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Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: My Life

Sophia Loren

(London Times)

IN HER 1960s heyday, Sophia Loren was the British male's ideal of the Italian dreamboat. Her luscious mouth, dazzling brown eyes and voluptuous figure put her alongside Brigitte Bardot in the pantheon of unattainable Mediterranean goddesses. Like Bardot, she seldom seemed to find roles that did her justice.

In El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), she was the wimpled love interest of Charlton Heston and William Flew respectively, and Charlie Chaplin directed her stiffly alongside Marlon Brando in his terrible A Countess from Hong Kong (1967). Everyone seemed determined to constrain her wild Neapolitan beauty in posh gowns. The neo-realist films by Vittorio De Sica that established her reputation - such as Two Women (1960), for which she won an Oscar, and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) with Marcello Mastroianni, which gives this book its title - rarely got a screening in the UK.

Eighty this year, La Loren portrays herself in this memoir as fond nonna Sophia, surrounded by boisterous grandchildren, leafing through her memories. She suggests that she is now beyond all the passion and fame stuff, but below the smoothly moisturised narrative surface, are some fascinating textures.

She was born in Rome in 1934, the product of a brief encounter between Riccardo Scicolone Murillo and Romilda Villani. Romilda was 17, a piano-playing prodigy looking for a break in the movies in Rome's Cinecitta dream factory. Riccardo was 20, a handsome wide-boy who refused to marry the pregnant girl and legged it. Romilda went home to a small town near Naples, and raised the baby in racking poverty.

Naples was a target for allied air raids in the 1940s, and Loren feelingly evokes how everything came to a standstill -school, cinema, theatre - except the bombs. When the sirens sounded, the townspeople sheltered in a railway tunnel infested with rats and cockroaches, abandoning it at dawn just before the trains arrived. Sophia's mother scavenged and begged for food, coming home with a potato or a fistful of rice. When American troops liberated Naples in 1943, a solder tossed Sophia some chocolate. She didn't know what it was and didn't dare taste it. Her mother played the piano and sang Sinatra and Fitzgerald songs for the troops. American films invaded Italian cinemas. Sophia watched Blood and Sand and Duel in the Sun and dreamt of stardom.

At school she was called 'Toothpick' because she was so skinny, but by 15 the Loren curves had begun to appear. At a Naples beauty pageant, wearing a frock made of taffeta curtains, she was elected a Princess of the Sea. Among the prizes were rolls of wallpaper, a tablecloth and a ticket to Rome. Her only drama coaching was from a man who taught her to make faces expressing joy, sadness, hope, surprise and desperation; they came in handy when she starred in fotoromanzi, the Italian photo-magazines that flourished after the war.

In Rome, a new war was raging between Italian film-makers (De Sica, Visconti, Rossellini) and Americans such as Mervyn LeRoy making Quo Vadis. Loren was well placed to capitalise on both - steered, from the age of 17, by Carlo Ponti, her husband, whom she met in 1951 at a beauty pageant overlooking the Coliseum. He sent her a note and suggested a stroll in the rose garden. It seemed like her mammina's fate was about to be repeated - and he was 39, her senior by 22 years, and already married with children. But as she observes, not all stories are the same. Ponti treated her well, organised a screen test, made her drop her Naples accent and acquire some table manners, and swung her roles in films titled The Piano Tuner Has Arrived and Girls Marked Danger.

The early career is vigorously described and intriguing to read. But as it takes off, the book becomes clogged with cliches. The words 'fate', 'dream', 'challenge', 'fairy tale' and 'the right path' recur monotonously. The prose is redolent of photo-romances: 'I had the strange impression that he'd understood me, that behind my impetuous beauty he had read the traces of a reserved personality.'

Her encounters with famous actors are described with fond indulgence, hinting they were all in love with her. Cary Grant proposed marriage, despite being on his third wife. ('Cary, dear, I need time,' I whispered breathlessly.) Richard Burton asked if he could move in with her while he was detoxing. Peter O'Toole appeared at the door of her suite, arms outstretched like Christ on the cross, asking: 'Can I come and keep you company?' (The answer was no, but she enjoyed beating him at Scrabble.) Brando made an ill-advised grab for her on set. ('I twisted around and very calmly hissed in his face, like a cat when you pet its fur backwards: 'Don't you dare. Don't you ever do that again.')

She adopts a prim tone about the world's occasional failure to respect her goddess qualities - especially when it comes to her marital status. Ponti was estranged from his wife, Giuliana, but had never divorced. In 1957, his lawyers arranged for Ponti and Loren to be married 'by proxy' in Mexico - Loren claims that the first she and Ponti knew about it was from a Hollywood gossip column. But Ponti was now, legally, a bigamist. When the news leaked out, Loren's films were banned in some Italian towns and the Catholic faithful were encouraged to pray for her sins. She is outraged: 'I knew I was in the right. I felt married and that should have been enough, but it was painful to be pilloried and branded with infamy.' Eventually the couple took French citizenship, and married in 1966.

Loren was later found guilty of tax evasion and in 1980 was sentenced to 30 days in prison. Although apparently the victim of a bungling accountant, she chose jail rather than face the possibility of never returning to Italy - and frames the experience as a drama of injustice, with herself as Lady Bountiful, bringing kindness and affection to the 'unfortunate young women' in the nick with her.

It is a fascinating life, evoking a time when poverty and illegitimacy were shameful and showing how someone who endured bombs, hunger and degradation could fight her way to postwar stardom. Although it glides through a lot of romantic slush, Loren's memoir is, like its author, a pretty spectacular vessel in full sail. And it is pleasing to find some unguarded remarks when Loren reveals her true diva status. Describing prison, she says: 'Nothing is more humiliating than the denial of freedom. Nothing is more painful than not being seen.'

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