The voluptuous Sophia Loren was among the most successful international stars of the postwar era; not only did she rise to fame as a sex symbol, but she also won a measure of critical acclaim rarely afforded most of her foreign-born contemporaries. Born Sofia Scicolone in Rome on September 20, 1934, she and her single mother lived in abject poverty in the war-torn slums of Naples. At the age of 14, she began entering area beauty contests, later becoming a model and appearing in a number of uncredited bit parts in films. After winning a beauty contest in Rome, Loren was signed to a film contract by producer Carlo Ponti, who began grooming her for stardom by recruiting drama coaches and casting her in small movie roles, including an appearance in the 1951 smash Anna, under the name "Sofia Lazzaro." For 1952's La Favorita, her first larger role, Ponti changed her name to Sophia Loren, and with the following year's La Tratta Delle Bianche, she earned third billing after Silvana Pampanini and Eleanora Rossi-Drago.
By the mid-'50s, Loren was a star in Italy as well as a major sex symbol, but with the exception of 1955's Attila Flagello di Dio, co-starring Anthony Quinn, few of her pictures were distributed internationally. That changed with Vittorio de Sica's L'Oro di Napoli, which was recut and dubbed for foreign sale, resulting in poor reviews. Loren, however, was singled out for the strength of her performance as a Neapolitan shopkeeper, surprising many critics who had dismissed her as merely another bombshell. As a result, 1955's La Donna del Fiume was distributed in both the U.S. and Britain, as were a number of other subsequent projects. Eventually, Loren emerged as an international star, and Ponti soon declared her ready for Hollywood. She moved tentatively into the English-language market with a pair of films shot in Europe, 1957's Boy on a Dolphin (in which she appeared opposite Alan Ladd) and The Pride and the Passion (starring Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant).
In 1957, Loren and Ponti were wed in Mexico. Their marriage was a national scandal in the predominantly Catholic Italy because Ponti had already been married once before. A series of legal complications ensued -- one prominent Italian Catholic magazine even instructed readers to boycott Loren's movies. In the meantime, Ponti orchestrated with Paramount a four-film contract for Loren's services, beginning with 1958's Desire Under the Elms. In Hollywood, her acting skills blossomed, and she won Best Actress honors at the 1959 Venice Film Festival for her work in Martin Ritt's drama The Black Orchid. However, she proved unable to draw audiences, a situation which her next film, George Cukor's idiosyncratic Western Heller in Pink Tights, failed to remedy. The 1960 romantic comedy It Started in Naples (with Clark Gable) was Loren's commercial breakthrough, but Paramount had lost faith in her star power and cut her loose. She next traveled to Britain to film Anthony Asquith's The Millionairess.
Upon returning to Italy, Loren reunited with de Sica in 1961's La Ciociara, a wartime drama in which she starred as a widowed mother caught in a love triangle with her teen daughter (Eleanora Brown) and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Climaxed by a brutal rape scene, the film won widespread acclaim, and Loren's gut-wrenching performance earned her an Academy Award, the first foreign-language performer to win the Best Actress prize. She was also so honored at the Cannes Film Festival. She next shot 1961's El Cid in Spain with Charlton Heston, followed by the de Sica episode of the anthology Boccaccio '70. On the strength of her Oscar win, she also returned to English-language fare with 1963's Five Miles to Midnight, followed a year later by The Fall of the Roman Empire. Again her success was minimal, and she went back to the relative comforts of the Italian film industry for Ieri, Oggi, Domani and Matrimonio all'Italiana, both directed by de Sica and both co-starring Marcello Mastroianni.
In 1965, Ponti signed a production deal with MGM; a small role for Loren in Operation Crossbow and a larger part in Lady L were the results, followed by a series of films which cast her variously as a Jewish wife (1966's Judith), an Arab mistress (1966's Arabesque), and a former Russian prostitute (A Countess From Hong Kong). None of these projects were well received, however, and after the failure of the fairy tale C'era una Volta and Questi Fantasmi, the Ponti/MGM deal ended unceremoniously. Despite her recent lack of success, Loren nevertheless remained a major talent, and in 1969 she even won a Golden Globe award as the world's most popular female star. Still, her popularity was not reflected by her box-office totals; projects like de Sica's 1970 picture I Girasoli and 1971's La Moglie del Prete performed well in Italy but played disastrously virtually everywhere else. Another return to Hollywood to appear in the musical The Man of La Mancha was also met with an icy reception.
Loren spent the majority of the mid-'70s exclusively in Italy, starring in de Sica's Il Viaggio and reuniting with Mastroianni in 1975's La Pupa del Gangster. When a dubbed version of 1977's Una Giornata Particolare found favor with American audiences, Hollywood again came calling, resulting in a pair of thrillers, 1978's The Brass Target and the next year's Firepower. Also in 1979, Loren penned her autobiography, Sophia -- Living and Loving: Her Own Story, and in 1980 played herself in a TV-movie based on the book. She did not reappear before the cameras for another four years, instead writing a beauty book and launching a perfume named in her honor. In the wake of 1984's Qualcosa di Biondo she appeared onscreen rarely, teaming with Mastroianni one last time in Robert Altman's 1994 film Ready to Wear (Pret-a-Porter) and making a successful return to Hollywood filmmaking with the 1996 hit comedy Grumpier Old Men. In 1997, she collaborated with director Roger Hanin on the docudrama Soleil, co-starring Phillippe Noiret. In honor of her lengthy career, Sophia Loren was also the recipient of a special Oscar in 1991. Though film roles were few and far between into the 2000s, Loren proved she still had movie star charisma with a role in Chicago director Rob Marshall's Nine -- a lavish tribute to all things Italian.