Born as Sofia Villani Scicolone on 20 September 1934 in Rome, Sophia Loren was the daughter of Riccardo Scicolone, a construction engineer of noble descent and Romilda Villani, a piano teacher and an aspiring actress. The couple had another daughter together, Maia in 1938. However, Riccardo ultimately denied to marry Romilda and deserted the family without any financial support. Consequently, helpless Romilda had no other option but to move to Pozzuoli, near Naples with her daughters, to live with Loren’s grandmother. It is needless to say that while growing up in the slums of Pozzuoli, the children had to face the rudeness of reality and suffered a lot. The condition of the poverty-stricken helpless family became more vulnerable and precarious during the Second World War, when the harbour and munitions plant in Pozzuoli became the target of frequent bombing of the Allied Forces. During one of the raids, Sofia was struck by shrapnel and wounded in the chin, when she was running to the shelter. After the incident, the family moved back to Naples, where they were taken in by distant relatives. However, at the end of the Great War, they returned to Pozzuli and Lisa, the grandmother of Loren, opened a pub in their living room for their livelihood, selling homemade cherry liquor, mainly for the American soldiers stationed nearby. In the pub, Romilda used to play piano and Maria sang, much to the delight of the customers, while Sophia waited on the tables and washed dishes. Soon the place became a popular entertaining centre for the soldiers.
The monotonous and calm, pastoral life of Sofia Scicolone took an unexpected turn for the better when in 1950 she entered the Miss Italy beauty pageant and was selected as one of the last three finalists to win the title of Miss Elegance 1950.Long after the incident, she would grace the occasion in 2001, as president of the jury for the 61st edition of the pageant and would crown the 71st Miss Italia pageant winner in 2010. Nevertheless, to start working for Fotoromanzi, one of the popular pulp magazines that used still photographs to depict spicy stories, Sofia Scicolone changed her last name to Lazzaro and also enrolled in the Cento Sperimentale di Cinematographia, the national film school in Italy.
After appearing in crowd scenes in some the not so important films as an extra, she first appeared as one of the many slave girls, also as an uncredited extra, in the American production of Quo Vadis? (1951), directed by Mervyn LeRoy In the same year Sofia appeared in a topless scene in an Italian film Era lui…si, si ! (1951), in which she played an odalisque, a chambermaid in a harem. In fact, in the early part of the decade, she played bit parts and had minor roles in several films, which included La Favorita (1952). In those early films, she was mostly credited as Sofia Lazzaro and people joked her beauty could raise Lazarus from the dead.
At that stage, producer Carlo Ponti changed her name to Sophia Loren and launched her career in a series of low-budget comedies before she attracted public attention and earned critical acclaim in Aida (1953). After that, she played the lead role in Two Nights with Cleopatra (1953) and The Gold of Naples (1954), directed by Vittorio De Sica. Too Bad She’s Bad (1954) and The Miller’s Wife (La Bella Mugnaia 1955) were the first of the many films in which Sophia featured opposite the Charismatic Italian leading man Maecello Mastroanni.
Although her magnetic charm and irresistible appeal often overshadowed her enormous talent as an actress, during the late 1950s, she embarked on a successful acting career in the United States, playing different types of roles most efficiently in all those films. In Boy on a Dolphin (1957), she played the role of a woman who discovered an ancient brass and gold statue and was torn between two men, one of whom wanted to sell it, while the other wanted to gift it to Greece. In Legend of the Lost (1957), she portrayed the role of a prostitute opposite to John Wayne, who hired her to escort the Sahara desert and in The Pride and the Passion (1957), she was the voluptuous girlfriend of a shoemaker, who was trying to transport a huge cannon to the city of Avila. In the next year Sophia appeared in Desire under the Elms, The Key, The Black Orchid and also in The Houseboat (1958), opposite Cary Grant.
The original script of The Houseboat was written by Cary Grant’s actress wife Betsy Drake and Grant insisted her starring the film with him. However, while filming The Pride and the Passion, Grant had a short-lived but much-publicized fling with his co-star Sophia and he arranged for Loren to take Drake's place in The Houseboat, with a rewritten script. But Sophia rejected his approach, as she was only 22 and Grant was 53, around 31 years her senior. As the affair ended in bitterness, it created unnecessary problems on the set of the Houseboat. Later, Grant tried to patch up and resume the relationship, but Sophia did not agree.
For the first time, Sophia appeared as a blonde in George Cukor’s Heller in Pink Tights (1960). In the same year she also appeared in A Breath of Scandal (1960), It Started in Naples (1960) with Clark Gable and The Millionairess (1960) with Paul Newman. However, the film that made her one of the most popular actresses in the world was Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (1960). It is the sad and cruel story of a courageous mother, who was trying hard to protect her 12-year-old daughter in war-torn Italy. While returning to their home city, following a temporary cessation of bombings, they took shelter inside a church and ended up as the helpless victims, when both of them were brutally gang-raped in the church. Originally, Sophia Loren was given the role of the daughter, but fought against the decision and was eventually earned the role of the fighting mother. She won 22 international awards for her performance in the role of the mother in Two Women. Apart from the Academy Award for Best Actress, it was the first major Academy Award for a non-English-language performance of an Italian actress. she also won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival and the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actress. The Two Women was a huge commercial success and was extremely well received by the critics. It made Sophia one of the most popular actresses in the world and she continued to make films on both sides of the Atlantic, pairing with the prominent leading men of the movie world.
