of zealous ambition, that Sophia Loren became one of the most iconic and unrivalled actresses of all time.
Living in poverty and constant danger during the Second World War, Sophia Loren – then Sofia Scicolone – grew up in the small town of Pozzuoli near Naples among the rubble of bombsites and blares of sirens. Her childhood was defined by a constant struggle for survival and even after the war ended, food and shelter were often in scarce supply. But Loren also craved emotional survival which she found in the form of the cinematic experience. During air raids, she would seek refuge in the movie houses of Pozzuoli which provided her with a veritable escape from the atrocities of daily life. Watching the likes of Rita Hayworth and Greta Garbo in full flair on the silver screen planted a seed early on in Sophia Loren’s mind. Finally, after winning a beauty competition in 1950 and stimulated by the legends she had watched for years who had given her brief sanctuary and distraction from the war, she moved to Rome with the prize money and began to pursue a career in the movie industry.
Now after more than 7 decades of acting and over 100 films under her belt, Loren might know better than anyone what it is like to be a woman in show business. In an interview, she once stated that “you have to be well prepared, and you have to be psychologically strong to be able to face whatever comes in your path. That’s why many actresses are not ready for success when they achieve it…” From the very start of her career at the impressionable age of 15, her own self-assurance protected her from the many pitfalls that came her way. At auditions, cameramen would tell her that to succeed, she ought to consider plastic surgery for her nose and mouth. Suffice to say that Loren did not follow their advice and still became a global success through her charismatic authenticity and not from the ill-founded advice of others.
With the aid of hindsight, Loren views her early life as a luxury. She considers the two greatest advantages she ever had to have been born in poverty and to have been born wise. Although she wrenched herself from poor beginnings to the height of Hollywood fame, she remains forever in touch with her Neapolitan heritage. She changed her name to the anglicised ‘Loren’ to appeal to wider audiences, but this was the extent of her surrenders. Her hometown and the life she led before celebrity has been fundamental in her career, from the characters she played in front of the lens to that ‘psychological strength’ which proved so necessary when holding her own to cast and crew members behind it.
Perhaps it was the fierce female presence in Loren’s childhood which characterised her development. Her father refused to marry her mother after the birth of two daughters and was almost entirely absent from his children’s lives meaning Loren’s mother assumed the role of both parents. Strong yet fragile, irreverent yet wise, Loren’s mother – who bore an uncanny resemblance to Greta Garbo – also had the aspirations of stardom but not the drive which her daughter possessed tenfold. However, Loren feels unwavering gratitude to her mother for teaching her the importance of resilience and tenacity in a tough world. When it came to acting as a maternal figure in films, it seems Loren channelled these qualities to an extraordinary degree. Her role as Cesira in Two Women, a widowed mother who fights tooth and nail to protect her 13-year-old daughter from the horrors of war, destitution, and assault, won her an Oscar in 1962. She was the first person in history to win the award for a non-English language performance.
While it was clear to Sophia Loren that acting was her one and only career path, her sense of ambition in her personal life was just as powerful. Being a wife and mother alongside world famous actress wasn’t easy but Loren’s determination prevailed yet again. In 1957, she wedded the famous film producer, Carlo Ponti and the pair enjoyed a very happy marriage until his death in 2007. He played a part in furthering Loren’s blossoming career but ultimately her own talent and fervour were the dominant factors of her success. The couples’ relationship is sometimes misunderstood. Ponti was 22 years older than Loren and already a big name in the film industry when they met which has tempted many to claim that Loren found in him the protective father figure that she never had in childhood. This is a futile analysis which simplifies their relationship and denies Loren’s own strengths. She casts this opinion aside with characteristic nonchalance: “I don’t like the word protector. It was more that he believed in me.”
The woman that is Sophia Loren shines in every character she has played throughout her lifetime. Although her roles have varied from escorts to millionairesses, from pizza girls to countesses, and from modern housewives to ancient Roman royalty, Loren channels her own experiences into these fictional counterparts. What ties all her characters together is their strength: “In my career, I’ve always tried to play women with a strong character.” This has made her an iconic member of the film industry but also an important one. Her authenticity begets her believability, and she delivers performances which prompt reverence and relatability in equal measure. Nancy Kulik grew up watching and adoring Sophia Loren and eventually passed this love on to her daughters and granddaughters. In 2020, Kulik was given the opportunity to meet Loren and one of the first sentences she uttered to her idol summed up what most women think and feel when watching this star perform:
“you represent us.”