Gina Lollobrigida was one of the last stars of the golden age of Hollywood, appearing with such legendary names as Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and Rock Hudson. But her youthful dream was to become an artist and she said she ended up as an actress “by mistake”.
Movies might have seemed an obvious route out of poverty for someone who was part of a family living in a single room in Rome after Italy’s defeat in the Second World War and who would later be dubbed “the most beautiful woman in the world”.
“I had two directors stop me twice outside of my school and ask if I wanted to be in movies,” she told La Stampa newspaper in 2001. "Curiosity led me to make appearances in two or three films. Then when I was offered the lead role in Love of a Clown [based on the opera Pagliacci] I absolutely refused.
“My final strategy for getting them to leave me alone was to ask to be paid one million [lire], which was a lot compared to the 1,000 I earned for secondary roles. I thought this would be enough to discourage anyone. To my great surprise they accepted and this is how I began my cinema career.”
Hollywood came calling and she wound up under personal contract to Howard Hughes. Her Italian heritage and looks were well suited to the historical epics of the day, including the sword-and-sandal epics for which Rome was very much a centre.
Her career in English-language films took off after she played Bogart’s wife in the 1953 adventure film Beat the Devil, which was shot in Italy. But she was subsequently overshadowed in the public eye and producers’ eyes by the arrival of another Italian beauty – Sophia Loren, who was seven years her junior and never far from celebrity news and gossip columns, some of which pertained to their long-standing feud. Lollobrigida claimed Loren only got her chance in movies when Lollobrigida turned down a role.
Lollobrigida more or less retired from acting half a century ago, while in her mid-forties, to pursue her earlier dream of becoming a sculptor, making life-size bronzes at her studio in Tuscany.
She was born Luigia Lollobrigida in the town of Subiaco in the Lazio region in 1927. Her father’s furniture business was literally destroyed by Allied bombing. Her family scrimped and saved to pay her fees at art school. However, in her late teens she began getting small roles in several Italian films, including a version of Lucia di Lammermoor, the opera based on the Sir Walter Scott novel.
She was a major star in Italy before she made her Hollywood debut. The romantic comedy Pane, Amore e Fantasia (Bread, Love and Dreams) was a huge box-office and critical hit. Billionaire Hughes became besotted after saw publicity shots, flew her out to California and put her under contract. “He was more interested in me as a woman than as an actress,” she said.
She was already married and determined to return to Italy. Her husband, Milko Skofic, was a doctor who helped refugees who had been housed temporarily at the Cinecitta film studios in Rome. It was not a happy marriage and they divorced in the early 1970s. She is survived by their son.
She revealed she had been raped by a Lazio footballer when she was 18 and she reputedly had an affair with Fidel Castro. In recent times she claimed a much younger boyfriend had concocted a complicated scheme to pretend they had married so he could claim her money, though she later conceded she may have agreed to a proxy marriage without realising what she was signing.
Beat the Devil shot in English, though Lollobrigida was dubbed. But then so was Bogart. He had recently lost several teeth in a car accident and, while adjusting to replacements, was dubbed by a little-known actor with a talent for mimicry named Peter Sellers.
Lollobrigida starred in several more big Hollywood films shot in Europe in the 1950s. She co-starred with Burt Lancaster in Trapeze, was Esmerelda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Anthony Quinn, and the Queen of Sheba to Yul Brynner’s Solomon in Solomon & Sheba. By that time she could actually negotiate a percentage of the profits.
“When I finally returned to America to do a film with [Frank] Sinatra, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had to pay $75,000 to Howard Hughes,” she said. But she refused to relocate to the US. “The Hollywood contracts I had were truly a dream,” she said. “They gave me everything I wanted. I had approval of the cast, the director, the producer, and I got quite a significant percentage of overall earnings. When I went to do a film, I’d take my husband, my son, my nanny, my seamstress, my hairdresser, and my ‘lady-in-waiting’, a French countess who helped me perfect languages.”
At the end of the 1960s her wealth enabled Lollobrigida to turn her back on film stardom and take a chance on developing a second career as a photographer. She was able to secure photo sessions with stars, including Audrey Hepburn and Paul Newman. She also shot Salvador Dali and Henry Kissinger. Then came her sculpture work.
In recent times there were doubts over her mental faculties. Last year a court appointed a guardian to look after her finances, though she stood in Italy’s general election for a Eurosceptic party. She polled just one per cent of the vote.
But it is as a young woman that she will be remembered. She played the title role in the 1955 Italian film The World’s Most Beautiful Woman. It was a title seized on by the media and one Lollobrigida herself was more than happy to adopt.
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