When Sophia Loren is thrown a tribute like Nov. 12’s scheduled gala at AFI Fest, attendees can get an intoxicating glimpse of classic-era Euro cinema glamour, of which Loren remains one of the last living representatives. (At this year’s Cannes fest, the octogenarian knocked ’em dead in timeless style.)
Film fans recall a half-century’s worth of skillful performances in every genre. Looking both forward and back, AFI will screen a restored print of Oscar-nominated “Marriage Italian Style,” as well as a new version of Jean Cocteau’s “Human Voice,” helmed by son Edoardo Ponti.
As for the lady herself, after competitive and honorary Oscars, a record 10 David Di Donatello awards, five Golden Globes and threescore trophies and tributes, you’d think it would all be old hat by now. “Never enough. Never enough,” she burbles. “I feel very important when they give me an award. I like it, I like it, I enjoy it. I feel like a star.”
Sophia Loren needs reminders? The waif growing up in war-torn Italy, nicknamed “Toothpick” for her scrawny body, must never be far from mind.
“We didn’t have a very good time then,” she recalls. “I thought that the only way to live was the way I was living at that moment. Yet I kept on asking myself, ‘Is that the life I’m going to have, always?’ The only chance I had to see another side was to go to the movies. It allowed my heart to dream a bigger dream than just mere survival.”
Spaghetti and genetics (mother was a rare beauty) transformed Toothpick into a beauty pageant contender. In Rome, helmer Mervyn LeRoy cast her as Deborah Kerr’s slave in 1951’s “Quo Vadis.”
“He kept putting me in front of the camera,” Loren remembers. “I thought I was almost the lead, because I was so much there in front. But when I went to see the film, I was out of focus completely. I never saw myself, never!”
Still, MGM’s lire kept her in the city long enough to attract producers, who featured the sprightly ingenue in a series of frothy sex farces beginning with Vittorio De Sica’s “The Gold of Naples.”
“Comedy was fun for me because I come from Naples,” she says. “All the dialects and the gestures of everyday life, I had it all inside of me, in my blood.”
Hollywood had bigger ideas. Stanley Kramer brought her to Spain opposite Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra for “The Pride and the Passion,” and the rest was history.
The diva is in a reminiscent frame of mind these days, with new memoir “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow” in bookstores and a Q&A looming on tribute night, moderated by “Nine” helmer Rob Marshall. Early poverty was more than an inspiration, she observes. It was a tool.
“Experience is part of the little treasure inside of you that you can pull out whenever there’s an opportunity in a scene,” she says.
“Especially for me, because I did not have an education in acting, actually. I learned to play scenes through the things that happened to me in life. So I always check inside myself. ‘What can I pull out to give the best I can give, emotionally?’”
There was plenty to draw upon when De Sica tapped her for the melodrama “Two Women.” She’s a shopkeeper escaping war-torn Rome with her adolescent daughter, only to encounter rape and death in the countryside.
“I was a little scared. That was an imposing and a very difficult role for me. But De Sica sent me a telegram: ‘You trust me. If I ask you to do that, it means that I think you can do it well. You’ll be great.’”
Great she was. The ravaged Cesira curses a Jeep full of American officers and hurls a rock in their wake, crumpling to the ground in an indelible pose of grief. “We did it just once,” she recalls. “It’s incredible, the amount of emotion in that gesture. Unforgettable. Unforgettable.” It led to the first Oscar ever presented for a non-English-speaking role.
Loren shared the screen with virtually every major star of her day, from Clark Gable (“he was like a student, very serious”) to Gregory Peck (“he didn’t open up very easily”). Through 11 films with Marcello Mastroianni, “there was a wonderful chemistry between us, and the audience accepted us in dramas as well as comedies.”
John Wayne was an early favorite. On 1957’s “Legend of the Lost.” “They were giving me a hard time because of my English, and he told them, ‘This girl, she laughs and she’s very happy, leave her alone, don’t bother her with this and that.’ He was very easy to work with, a beautiful man. He gave me a very nice present. Spurs! I still have them hanging here on my bedroom wall.”
She can be diplomatic. Regarding Charlton Heston in “El Cid,” she reports, “Photographically, we really were a great couple” before swiftly changing the subject: “Pictures in costume are hard to do.” Of Grant — a liaison that reportedly threatened her marriage with producer Carlo Ponti — she says simply, “He had a great sense of humor. A beautiful person in life and, of course, on screen.”
Loren takes pride in her cinematic legacy, citing 1977’s “A Special Day” with Mastroianni as one she wishes critics and buffs would revisit. Yet real, not reel life brings her the greatest gratification. She still cooks (“What do you mean, still? I cook”), eggplant Parmigiana being a favorite. “Also pasta fagioli. If I smell beans, I get emotional, I love them so much.”
Above everything else, is family. “Since I was a kid, my dreams in life were always to be married in a white dress, which I didn’t. To have children, which I did, two wonderful boys. And to be a grandmother, that was the greatest.”
Maybe so. But she’ll be the world’s most stunning grandmother on the stage of Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, that’s for sure.
What: AFI Fest tribute to Sophia Loren
When: 7 p.m., Nov. 12
Where: Dolby Theatre