TCMFF, Italian Style: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival with Sophia Loren

May 19, 2015

2014-2015 seems to be the year(s) of Sophia Loren. Last November at AFI Fest in LA, Loren received a career tribute; her face adorned the festival's branding materials and even the volunteer T-shirts. One of the gala events was a discussion with her, in addition to a 50th anniversary screening of Marriage Italian Style (1964).

 

Well, the following year, the TCM Classic Film Festival followed suit, welcoming the Italian icon as a guest, with, you guessed it, a "Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival" recorded conversation and another screening of Marriage Italian Style. (I wonder why they didn't pick any other of her almost 100 screen credits).

Inside the Montalban Theater for the conversation with Sophia Loren. (Photo credit TCM)

Since I missed that first Marriage Italian Style screening in November (which I even had a ticket for), I knew it was my duty as an Italian-American to catch the legend in person at least once. As I wrote previously, Marriage Italian Style was pitted against the world premiere restoration of The Grim Game (1919), which was a huge blimp on my radar from the moment it was announced. The only other chance I had to see Loren was at the "Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival" taping at the Montalban Theater in Hollywood, and so I made the mile trek in close to 90 degree heat to hop in line Saturday afternoon.

 

Though they are obviously quite close, it definitely took Sophia Loren and her son Edoardo Ponti a few minutes to really settle into a comfortable rapport and shake off whatever nervousness was there before; after all, Ponti was filling in last minute for Robert Osborne, who announced only weeks before that he would have to miss the festival due to a minor medical procedure. Then there was the added factor of being filmed on stage in front of hundreds of people, so I'm sure some apprehension abounded beforehand.

Sophia Loren and her son Edoardo Ponti at an earlier TCM Film Festival event. (Photo credit TCM)

I possess only a rudimentary familiarity of Loren and her career, though in my mind she's always been an Italian bombshell who seemed not to exist in reality, only present on the screen, in photos, and in people's heads. Perhaps it's her foreign birth (though she starred in several American films), or her status as an icon; I mean, when one of your nicknames is "The Italian Marilyn Monroe," there's not much higher in the star echelon you can go.

 

So, I was very happy to hear such a down-to-earth Loren speak for over two hours that day. Ponti touched upon several subjects across his mother’s life and career, and he began by asking her why she thinks people respond to her so deeply. Loren answered simply that she believes her fans feel like she is someone who cares, and she does. “When I receive mail from my public I answer it right away,” she admitted. I’m sure half the audience scribbled down a note to write her a fan letter.

 

Loren's son also brought up the fact that his mother was shy and introverted as a child. Loren confirmed that she actually never got over that shyness, and she even admitted that right before she took the stage that afternoon she had to fight her natural timidity: “It was very difficult for me to come out and meet you all. But now that I’m here with you I consider you a member of my family.” Cue that ‘awwwww’ that we all practiced before the taping took place! 

Ponti and Loren onstage being adorable. (Photo credit TCM)

On Growing up in Italy during WWII

Her son spent considerable time discussing Loren's childhood and how that shaped the woman his mother would become. Loren remembered the war in Italy as being incredibly violent and displacing; in fact, every evening she would walk with her mother and sister to the tunnels to sleep. Their slumber was never a long one, though, because they would have to wake up at 4am or else the train would run over their feet, she just casually mentioned (I guess that actually happened, then?!).

 

At that age -14 or 15 - Loren didn’t have a developed concept of life, and of course, the war also skewed whatever reality she knew as a teenager. Amidst the chaos, Loren tried to realize that there must be another side - a spark of life and a sense of possibility somewhere that would come into being after the war’s end. Though she didn't know it at the time, life for Loren would definitely change for the positive only a few years later.

 

 

On Life with(out) Father

Growing up, Loren frequently stayed with her grandmother while her mother would go back to visit her father (whom she was not married to, which made her "very unhappy").Though her mother had what seemed like a complicated relationship with her father, Loren learned a lot from her; in her mind, she inherited her mother’s sense of style, elegance, and the “dignity of a queen.” She taught Loren never to lie, to say what was in her heart, and to forge her own path, which Loren certainly did. 

Loren with her mother, Romilda Villani.

