More than just a pretty face
She may be past 75 but Sophia Loren continues to be a charmer. As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences prepares to celebrate her achievements on May 4, the iconic actor goes down memory lane. A telephone chat with RANJAN DAS GUPTA.
“Hello.” Her voice is full of affection. “Did you not speak to me last year when I was in London for my last film ‘Nine'?” Sophia Loren is still famous for her statuesque beauty, charm and effortless acting that Vittorio de Sica used to maximum effect.
But she dismisses it: “I never considered myself a great actor. I am a director's actor to the core and have not been able to rise to the occasion if I did not have an imaginative and sensitive director. In this aspect, I must admit Greta Garbo, Vivian Leigh and Ingrid Bergman were ahead of me. In the past three-and-a-half decades I am yet to see a versatile actress like Meryl Streepe.”
Stroke of luck
She recollects, “I consider it a stroke of luck that I worked with the director who started the neo realism trend in cinema. Before performing the rape scene in ‘Two Women', I was shy. De Sica admonished me in public, asking me to behave and not act like a silly self-conscious star. After that shot, it took me 15 minutes to get back to normal.”
She won an Oscar for her performance in “Two Women”, still considered a classic. Didn't Elizabeth Taylor hug and greet her after the Oscar? There is silence. Then she says, “How do you remember? Yes, Liz did hug and greet me. A person with a large heart and an actor of the highest order, Liz never allowed her beauty to dominate her.”
Richard Burton or Marcello Mastroianni? Which of the two does she consider a greater actor? She explains, “I simply cannot compare them. Richard Burton excelled with his looks, inimitable dialogue delivery and intensity. But no other actor, with the exception of Peter O'Toole, improvised as faultlessly as Marcello Mastroianni. He had a plastic face, which was very difficult to react to.”
She remembers working with Richard Burton in “Brief Encounters”. “Both of us knew it was a remake of the earlier David Lean classic. So we were conscious of our movements. In one intense scene, Burton delivered his line with such accuracy that I was spellbound. I couldn't move for about five minutes and everyone including Burton shouted, ‘Sophia, react.' I just twitched my right eyebrow and smiled. Though I was supposed to say something, I missed it. Burton complimented me saying, ‘fabulous'. I had not known that the shot was canned.”
What about reacting to music in films? Sophia Loren herself is an accomplished singer and even recorded an album with Peter Sellers.
“Reacting to music in a film is challenging for any actor. I will specially mention the five piano counters in ‘Voyage'. There was this intense scene between Richard Burton and me and D' Sica felt that silence was not enough. So Manuel composed these five counters that gelled brilliantly with the romantic mood. Though he did not compose for too many films, I personally rank Manuel D' Sica on a par with Maurice Jarr.” Lee Hazlewood sang two duets with Sophia Loren in 1963 but they were never recorded.
Asked for an interesting titbit from her life, she laughs, “I attended the premiere of ‘Dr. Zhivago' in London along with Carlo Ponti and Ava Gardner. Ava jokingly told me to ask Carlo why I had not been cast as Lara. Carlo overheard us and said, ‘Sophia as Lara? Dr. Zhivago would have been too involved with Sophia not with Lara!' Carlo never interfered with any other director's work. He proved his worth with classics like ‘Massacre in Rome', ‘Sunflower' and of course ‘Dr. Zhivago'.”
Her last film was “Nine”, in which her co-stars were actors of the calibre of Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Penélope Cruz and Kate Hudson. “It was a musical and director Rob Marshal was very keen to have me in it. The character had solid substance and concentrated more on my histrionic than sex appeal. I never want to be remembered only as a sex siren. There is much more to a woman than her sexual appeal.”
Speaking of today's films, she says, “Technically Hollywood has improved to a great extent. But how many films have content? I remember Gregory Peck telling me during the shooting of ‘Arabasque' that content and quality would take a back seat in Hollywood as technicians were ruling the roost; not thinking directors.”
And then she signs off “I still remember my interaction with Satyajit Ray at the Berlin Film Festival in 1966 when his ‘Nayak' was screened in the competitive section. That actor; what's his name? Uttam Kumar. He was as good as any European or Hollywood actors. Ray was a genius. Not many directors are as multifaceted as he was.”
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