Films included 'Zhivago,' 'Blow Up,' 'Women'

ROME — Carlo Ponti, the prolific Italian producer of classics such as “Dr. Zhivago,” “Blowup” and “Two Women,” for which his wife, Sophia Loren, won an Oscar, died Tuesday in Geneva. He was 94.

Ponti had been admitted to a Geneva hospital about 10 days ago for pulmonary complications.

Ponti made movies for more than six decades in Italy, France, the U.K. and Hollywood, generating more than 150 feature films, often as a daring experimenter.

He shepherded Federico Fellini’s “La Strada,” Jean-Luc Godard’s “A Woman Is a Woman” and Andy Warhol’s “Flesh for Frankenstein” as well as more conventional works like David Lean’s “Zhivago,” for which he was Oscar-nominated in 1965, and disaster movie “The Cassandra Crossing.”

In addition to “Blowup,” he shepherded Michelangelo Antonioni films “Zabriskie Point” and Jack Nicholson starrer “The Passenger” as well as arthouse faves such as Milos Forman’s “The Fireman’s Ball” and Ettore Scola’s “Una giornata particolare” (A Special Day), which notably paired Loren with Marcello Mastroianni.

In 1956, “La Strada,” which he co-produced, won the Academy Award for foreign-language film as did “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” in 1964.

Born in the small town of Magenta, near Milan, Ponti studied law and started out as a practicing lawyer before mounting his first film production, Mario Soldati’s period piece “Piccolo mondo antico,” starring Alida Valli, in 1941.

After working with some of the best Italian directors of the day during the 1940s, Ponti partnered with Dino De Laurentiis in 1950. Their collaboration spawned some high-profile pics of that period — including King Vidor’s “War and Peace,” on which Ponti served as executive producer — before the partnership dissolved in 1957. Ponti also collaborated with talents as diverse as Peter Ustinov and Roman Polanski.

As legend has it, Ponti spotted Loren when, as a 15-year-old, she took part in a beauty contest of which he was a 37-year-old judge.

He was certainly instrumental in developing her career, paying for the ingenue’s acting and English lessons, changing her name from Sofia Lazzaro and generally grooming Loren for the international stardom she attained in full with her 1962 Oscar for Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women.”

Ponti and Loren married in Mexico when she was 22, in 1957. But that marriage was later annulled after Ponti, who had been previously married, ran into complications with the Catholic Church and Italy’s then-stringent divorce laws.

The couple first lived in exile and then, after the annulment of their Mexican marriage, in secret in Italy. During this period, Ponti produced “La ciociara” — the aforementioned “Two Women” — and he contributed significantly to the development of French New Wave cinema in his collaboration with Godard.

The producer and Loren remarried in 1966 in France and had two children. Though the gossip sheets often suggested that the marriage was shaky — he apparently had affairs, leading men purportedly fell in love with her — the union survived.

Aside from his problems with Italy’s Catholic Church and divorce laws, Ponti had several other legal run-ins. He was briefly imprisoned by the Fascist government in Italy during World War II for producing “Piccolo mondo antico,” which was considered anti-German. An Italian court later gave Ponti a six-month sentence for his 1973 film “Massacre in Rome,” which argued that Pope Pius XII did nothing about the execution of Italian hostages by the Germans. On appeal, the charges were eventually dropped.

He also narrowly escaped two kidnapping attempts in 1975.

In recent years, the couple lived mostly in Switzerland. Despite sporadic reports that he was in failing health, Ponti attended the 1998 Venice Film Fest to accept a lifetime achievement award for his wife, who was herself kept away by illness.

Ponti is survived by his wife; their children, Carlo Jr., an orchestra conductor; and Edoardo, a helmer; as well as two children from his first marriage, Guendolina and Alexander.

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