On Meeting Her Future Husband, Carlo Ponti

Loren met the man who would later become her husband, Carlo Ponti, while she was in her teens. The only issue? He was married with kids (and two decades older). She was drawn to his nice smile, the gentleness in his eyes, and his confidence. Even now, when she has a problem or is unsure of anything, "I think of him and I don't feel alone," she said. Cue another 'awww' moment.

 

Ponti was also an early supporter of Loren's career. Apparently, he gave her her first screen test, in which Loren was handed a cigarette and she coughed, because she didn't know how to smoke! At the time, she was told she would never make it because her mouth was too big, her nose was too long...and she didn't know how to act. With all the criticism, Loren considered returning to Naples, but she stayed, was guided by Ponti, and everything worked out fine. 

This photo of Carlo Ponti and Loren is the cutest thing ever.

On Not Having an Acting Background

Though Loren felt a bit insecure when she first started out because she wasn't trained, she quickly learned to read into her characters. "I always had a sense of what I could do," she remarked. "I have a big world inside me." Her technique boils down to something rather simple: Whatever is required of her, she finds help from within and does the best she can.

 

 

On Coming to Hollywood...but not Staying

Though she went on to become an international superstar, Loren never lost sight of where she came from, declaring: “I owe everything to being Neopolitan.” According to Loren, her heritage contributed so much color, comedy, and brilliance to her early films.

 

So then why did the icon, already firmly planted in the Italian film industry, come to Hollywood? "The Americans wanted me," she quipped to loud applause. Loren was in the middle of prepping a film with frequent co-star Marcello Mastroianni when she received a telegram from Ponti from America. In it, he wrote that if she wanted to be a star who could act in many languages, "tomorrow you start learning English." Sure enough, the next day Loren's door rang and in walked her English teacher, who later accompanied her to movie sets in America. 

Loren imprinting her hand and foot prints in the courtyard of Grauman's Chinese in Hollywood in 1962.

Though Loren found success in Hollywood, she never officially made America her home. She made the decision to stay in Italy because the offers she had there were more convenient and better for her character, which was very important to her.

 

 

On Meeting Cary Grant...and Choosing Carlo Ponti

Loren first worked with Cary Grant in The Pride and the Passion (1957), one of her very first American films. Clowning around with her, Grant kept saying Loren's name wrong. She went up to him and warned him that if he kept it up, she'd leave. You can bet he apologized promptly!

 

While Grant had "a wonderful allure," she noted, Loren was only 23 at the time, "too young to be able to decide what kind of life in private I would have liked to have." Also, though not married yet, she and Ponti were very much involved (which precipitated a loud "that's right!" from her son). 

Loren with Cary Grant...and a bunch of photographers and journalists, it seems.

Loren's hesitance in speaking about Grant seemed like the choice she had to make at the time between him and Ponti was an awfully difficult one. "I don't know what to say," she mumbled a few times before pulling it together. It really came down to the fact that Ponti and Loren came from the same place, and she was afraid to change her life and jeopardize everything she had in Italy for life in a new country. So, after a while - oh, it took a while, she stressed - Loren decided that it simply wasn't possible for her to be with Grant. However, she and Grant shared a wonderful relationship until he passed away. They spoke to each other frequently, he visited her in Italy when he was there, and Grant even called to tell her she won her Oscar for 1960's Two Women! "I really...I really loved him," she said softly.

 

Loren's reticence on the subject was met with a similar sentiment from her son. He admitted that Cary Grant was a very bittersweet figure for him: sweet, because he was someone who obviously meant a great deal to his mother, but at the same time bitter since his birth "would have been threatened" by Grant! 

Ponti and Loren with their sons Edoardo and Carlo.

On Hollywood Actors

Loren's son pointed out that she worked with an insane amount of Hollywood's male stars, including the aforementioned Cary Grant, Paul Newman, Clark Gable, Charlton Heston, Alan Ladd, and the list goes on and on. When asked which co-star, besides Grant, inspired her the most, Loren answered Peter O'Toole; though he was "strange" and would say one thing and then do another, Loren recalled that he was always in tune with his character, which influenced her greatly. Her son then made a faux paus, asking his mother which actor she "could have done without?" Her reply was adorable admonishing: "No, I can't say. Why do you ask me such a thing? I'm going to talk to you at home!" 

 

 

How absolutely adorable, Sophia Loren. Can I adopt you as my grandmother? 

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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