BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
February 6, 2015
Sophia Loren hardly ever talked to reporters, and hadn’t planned to do so when she came to Canada in 1987 to promote some beauty products. But after I talked to her publicity people, I was told I could interview her as long as I didn’t ask her about two things:
1. How was she getting along with Carlo Ponti, her much older (by 24 years) director husband? There were repeated rumours of a rift and of extramarital affairs by both, but Miss Loren would not be speaking about such matters.
2. How did she end up spending 17 days in a Naples prison in 1982 for income tax evasion? Couldn’t she have paid a fine or come to some other kind of arrangement with the Italian judicial authorities, given that she was one of the country’s major film stars? Again, Miss Loren would not be speaking about such matters.
She would, however be happy to talk to me about the jasmine-and-roses Coty perfume to which she had lent her famous name in 1980. That’s why Loren was visiting Canada: to promote this fragrance that she had helped develop with Coty. She was also in Canada to plug a line of eyeglass frames, and a billion-dollar condominium development in South Florida’s North Miami Beach, where she had an apartment.
We met at her suite in Calgary’s Palliser Hotel on a warm October morning. My newspaper colleagues had the inevitable questions afterwards: How did she look? What was she like to meet in person? What was she wearing?
The answer is that, at 53 years old, Loren looked absolutely fabulous. She was dressed in a pink wool suit from Chanel, with emerald-studded gold choker and matching earrings. The jewelry, she told me, came from Marina B, her favourite jeweller in Switzerland. To complete the ensemble she wore aristocratic black two-inch heels that made her seem, I wrote, “much taller than the five-feet eight-inches listed in her publicity handouts.”
In describing her appearance, I wrote that she was “slightly built, slender, almost teenager-like.” Her face and hands were darkened by the California sun, her russet-tinted hair descended to her shoulders in handfuls of soft curls, and one could see what New York writer Rex Reed meant when he said that “for an ugly duckling whose chin was too short, whose nose was too long, and whose mouth was too big, she has emerged as beautiful as Aphrodite rising from the Aegean.” She looked 10 years younger than her age.
She greeted me in French, “bon jour,” and when the short interview was over, she said goodbye in Italian, “ciao.” Her English, slightly accented, was impeccable. Her facility with languages gave a small hint of her status as an international celebrity.
To achieve her early-morning look of elegance, Loren told me, she rose at 8:00 a.m. and was ready to face the world by 8:30. “I’m very fast,” she said. “Don’t think I start at five. I only do that when I’m making a movie.”
I asked why she chose to do her only Canadian newspaper interview in Calgary, where she hardly needed the publicity. She replied that “in life we don’t always do what we want to do. But if I force myself to do the promotion, afterwards I say I’m so glad I’ve done it.” In other words, she wanted to tell me why she believed in the Coty perfume and why she came to Canada to do autograph-signing sessions at The Bay department store, which was selling the fragrance: “There’s a kind of dignity when you give your name to a product like this. You can’t sell yourself like soap or Kleenex.”
I asked if she was promoting anything else, aside from the fragrance, the eyeglass frames and the Florida condo development? Loren said she had written a number of cookbooks and a book on beauty and fashion tips, and that she was also doing some television commercials for a drinking water purifier. With all this marketing activity, she had little time left over for acting, she said. But still she hoped to star in British director Ken Russell’s planned but frequently postponed film about the life of opera great Maria Callas. And she would be starring in a five-hour NBC mini-series based on Mario Puzo’s novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim. Loren would be playing an Italian wife and mother – loosely based on Puzo’s own mother – who emigrated to the United States during the First World War in search of a better life for herself and her family.
I asked if her Florida apartment, the location of which she had described in the television program Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous as an “island of peace,” was her full-time home in North America. Loren replied that her home was either Los Angeles, where her 18-year-old son Carlo had just started university, or Geneva, where her younger son Eduardo, 14, was in private school. These were her sons by Ponti but she never mentioned him in the interview. That didn’t surprise me given the pre-set conditions of the interview.
What did surprise me was when Loren said she often returned to Italy even after three decades of troubles that started with her and Ponti being tried for bigamy in the 1960s and continued with currency export charges being levelled against the couple in the 1970s. “I paid my price,” she said. “Now everything there is wonderful.”
Why did she return to face the tax charges in 1982? I wasn’t supposed to ask this question but I asked it anyhow. “I wanted to come back to see my mother,” she replied. And that’s about as sentimental as she got about her homeland during our short interview. She said she no longer had any desire to make Italy her permanent home because “now I have my children and I settle wherever they choose.”
With son Eduardo planning to do theatre studies at Yale after he finished school in Geneva, would that mean her commuting back and forth between Los Angeles and Boston? “Yes,” replied Loren, “and I don’t like to fly.” But she was ready to play the role of the white-knuckle flier because if she didn’t, “you have to organize your life in one place, and then everything is very limited.”
The Fortunate Pilgrim was shown on NBC in April 1988. The New York Times described it as “an immigrant saga with a vengeance” and said Loren was “still beautiful, no matter how haggard and worn-out she tries to look.” The Callas movie never got made. Director Russell wasn’t able to raise the necessary financing. During the 1990s, Loren was seen only rarely on screen. Her only appearance of note was in the hit comedy Grumpier Old Men. But she proved she still had the right movie-star stuff in 2009, when at age 75 Loren played Daniel Day-Lewis’s mother in the movie musical, Nine. She sang an affecting mother-son lullaby. The late film critic Roger Ebert called her performance “sublime.”
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
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