APPARENTLY, THESE two books about Sophia Loren are going to come out at roughly the same time, the one by A. E. Hotchner having been put together purportedly in Sophia's own voice (it's told in the first person) after four months of intensive daily interviews, the other by Alan Levy based on having "visited" Sophia "nine different times."
The jacket copy of the Hotchner book promises to reveal how Sophia "overcame the ravages of war, the rebuffs of Rome's movie people, the fury of the Catholic Church and criminal prosecution for adultery and public sinning. There was agony, too, in the choice of a husband between Cary Grant and Carlo Ponti. Her incredible fight to have a child was frustrated by miscarriages and enormous physical and emotional suffering."
So what else do you want? Well, what I wanted was more colloquial flavor of Sophia Loren talking. To me, the Hotchner book reads as if it's written by a writer, and furthermore a writer for whom English is the mother tongue. Take Chapter One, sentence one: "We were only ten minutes out of Paris when the plane hit a stone wall, rocked violently, and fell interminably before righting itself." If Sophia really sounds like that, then I apologize.
Still, hers is a fabulous soap opera, the tale of an illegitimate urchin from the slums of Pozzuoli, sleeping four in a bed with relatives, starved into stealing food during the war, and so careerimpelled by an ambitious mother that she was banged on the head every time she made a mistake while practicing the piano.
By the age of 14, skinny Sophia had bloomed (a teacher proposed marriage; Sophia's mother advised him to go home and take a cold bath), and she was still a teenager when she became involved with Carlo Ponti, the movie producer. Her mother wailed ("'He's a married man with two children, he's twenty years older than you, and you will have nothing but heartache. You want heartache?'") but Sophia didn't care. "Of course he was still living with his wife and children but my feelings were too strong now to be deterred by Pozzuoli's morals or anyone else's. I needed love."
Organ sting, as they used to say in daytime TV. Even when Sophia and Ponti were legally married in France "after eight years of struggle and abuse," her mother remained gloomy. "'Not in white, and not in the Church,'" she said.
Sophia is interesting on the subject of Marcello Mastroianni, and touching on the subject of the late Vittorio de Sica. (Once when she was grieving over the theft of some jewels, De Sica stopped her weeping. "'We're a couple of penniless Neapolitans who have struck it rich... and if there is one great truth I have learned about life, it is this: Never cry over anything that can't cry over you.'")
Sophia didn't enjoy being directed by George Cukor ("He made me mimic his intonations, his gestures, his facial expressions, even his eye movements, every day on the set was a nightmare"), and she offers opinions about Marilyn Monroe (whom she never met) and Richard Burton, who used the Ponti guesthouse during one of his drying-out periods, and she explains her love of film acting ("I kick away my self-consciousness and I feel liberated, uninhibited, even reckless") and documents her strong family feeling, not only for mother, sister, husband, children, but even for the father who'd abandoned her.
In my opinion, Hotchner allows his star an excess of self-congratulation. He has her saying Cary Grant "had learned something from me, young as I was, about simple humanity," not to mention, "My nature is to give and be involved, without a thought to receiving anything for myself," which are the kinds of things that sound better if they come from a third person. For the same reason, Sophia might have been better served if she hadn't been encouraged to repeat the soft soap of the great no matter how lathered up she'd got about it. ("Noel [Coward] subsequently announced, 'Sophia should have been sculpted in chocolate truffles so the world could have devoured her.' I have never been more flattered.")
Nevertheless, if you admire the big, beautiful, vibrant Loren, Hotchner's manual, flaws and all, can't help but interest you.
As for the volume by Alan Levy, which covers most of the same ground, it will be a dollar cheaper, and isn't "authorized," a fact Levy claims as an advantage. "As is not the case with any first-person autobiography of Sophia, nothing in Forever, Sophia has been censored by Mr. and Mrs. Ponti or anyone else."
There's a bit too much about Levy and his wife and kiddies in the book, a bit of a feeling that Levy chased the movie star from pillar to post trying to get himself invited to supper (when Sophia was quartered in Austria, making a movie, the Vienna-based Levy "offered to come over with the family on Saturday or Sunday"), but for the most part, his opus is entertaining.
Levy doesn't believe Sophia loved Cary Grant ("Sophia treated Cary's crush lightly"). He goes into more detail than does Hotchner about the famous Ponti villa with its fountains, gardens, frescoes; he quotes from old -- and often amusing -- sources, not just magazine articles but a previous Loren biography by a man named Donald Zed; and he repeats one of the few unflattering descriptions of Sophia ever uttered by a co-star. Alan Ladd said working with her was "like being bombed by watermelons."
Sophia, says Levy, is afraid of oysters and mussels -- "You can get hepatitis from both of them" -- but she isn't scared of wrinkles. "What can you do about age?" she says. "It's a condition, not a privilege."
To know the lady -- even through books -- is a lot of fun.