Old Hollywood: Sophia Loren, Sunflower and Sex Appeal

by Linsey Satterthwaite on 30/01/2015


Many actors/actresses use the method, a form of intense training to delve into the feelings and the emotions of the character they are portraying and, if possible, drawing on personal memories to enhance the performance. One actress who almost transcended the notion of the method was Sophia Loren, such was the embodiment of the characters she inhibited, she was the Italian everywoman: the mother, the lover, the abused and the cherished.

Much of Loren’s onscreen persona can be attributed to her background, she was born on 20th September 1934 into an impoverished family that suffered through war torn Italy and with a father who was constantly absent. That lack of a paternal force in her life was filled by director Vittorio De Sica, who became a father figure for Loren, nurturing her and pushing her to take on roles she had not imagined playing. Their close bond led to a fruitful cinematic output, particularly the 1961 film Two Women, a harrowing drama about a mother and daughter’s brutal ordeal during war torn Italy. Loren was initially in line to play the daughter however De Sica encouraged Loren to take the part of the mother, his faith in her outweighed any doubts she had herself. Loren’s performance in Two Women earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination yet she did not attend the ceremony as she was terrified that she would lose, the self doubt that often plagued her returned, an image which is at contrast with the strong dominant women she often portrayed onscreen. As she stayed at home that evening making sauce for pasta, she would receive a telephone call later from Cary Grant telling her ‘Darling you won’.

Another contrast to Loren was her image as a Hollywood sex kitten, as whilst she was a stunning beauty and an enduring pin up, she never took that side of herself seriously, she had a goofy playfulness to her sex symbol status. And though she was the object of affection for some of the industry’s biggest characters, most notably Cary Grant and Peter Sellers, Loren declined their advances as her heart belonged to one man for her entire life. Sophia Loren met Carlo Ponti in 1950 and despite a 22 year age gap, they had a connection that would last a lifetime. The union however was beset by issues, they married in 1957 however as Italian law at that time did not recognise divorce, Ponti was still technically married to his first wife. To avoid bigamy charges, the couple had their marriage annulled in 1962 and had to wait until Ponti obtained a divorce in France in 1966 to remarry again. The couple remained together until Ponti’s death in 2007 and Loren is still unable to talk about her late husband without getting upset, when asked in an interview if she would ever marry again, Loren replied ‘Never again, it would be impossible to love anyone else’.

The idea of an eternal love that faces obstacles was the theme of Sunflower (1970) which has been remastered and released for the first time on DVD. Directed by Vittorio De Sica, Sunflower begins in post World War II Italy with Sophia Loren’s Giovanna, demurely dressed and with flecks of grey in her hair, she demands to the authorities that her husband is still alive, clutching a picture, she appears worn down by life, but still clinging to the fight inside her. The film then flashes back to the past, an idyllic beach where Giovanna is in the first flings of passion with the handsome and playful Antonio (Marcello Mastroianni) caught up in wistful romanticism, they impulsively decide to get married, which will buy them twelve days before Antonio is deployed to war. In a heady honeymoon haze, they hatch a plan to make Antonio appear to have gone crazy so that he can escape the duty of war, yet the lovers are rumbled and he is sent to the Russian front, promising to return to Giovanna, who dutifully waits for him. When the war ends, Antonio does not return home and is listed as missing, yet Giovanna refuses to believe he is dead, the love she carries is convinced that he has survived so she journeys to Russia to find her husband.

Sunflower is a love story but also a story of war and how, despite unfaltering beliefs that love conquers all, sometimes the ravages of war change people beyond repair. Marcello Mastroianni’s Antonio is a somewhat hard character to invest in, his love for Giovanna is undermined by characteristics such as caddishness and cowardliness. The film therefore inevitably belongs to De Sica’s golden girl Loren who runs the gauntlet of emotions as a hopeless romantic, determined wife and hardened realist. Set to Henry Mancini’s Oscar nominated score, Loren’s undeniably expressive face tells every emotion of her journey, the moment she discovers the real fate of Antonio is a beautiful piece of quiet devastation, her journey of time and distance leads to a damning conclusion.

There are parallels in Loren’s life to those of her character Giovanna in Sunflower, allowing Loren to form a fully believable character that draws from her innate instinct and past emotions. Yet, unlike her character Loren was able to overcome her war-stricken upbringing and to find lasting happiness in life. She became an international sex symbol and one of Italy’s most revered actresses, but above all else Sophia Loren was a devoted wife and mother and the role she dedicated herself to the most was a private life with her family. She remains to this day a colourful force to be reckoned with, one of the last true icons of Hollywood and beyond.

DVD Extras: Rather than extras of the film Sunflower there is an extensive documentary on Sophia Loren titled Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. The documentary features interviews with those who have worked with Loren, those who are friends and those who admire her, such as Woody Allen who exclaims ‘she has it all’. It also includes an interview with Loren herself as she talks about her career, her working relationship with De Sica and her cherished devotion to Carlo Ponti. An interesting snapshot into Italy’s screen goddess.

The remastered film is now available for purchase on DVD, featuring previously unreleased scenes.

Linsey awarded Sunflower (1970) three Torches of Truth

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