Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
I love the musings of the writers at Rogerebert.com even when they are just writing emails to each other. They are frequently informative, but most often funny and warm. Sometimes Jana Monji will throw a question to the group about a topic, such as movies about making pies, or in this instance, since the AFI Festival was having a tribute to Sophia Loren, she asked for their recollections of movies about Ms Loren. I am printing their conversations below. We will start with Jana giving a report from the tribute at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. Jana's full report is posted in our Far Flung Correspondent's section here. At the end of this article is a useful guide for finding movies with Sophia Loren on video on demand (VOD) platforms. Enjoy!
Coming on stage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on Wednesday, November 12th, Sophia Loren was regal in her rhinestone-studded black gown. Some audience members rushed to the stage to get pictures and one even told Loren about a specific incident before all were ushered back to their seats and director Rob Marshall (“Nine”) gave a lightweight interview, asking all the right questions, but also introducing clips from her more famous movies and her pairings with some of Hollywood’s best male stars: Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck and perhaps the only one she voiced criticism about, Marlon Brando.
Loren was even given a little on-stage love in a brief speech by another Sofia—Sofia Vergara who recently was the Jayne Mansfield half of a “Modern Family” re-staging of an infamous Loren photograph.
Loren’s son, Edoardo Ponti, also came on stage to introduce the first movie of the night. Ponti who received both a B.A. and an M.A. from University of Southern California, directed his mother in a 2014 “Human Voice” (La voce umana) which is based on a Jean Cocteau play and adapted by Erri De Luca. The short made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and was also shown at Cannes paired with “Marriage Italian Style” as it was at this month’s AFI Festival.
Loren is a Hollywood story. She and her sister were illegitimate daughters of a deadbeat dad. She was discovered by the much older Carlo Ponti when at 14, she entered but didn’t win a beauty contest. In 1962, she made Hollywood history, winning an Oscar for her performance—the first Best Actress Oscar for a performance in a non-English language film in “Two Women.”
She may be Italian but Sophia Loren embodies the American Dream: impossibly shapely lass (and illegitimate to boot!) is born into poverty, parlays her looks and pleasant disposition into meeting the right people and grows up to be a gifted actress who happens to be incredibly beautiful. Loren has excelled at comedy ("Marriage Italian Style" for example) AND drama ("Two Women" and "A Special Day" for example.)
She's wise to her own enticing attributes but not impressed by them. Those are just the hips and lips and eyes and jawline she was born with. In a world before plastic surgery and Botox, some people looked like Charles Laughton or Maria Ouspenkaya and some people looked like Sophia Loren or Gregory Peck (who excelled together in “Abaresque.”)
Filmmakers were so darn lucky for a few choice decades to have distinctive walking wonders like Brigitte Bardot and Audrey Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman and Sophia Loren to work with. (I’m not sure their various nationalities add up to an argument for allowing immigration, but that might make a catchy photo campaign.)
Sophia Loren's name is shorthand for talent and glamour in the same enduring package.
This concludes the "pedestal" portion of my comment.
In 1994 I was lucky enough to be an extra in Robert Altman's name-heavy "Pret-a-porter" (Ready To Wear). I was cast as a journalist attending a fashion show that we shot in a chateau outside Paris well into the night. In one sequence I was seated on the aisle and Marcello Mastroianni—with whom Loren made 11 films—actually spontaneously steadied his left hand against my shoulder as he made his way down some stairs! Dare I speak of a "touching" performance?
When the camera wasn't rolling, there was only one toilet stall for stars and peons alike. Dare I speak of the wee hours? It was late and there was no line for the bathroom but the door to the water closet was locked, meaning another patron was using the facilities.
I waited my turn.
And when the door opened—out swept the one and only Sophia Loren.
I believe my first thought was "Gosh, she, too, has a bladder! We have so much in common Sophia and I..."
Then I registered the fact that this would almost certainly be the only time in my life, however long I shall live, that I'd take this particular seat immediately after a gifted entertainer of international stature.
Jeepers, that was 20 years ago.
This concludes the snicker-if-you-must portion of my comment.
On a higher plane, Photography Month is being celebrated in Paris throughout November. A wonderful show called "Manhattan Darkroom" honors the photos of Henri Dauman, a Frenchman born in 1933 who made his way to New York at age 17 and started shooting photo essays and portraits that graced LIFE Magazine when its circulation was over 8 million copies. You've almost certainly seen his famous shot of Jackie Kennedy flanked by JFK's brothers on the day of the slain president's funeral, or his portraits of a young Andy Warhol or Marilyn Monroe in her prime.
Sophia made her way into the show but not the same way as Elvis or Godard or Alain Delon. The cover of the April 18-24, 1966 issue of French newsmagazine 'L'Express' consists of a Dauman portrait of Thich Tri Quang, the head of Vietnam's Buddhist monks described, in French, as "The Man Who Makes America Tremble."
