Screen Sirens of Hollywood: John Cheever Interviews Sophia Loren

This article and other features about the stars of Tinseltown can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Golden Age of Hollywood. This edition can be ordered here. 

Naples is a city where you can, on a principal street, change into your bathing trunks and dive into the sea, and it is on the sea that the monuments of statesmen, generals, kings and gods have set their eyes. One leaves the Palazzo Municipale, seat of the local government, and goes up a narrow street, much older than the majestic and linear boulevards of the Bourbons. The air smells of roasting coffee, new bread, wine dregs and the sea. At the head of the street there is a 17th-century palace whose gates are topped by two enormous mermaids. Time and the weather have spared their breasts, but one of them has lost an arm. In front of the gate is a crowd of a hundred Neapolitans. Now and then they shout, “Sophia! Sophia! Sophia!” Two policemen push aside the crowd, and when the gate within the gate is opened, you slip in like a trout and slam it shut.

She is there for the shooting of a movie, THE BEST HOUSE IN NAPLES. She is what used to be known as an eyeful. She stands on the cobbles, her feet apart, her hands on her hips. She wears scuffed shoes and a threadbare dress designed, I was told, by a Neapolitan couturier and produced to some specifications established by Dior. It is difficult to take one’s eyes off her front, but there seems to be no exploitation involved. She takes a strand of hair and playfully pulls it down along her nose. Then she gives her head a rousing toss. Her legs seem to gleam. Some actresses exist only as they appear on the screen, but Sophia Loren has a margin of vivacity and beauty that escapes the camera.

Behind the cameras, women with groceries and babies come and go. A rooster who lives in the palace crows loudly, and the crowd outside the gates continues to shout, “Sophia! Sophia! Sophia!” Renato Castellani, the director, is harried, disheveled and gentle with his star. Sophia is a natural actress, and her performance on the sixth take is spontaneous and breezy.

When Castellani is satisfied with the scene, I go over and introduce myself. I light her cigarette with an overloaded Zippo that goes up like a torch. “My God,” I say, “did I burn off your eyelashes?”

“No,” she laughs. “I hear you’re a professor.”

“I used to be,” I say.

“Well, perhaps you can teach me something,” she says. “When we’re finished here, I’m going to have lunch with my grandfather in Pozzuoli, but I can see you at the hotel at 4.”

Her biographical facts have been published repeatedly in every known language, but there is more continuity in Italian life than there is in less traditional societies, and Sophia, in the Excelsior hotel, is what she was. She was born out of wedlock in a charity hospital in Rome and taken by her mother to Pozzuoli near Naples to live with her grandparents. Without a father to provide any sort of support or status, her beginnings were grueling, even for a poor Neapolitan. She was 7 years old when the three-year bombardment of Naples began during World War II, and she and her mother suffered the hazards of poverty and war. She speaks with great affection of her mother. “She is very beautiful. She looks like Garbo, but she has a beautiful body. Garbo has a body like a horse … .” Excepting Garbo, she speaks affectionately of every name mentioned: Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Barbra Streisand, Michelangelo Antonioni. Jayne Mansfield and the Queen of England. The picture she is making, THE BEST HOUSE IN NAPLES, will be her 38th. The double entendre of the title is wasted, since she plays, humorously, the poor and virtuous wife of Vittorio Gassman, and the house of the title is a haunted Neapolitan palace.

“I don’t want to know your opinions on politics, religion, motherhood, marital fidelity, miniskirts or spaghetti sauce,” I said. “I want to know what you like.”

“What do I like? What do I like? I like thunderstorms,” she exclaimed. “I love thunder and lightning. Waterfalls depress me … .” Her English is unaccented, Fluent and musical. Her skirt is short, and her legs are luminous and elegant. Her arms and legs seem to lead a spendthrift life of their own. “I like all kinds of smells,” she said. “I like the smell of the sea, and I like Patou’s Joy, and I love the smell of stables. I like the smell of stables, I think, because it reminds me of the milk my mother got for me during the war. It kept me alive. I like bright colors. They all have meanings for me. Red is the color of courage and love. Black is the color of pain. I think of names as colors. Loren is orange. Ponti is blue. [Carlo Ponti is Loren’s husband.] I would like a good part in a play, but they are hard to find. I like [playwright Edward] Albee. I like [playright Tennessee] Williams. I did not like AFTER THE FALL. It was a bad play. The only character in the play was poor Marilyn. She was the only one you remembered. A play would be very different from films, of course, but it must be exciting to have a new audience every night. I would like to do a tragedy. This might be for me a death leap, but I know about tragedy, and I would like to try. I like in a performance to have the sense of giving something. I am always frightened, and I am never confident that I have been successful. I like to sing. This frightens me because I am a perfectionist and I know my voice is limited, but I could not live without singing. I sang a song in a television show, and some critic said that I was no Barbra Streisand, but when I met Barbra in London, she told me not to worry. She said that if she looked like me she wouldn’t bother to speak.”

I saw Sophia on location the next day, but they were shooting in a confined area, crowded with technicians, and there was no chance to talk. She did wave to me. I had flown to Naples to see her, but so had 15 or 20 other journalists who were milling around an anteroom, waiting to ask about her miscarriage, her religion, her opinion of miniskirts and her choice in spaghetti sauce. A few days later, just before we both were to leave Naples, she called, and I went to her room to say goodbye.

A Change in Perspective

“You know some of the things I like,” she said. “What I don’t like is harder. I don’t like tranquilizers. I don’t like pep pills. I don’t like tape recorders. I always say something that shouldn’t be published, and they always publish it. I wouldn’t want a conversation with my grandfather to be taped. I don’t like foolish propositions. I don’t like people who would use me to help themselves. They are dangerous. I don’t really not like premieres—that sort of thing—but when I hear people say, ‘There goes Sophia Loren,’ I always think they are talking about someone else. I did not like being poor and hungry, but it is still more real, more vivid to me than having money. Compared to pain, money is never very real. I still dream about the war… .”

In some women, we find that uncommon beauty like Sophia’s can be a crushing burden, the cause of broken homes, sloth, drunkenness, improvidence and despair. The Sex Goddess herself becomes hooked on gin, amphetamines and promiscuity, which so often results in a tragic ending. But there is nothing like that here, nothing like it at all. Here, our leading lady wears no perfume or makeup, her dress is simple, and there is no trace of notoriety or gossip in her presence. She seems sincere, magnanimous, lucky, intelligent and serene. I lighted her cigarette with my overloaded Zippo again.

“My God,” I said, “did I burn off your eyelashes?”

“No,” she laughed. “Why do you worry?”

“I always worry about burning off eyelashes.”

Then her secretary came in to say it was time to go. “I have to put on my wig,” Sophia said, and she walked me to the door as the bells of Naples rang noon. Her walk is lithe, youthful and difficult to forget. One might say that she walks like a dancer, meaning that she walks like someone who loves to dance. At the door I asked if I could kiss her. “Of course,” she said. So I did.