Farewell, Gina Lollobrigida

Gina Lollobrigida in Jules Dassin’s The Law (1959)

Gina Lollobrigida, who died on Monday at the age of ninety-five, once claimed that at the height of her fame in the late 1950s and early 1960s, she could demand ten percent of the gross and final approval of the screenplay, director, and her costar before she signed on to star in a movie. Initially reluctant to enter show business, she knew how to wield power once she became, along with fellow Italian pinups Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale, a major box-office draw.

She’d originally intended to become a sculptor and took on work as an extra in the late 1940s to fund her studies at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. Offered a thousand lire for her first major role, she insisted on a million, thinking that the outlandish sum would scare off the producers. To her surprise, it didn’t, and she began appearing in a string of films shot at the renowned Cinecittà Studios.

The extent to which Lollobrigida drove some men wild is most famously illustrated by Howard Hughes’s obsessive—and eventually, possessive—pursuit of her. As the story goes, Hughes, having recently acquired RKO Pictures and on the lookout for fresh talent, saw Lollobrigida in Duilio Coletti’s comedy Miss Italia (1950)—though some say he’d had his eye on her since she appeared in Mario Costa’s 1948 adaptation of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci; as it happens, both films were shot by Mario Bava—and he had to have her. Hughes sent for her and her husband but provided only one ticket. In another version, her husband, Milko Škofič, a Slovenian who had given up a career in medicine to become her full-time manager, couldn’t secure a visa to travel to the States.

When Lollobrigida arrived in Los Angeles, she was met by lawyers with divorce papers at the ready that would free her up for Hughes. She brushed them off—just as, day after day for nearly three months, she brushed off Hughes’s advances. He gave her English lessons, shot screen tests, wined and dined her, put her up in a luxury hotel, and invited her to his villa. She claimed she refused to go, fully aware of what would happen if she did. But even though he was twenty years older, she was not unimpressed by the man. When she told him, “If you lose all your money, then perhaps I’ll marry you,” she only fanned the flames. For Hughes, here at last was a woman interested in more than his wealth.

Eager to return to Rome, she signed a seven-year contract that made it prohibitively expensive for any other Hollywood studio to hire her. Infuriating Hughes no end, though, she did work for American producers on projects shot in Europe, where she was winning over audiences in France and Italy. Playing an eighteenth-century fortune teller opposite Gérard Philipe’s swashbuckler in Christian-Jaque’s Fanfan la Tulipe (1952), Lollobrigida was “fetching enough in custom-tailored peasant outfits that no one minded that her voice was dubbed into French by Claire Guibert,” noted Kenneth Turan in 2008. “The French even coined a word to describe her physical type—lollobrigidienne.”

She worked with René Clair on Beauties of the Night (1952), which premiered in competition in Venice, and with Robert Siodmak on the French-Italian drama Flesh and the Woman (1954). At home, where she was affectionately referred to as “La Lollo,” Luigi Comencini’s romantic comedy Bread, Love and Dreams (1954), pairing Lollobrigida with Vittorio De Sica, was a box-office smash and won a Silver Bear in Berlin as well as a BAFTA nomination for Lollobrigida. Her true international breakthrough came later that same year with John Huston’s Beat the Devil, cowritten with Truman Capote, shot in Italy, and costarring Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, and Peter Lorre.

Lollobrigida won the first of three David di Donatello Awards, Italy’s rough equivalent of the Oscars, for her performance as opera soprano Lina Cavalieri in Robert Z. Leonard’s Beautiful but Dangerous (1956) a.k.a. The World’s Most Beautiful Woman, an epithet that stuck. Orson Welles treated her as the queen of all Italian beauties in his half-hour Portrait of Gina (1958), which was intended as the pilot for an American version of Around the World with Orson Welles. ABC rejected it, though, and when Lollobrigida saw Portrait of Gina in Venice in 1986, after it had been lost and rediscovered, she moved to have it banned.

For six months, Lollobrigida trained on a trapeze at home to prepare to appear alongside Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in Carol Reed’s Trapeze (1956). She played Esmeralda to Anthony Quinn’s Quasimodo in Jean Delannoy’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1956), and in 1959, worked with Yves Montand and Marcello Mastroianni in Jules Dassin’s The Law, with Frank Sinatra in John Sturges’s Never So Few, and with Yul Brynner in King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba.

By the 1970s, and with the exception of a few appearances on such American television shows as Falcon Crest and The Love Boat, Lollobrigida was distancing herself from the industry and turning to photography. Anita Gates notes that when Gene Thornton reviewed her 1973 collection Italia Mia for the New York Times, he wrote, “Believe it or not, she takes good pictures and isn’t just trading on her name.” She interviewed Fidel Castro, and in 1999, ran for a seat in the European Parliament—and lost.

In her later years, Lollobrigida withdrew from public life, but as the BBC puts it, she would still on rare occasions “hold court at her huge villa, with its flock of white storks, on Rome's ancient Appian Way. She would glide down her magnificent staircase, bedecked in emeralds, to greet visiting journalists with her young lover.” And what would she tell them? “I am only a film star because the public wanted me to be one.”

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