Years ago, while adjunct teaching first-year Italian, I shared a humble university office with a rather dashing woman from Milan, a veteran of the Italian fashion industry, former children’s librarian, and mother. One afternoon she asserted as unambiguous fact that Sophia Loren is the most beautiful woman who’s ever lived.
I didn’t have a response. In fact, I had only a vague notion of the Italian icon. Her beauty struck me as a severe, almost forbidding, portrait of simultaneous sex appeal and stateliness. In my mid-twenties, diminutive and boyishly-figured myself, Loren’s voluptuous, regal poise intimidated me to the extent that it interested me at all. Besides, my only direct experience with Loren was through Grumpier Old Men.
So how to explain my sudden and absorbing infatuation with Sophia Loren?
A few weeks ago, I was idling on YouTube when a clip from the 1955 film Scandal in Sorrento (Pane, Amore, e…) came on. It was a colpo di fulmine, as the Italians would say, a “strike of lightning.” In the scene, a young, jealous Loren performs an swinging mambo on a dance floor, just feet from where her apparent estranged lover embraces her blond rival. The way she locks her arms, swivels, and throws back her head before gathering her skirts in at the navel and undulating — it would have been just cruel if it weren’t also so charmingly guileless. She embodies both smoking sensuality and childlike spontaneity all at once. It’s absolutely thrilling.
As I watched this apex of playful female sensuality, it made me feel proud, almost triumphant, simply to also identify as a dame.
As though Loren’s achievement of supreme hotness has somehow eternally exalted all manifestations of womankind. I honestly don’t know quite what I mean. (I have a feeling it’s something Camille Paglia, with all her talk of the erotic dancer as sex goddess, could explain though.)
It’s like in the 1957 film The Pride and the Passion when Loren’s standing next to Frank Sinatra and that cantador starts singing right at her… how she lowers her eyelids, flares those perfect nostrils, and then suddenly tosses her shawl onto Sinatra’s arm and bursts into baile as both Sinatra and Cary Grant look on, helpless. It wasn’t her fault. She couldn’t help it! She was the sultry Flamenco Goddess-head, and that man summoned her.
The next day, during my Wed. morning stay-at-home-momma (SAHM) yoga class, instead of focusing on my ujjayi breathing, I found myself trying to tap into my Inner Sophia, to breathe that diva fire into my warrior pose through the same aphrodisian poise she embodies. “Beauty is how you feel inside“ I quoted her to myself, in a sultry Neapolitan accent, “It reflects in your eyes. It is not something physical.” It helped, too. I felt like a gorgeous, mighty she-warrior yogini maestra.
For Loren, at least, it’s a versatile, and certainly durable flame. Just three years after that spicy flamenco dance, she starred in Two Women (La Ciociara) as a single mother struggling to escape Rome with her teenage daughter during World War II, and became the first foreign actress to win an academy award in a foreign film for that exquisitely heartbreaking performance. Since then, she has aged with prima-ballerina-level grace, while keeping her movie career active through seven decades, and counting.
Of course, she worked much less while raising her two sons. Because Loren, like myself, was drawn to the endless glamour of SAHM-hood. (See! This Sophia Loren panegyric is totally relevant to my blog, shut up.) She came into motherhood in her late 30s after grieving two miscarriages. Still, as a mother of two, and at an age when the public typically stops even noticing female stars, she managed to win a slew of acting awards, publish four books (both memoirs and cookbooks), and launch both perfume and eye wear brands. I’m certain that she is an excellent nonna, too.
Know what Loren was doing in 2007? Oh, just becoming the first 72-year-old to pose in a Pirelli calendar.
Oh, and last year, at the age of 81, she starred in a short film presented at the Tribeca Film Festival and published another collection of memoirs. No big deal…
This woman (who turned down a marriage proposal from Cary Grant) was born in the charity ward of a Roman hospital to a poor, unwed aspiring actress. Loren grew up skinny, awkward, and destitute outside of Naples. And then, BOOM! She… ignited. And with earnings from a local beauty pageant, she made it back to Rome, caught the eye of film producer and future husband Carlo Ponti, and from there, she lit up the world.
And her wit still sizzles, too. Last year, she humbled a British reporter, laughing when the writer expected her to drop some exclusive scoop on The Telegraph after burning her own diaries.
“You think you can ask me that and that I’m going to answer you?” She responds, after being asked to confess passionate feelings about former co-stars. “Very funny.”
But my favorite quote from that interview comes after she’s asked if she thinks her eyes are her best feature.
“No. No, I don’t. My character is my best feature.”
So now. Let’s all just stop what we’re doing to appreciate the awesome fact that Sophia Loren is still out there, walking around the very same planet as us, being ruthlessly fabulous right this minute.