The only other thing on the cover is a slanted banner about an inch high asking OU VA SOPHIA LOREN (Where is Sophia Loren headed?).
Buddhist monks in Vietnam were setting fire to themselves in protest.
And, at the same time, Loren's activities were considered of sufficient importance to also be signaled on the cover.
Those monks were impossibly brave and principled. And those two words together—Sophia + Loren—still command our attention.
Let's just say the editor knew what he was doing.
For not so profound reasons, Sophia Loren in Vittorio De Sica's segment of “Boccaccio 70” makes my heart stop and roll around on the floor. That's the one where she makes a small town full of grubby men lose their minds bidding in a lottery where she is the prize. Hot damn. Sexist premise, maybe, but she is so naturally regal and powerful that there's a perverse kind of feminism happening here. Uh, yeah, that's the ticket.
For me, the central appeal of Sophia Loren is that she is one of the few actresses who was believable both as a sex bomb of the highest order and as an ordinary person. When required to be the former, she could (and frankly still can) leave every man in her path acting like the wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon but when required to tone it down, as in “Two Women,” she came across like a real person and not just a slumming screen idol.
As for a movie, there are the usual titles—“Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” “Two Women,” “El Cid”—but two that I think of now are two of her later films, "Ready to Wear" and "Nine." Neither one may be particularly well-regarded (though I like the former and the latter is one of my favorite musicals of late) but when she appears in both, the results are quite literally breathtaking.
I love Sophia Loren and I am so glad you mentioned "Houseboat," which I think is a neglected gem. Of all of the scenes in movies where all the heroine has to do to turn a horrible dress into a knock-out is snip off the ugly trimming, this is my favorite. She is also adorable in her little girl get-up performing for a stunned Clark Gable in Vittorio de Sica's silly little trifle, "It Started in Naples." But she was never more alluring than in "Arabesque," whether giving Gregory Peck an eyeful as he hides out in her shower or, in a fabulously decadent scene, trying on exquisite shoes for Alan Bedel.
Perhaps an underreported aspect of Loren's influence would be how much she used her star power for good. I'm thinking of all of the work she did with children's charities, helping people around the world as a Goodwill Ambassador. She's the role model for people taking celebrity and turning it into a force for action.
She's also the first person I think of when someone says "classic movie star." Something about her look, the influence it had, and the way she carried herself. And "Charade" was one of the first movies I ever fell in love with.
Jana Monji: "Charade" or "Arabesque"?
Brian Tallerico: "Charade." A delightful Hitch riff from the early '60s that is admittedly a little slight and silly now that I'm older but that I loved as a kid.
[in a later e-mail…]
Clearly, the flu my family and I have been battling for two weeks blurred my vision and I read Sophia Loren as Audrey Hepburn. Lesson to be learned: Don't write emails with a fever. I just want to make sure you all don't think I'm crazy. I'm better now. Stay healthy.
Jana Monji: That means I don't have to watch the second half of "Charade" looking for an uncredited cameo by Sophia Loren.
Odie Henderson: Miss Peggy Lee responds to Brian in song…
Brian wrote about Miss Hepburn.
We all thought that he’d gone mad.
Mixing her up with Sophia
Was a symptom of the flu he had.
He’s blamin’ FEVER
For his mistake!
Fever for frying his brain.
Give him a break!
He’s hosting a virus strain.
Donald Liebenson: Don't stop there. Is that all there is?
Jana Monji: When Odie said Peggy Lee, I imagine her in her canine form singing the song ("Lady and the Tramp"). I might watch too many cartoons…
Peter Sobczynski: I was imagining her suing. . .
Donald Liebenson: Thanks, Jana. Now I've got "He's a Tramp" stuck in my head.
Jana Monji: Hopefully, you're also thinking of eating spaghetti (or at least feeding it to the dogs). ;)
Nell Minow: Perfectly understandable for a fevered brain to conflate Donan's two glamorous Hitchcock tributes, "Charade" and "Arabesque"!
Chaz Ebert: This is much much too previous not to use! Brian's fevered response and Odie's song must be included with everything else. All of you are great! [pause] iPhone turned word "precious" to previous.
Donald Liebenson: Is that Previous by Sapphire?
Peter Sobczynski: If nothing else, this whole thing has shown us all what Brian is not looking at when watching a movie.
WHERE TO FIND SOPHIA LOREN ON VOD
“Between Strangers” (2002)
“The Love Goddesses” (1964)
“Marriage Italian Style” (1964)
“Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (1963)
“Attila, Il Flagello Di Dio”
“Desire Under the Elms
“Marriage Italian Style”
“The Black Orchid”
“A Breath of Scandal”
“Fall of the Roman Empire”
“Grumpier Old Men”
“Heller in Pink Tights”
“It Started in Naples”
“Man of La Mancha”
“The Priest’s Wife”
Moving Image Archive
“La Ciociara” (Two Women)
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