Anita Ekberg, the Swedish-born actress best remembered for her overflowing decolletage, sultry ice-blond looks and her sensual dip in the Trevi Fountain in Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece of hedonistic Rome, “La Dolce Vita,” died Jan. 11 in Rome. She was 83.
Her attorney confirmed the death but did not cite a specific cause. The actress had been in failing health for years, reportedly after breaking a hip when one of her pet Great Danes knocked her down.
A former Miss Sweden at 20, Ms. Ekberg lost the Miss Universe contest but won a screen contract at Universal Pictures in Hollywood. She was used as cantilevered decoration in a series of comedies such as “Abbott and Costello Go to Mars” (1953) and “Hollywood or Bust” (1956), a Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin comedy where she may well have been the “bust” of the title.
Her whispery voice and phonetic acting style did not help her advance far beyond sex-goddess roles, but there were rare exceptions. She played Henry Fonda’s adulterous wife in a 1956 adaptation of “War and Peace.” She also appeared — if rather unconvincingly — as a Chinese woman in “Blood Alley” (1955), a John Wayne adventure film.
Then it was back to fare like “Screaming Mimi” (1958) and “Sheba and the Gladiator” (1959) before Fellini rescued her from almost certain obscurity when he cast her in “La Dolce Vita.”
In that film, she played an actress described as the “most wonderful woman created since the beginning of time.” She becomes a fantasy figure — so voluptuous, so elusive — to a pleasure-seeking tabloid journalist played by Marcello Mastroianni.
One of the movie’s most enduring scenes showed her swanning through Rome’s darkened streets, then wading in a strapless dress into the Trevi Fountain as if it were a private bath. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther said Ms. Ekberg played the role “with surprising personality and punch.”
As one of the most revered films in Fellini’s canon, “La Dolce Vita” cemented Ms. Ekberg as one of the screen’s reigning sex goddesses, even if she did not do much of note afterward. She was known mostly for her cheesecake pin-ups and for well-publicized romances. Her conquests were said to have included Frank Sinatra, Tyrone Power, Yul Brynner and Rod Taylor.
If her screen legacy was heavily dependent of the Fellini film, Ms. Ekberg did not disguise her dislike of making the movie. The Trevi Fountain scene, she said, was shot on a frigid March morning.
“I was freezing,” Ms. Ekberg later said. “They had to lift me out of the water because I couldn’t feel my legs anymore.”
Mastroianni wore a wet suit under his clothes, but he fortified himself with a bottle of vodka, causing him to fall down more than a few times and cause delays.
The film’s depiction of the paparazzi swarming around the Via Veneto converged with reality offscreen. A photographer named Felice Quinto snapped Ms. Ekberg in 1960 kissing a married producer at a Rome nightclub and then continued to follow her to her home.
Ms. Ekberg emerged with a bow and arrow. One arrow struck Quinto in the hand. She then kneed the incapacitated and shocked photographer in the groin. He still managed to sell his pictures to tabloids the world over — a testament to Ms. Ekberg’s allure and prominence at the time.
Kerstin Anita Marianne Ekberg was born in Malmo, Sweden, on Sept. 29, 1931. She was the sixth of eight children. Her upbringing was strict, she recalled, and she left home as soon as she could, finding work in modeling.
Her marriages to actors Anthony Steel and Rik Van Nutter, the latter known for playing CIA agent Felix Leiter in the James Bond film “Thunderball” (1965), ended in divorce. Ms. Ekberg was a candidate to play Honey Rider in the first Bond film, “Dr. No” (1962), but she lost out to Ursula Andress.
Ms. Ekberg’s career quickly wound down, a victim of her tempestuous reputation and her limited range. But she worked three more times with Fellini. In “Boccaccio ’70” (1962), she played a gigantic billboard model who comes to life and taunts a prudish man. She also appeared as herself in “The Clowns” (1970), in which she is depicted shopping for a live panther, and in “Intervista” (1987).
In her later years, Ms. Ekberg was in dire financial straits and crumbling health — a far cry from the eternal party girl who had once declared, “I don’t know if paradise or hell exist, but I’m sure hell is more groovy.”