During 1960s, Sophia also appeared in a number of other important films, which include the gorgeous and sensational periodic El Cid (1961) with Charlton Heston, Boccaccio ’70 (1962), Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) with Marcello Mastroianni, Fall of Roman Empire (1964) with Stephen Boyd and Alec Guinness, in which she was paid $1 million, Marriage Italian Style (1964), with Maecello Mastroanni and received a second Academy Award nomination for her performance in the film. Apart from that she also appeared in Peter Ustinov’s Lady L (1965) with Paul Newman, Arabesque (1966) with Gregory Peck and Charles Chaplin’s last film, A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) with Marlon Brando.
Italian film producer Carlo Ponti, the man behind the career of Sophia Loren, spotted her long back in 1950, as a judge of a beauty contest and carefully groomed the attractive and young Sofia Scicolone to become the most sought after glamorous actress Sophia Loren. He loved her and despite the huge age difference of 22 years, Sophia had no hesitation to respond. But, though Ponti had been long separated from his first wife, he was not legally divorced. Hence, he travelled to Mexico to get an easy divorce from Giuliana Fiastri, with whom he had a daughter and also married Sophia by proxy in that country on 17 September 1957, when two male lawyers stood in for them. However, as divorce was still forbidden in Italy, they were informed that on their arrival in Italy, Ponti would be charged with bigamy and Loren would be charged with adultery. As they returned to Italy in 1960 and summoned to the court, they denied being married. Nevertheless, though they annulled their marriage in 1962 to escape bigamy charges, they continued to live together. After that, in a mutual settlement, Giuliana agreed to accompany the couple to move to France, which at that time allowed divorce and they became French citizens in 1965, as their application was approved by Georges Pompidou, the then President of France. In the same year, Carlo Ponti got his much wanted divorce from Giuliana and married Sophia on 09 April 1966, in a civil wedding in Sevres, in Paris. The couple had two sons and Loren remained married to Ponti until his death on 10 January 2007 of pulmonary complications.
After becoming a mother in 1968, Loren appeared in only a few movies and during the 1970s, most of her roles were in Italian features. In Sunflower (1970), directed by Vittorio Di Sica, she portrayed the role of an Italian Woman, who was desperately searching her soldier husband, reported to be missing in Russia during WW II. In the film, along with her favourite actor Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren gave the performance of a lifetime, which won the heart of the people and was a critical success. She also appeared, among others, in Man of La Mancha (1972), which was a commercial failure, but nominated for several awards, including two Golden Globes. She was paired with Richard Burton in Le Voyage (1974), the last film directed by De Sica and also in a remake of The Brief Encounter (1974), which was premiered on US television on 12 November 1974. She starred in The Cassandra Crossing (1976) that fared extremely well internationally and in A Special Day (1977), she again co-starred with Marcello Mastroianni, which proved to be a box office hit and was nominated for 11 international awards, while Sophia was awarded with a David di Donatello Award, the seventh in her career.
From the eighties onward, Sophia's appearances on the big screen came few and far between. However, she appeared in five television films, beginning with Sophia Loren: Her Own Story (1980), a biopic in which she portrayed herself and her mother. In her return to mainstream films in Ready to Wear (1994), co-starring Julia Roberts, she received a Golden Globe nomination and in the same year, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California Walk for Stars was dedicated to her. In Grumpier Old Men (1995), a romantic comedy, she played a sexy divorcée, a femme fatale and the film was Loren’s biggest hit in the USA in years.
The distinguished acting career of Sophia Loren was internationally recognized with a lifetime achievement Oscar (1991) and a career Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival in 1998. In 1997, she was awarded an Honorable Prize for her contribution to cinema at the 20th Moscow International Film Festival and the American Film Institute named her among the greatest female stars of Golden Age of Hollywood cinema in 1999. In 2001, Sophia Loren received a Special Grand Prix of the Americas Award at the Montreal Film Festival.
Apart from her acting career, Sophia Loren recorded more than two dozen songs throughout her career, including a best-selling album of comedic songs with Peter Sellers. It is reported that he split with his first wife, Anne Howe, partly due to his romantic infatuation with Loren. However, she had to fend off his romantic advances and made it clear that she reciprocated Seller’s move only platonically.
Since late 2006, her primary residence has been in Geneva, Switzerland, though she also owns homes in Naples and Rome. However, she divides her time between Switzerland and Los Angeles, where she is close to her sons and their families. She still remains one of the most beloved and recognizable figures in the international film world, but she maintains that show business was what she did and not what she was.