Gina Lollobrigida was one of the great international sex symbols of postwar cinema.
In its January 1956 issue, Modern Screen magazine reported that:
L’Italienne is downright gorgeous but you can find others just as beautiful. But she is currently the most important international star. Almost single-handed, Gina of the unpronounceable last name has lifted the Italian film industry up to glossy respectability and reasonable solvency.
The “unpronounceable last name” was regularly abbreviated to La Lollo, and a few websites suggest that the frilly red lettuce lollo rosso was named after her tousled coiffure or even her panties – seriously?
The previous year she had played the title role in La donna più bella del mondo (literally, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World but released to English-speaking audiences as Beautiful But Dangerous). It was a sobriquet enthusiastically embraced both by the star herself and by the salivating media.
And before that, in October 1954, Pane, amore e fantasia (Bread, Love and Jealousy) had been the hit of Italian Film Week in London and Gina had been presented to the Queen. It was an early triumph but also a reminder that she had competition. At the premiere she had been rather upstaged by another upwardly mobile actress, Sophia Loren, who had drawn attention with a daringly low-cut gown. Swords had been crossed and the feud continued for decades.
Until the mid-fifties Gina had been seen mostly in Italian films but she was about to star in a series of hit movies made for the US market that would transform her hitherto limited fan base – films like Trapeze (1956), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1956) and Solomon and Sheba (1959).
In a career that stretched from 1946 to 2011, IMDb credits Gina with 69 appearances on screen. While the movies in which she starred vary in quality, they demonstrate her flexibility as an actress, perfectly at home in serious drama, romantic comedy and high farce. Although she was always considered more a sex symbol than a serious actress, she won more than a dozen awards including three for best actress at the David di Donatello awards (Italy’s equivalent of the Oscars).
Gina Lollobrigida is born in 1927, one of four daughters whose father is a furniture maker. Towards the end of World War II, their home is destroyed by Allied air attacks and the family moves to Rome, where they end up living in a single room. Gina would tell the Associated Press in 1994:
I know what it is to be hungry. I know what it is to lose your home. I remember when I had fear. I know what it is to grow up never having a toy.
To get an impression of the poverty and desperation around at the time, you have only to watch Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neorealist film Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves).
After school, Gina has lessons in singing, dancing and drawing. To help pay for these, she does sketches of American GIs and part-time work modelling for comics. And it turns out that there’s another opportunity too. In her own words as reported in La Stampa (a newspaper) in 2001:
I had two directors stop me twice outside of my school and ask if I wanted to be in movies. 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.
Or perhaps not so surprising given her hourglass figure, her sultry looks and the reputation she’s built already for diligently learning her lines and taking her work seriously. Pagliacci – Amore tragico is released in 1948 and she’s on her way to stardom.
Gina Lollobrigida and Milko Skofic
The following year she marries a doctor from Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia) who is helping refugees temporarily being put up at Rome’s Cinecittà film studios. Throughout the fifties, the couple are more or less inseparable, their relationship reported with a mix of enthusiasm and implicit astonishment by various movie magazines such as Modern Screen. This is from an article, Gina Lollobrigida and her backstage husband, which appears in the January 1956 edition:
For eight of her 27 years she’s been married to the same man, Dr. Milko Skofic. They say the Skofics don’t have trouble because the good doctor is so madly jealous he never leaves his glamorous wife’s side long enough for trouble to begin. Well, he’s only in Paris (where Gina’s making Trapeze with Lancaster and Curtis) on week ends but Gina just isn’t interested in anyone but Milko.
Skofic has not yet lived down the decision they both made soon after the marriage. He chose to manage his wife’s career instead of continuing his medical practice. As a foreigner and a refugee he was faced with difficulties in reestablishing himself. But Gina’s star was rising and she needed advice. She still does.
But the marriage gets off to a tricky start.
Howard Hughes and Hollywood
And that tricky start is down to studio boss and arch-womaniser Howard Hughes. Gina catches his famously roving eye – accounts differ as to exactly how – and she’s summoned by him to Hollywood for a screen test. She asks for a pair of tickets so that Milko can go with her but she ends up setting off on her own. It’s possible that’s because he can’t get a US visa but more likely because he’d get in the way of Hughes’ seduction routine. So just the one ticket turns up.
When she arrives Hughes sets her up in a suite at a luxurious hotel on Wilshire Boulevard and arranges an English teacher and a voice coach for her. At this point in her life she knows very little English.
And then he gets down to the real business – embarking on an affair. She’s not allowed out except in his company, of which there’s plenty on offer. Hughes arranges a series of dates, a priority being to avoid any media attention. So they end up eating at cheap diners or even, sometimes, in his car. As part of the entertainment he teaches her to swear.
She gets increasingly frustrated and desperate. After two and a half months of these goings-on and with no movie-making in sight, she agrees to sign a seven-year contract, Hughes’ condition for letting her go home. The terms of the contract all but prevent her from making a film with any other studio in the US. The get-out, such as it is, is that she can star in American films shot outside the US.
That’s handy as the Hollywood studios are beginning to take advantage of the talent and lower production costs available in Europe and particularly at Cinecittà. Beat the Devil (1953) in which she stars opposite Humphrey Bogart is shot in Italy and directed by John Huston. The following year, Gina appears on the front cover of the August 16 issue of TIME magazine
Gina Lollobrigida (pronounced low-low-bridge-id-ah) was in town to make a movie. And who is Gina? Hardly anywhere in the world today except in the U.S., could such a question be asked. In Europe she is the most famous seven syllables since “Come up and see me some time.”
Beat the Devil is the first of a string of English-language films that propel her to megastar status in the US. Indeed such a desirable property that, in an interview quoted in The Scotsman:
When I finally returned to America to do a film with Sinatra, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had to pay $75,000 to Howard Hughes. The Hollywood contracts I had were truly a dream. 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.
During the sixties, Gina stars in one movie after another, many of them romantic comedies, opposite the likes of Ernest Borgnine, Sean Connery and Bob Hope. Most of those films are both unmemorable and lucrative.
Gina Lollobrigida – anything but “the girl next door”
The emergence of Silvana Mangano, Anna Magnani, Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren as major stars prompts a piece in the August 1957 issue of Photoplay magazine titled What has she got that Hollywood hasn’t?:
While there is a great shortage of female stars in Hollywood the dismal truth is that there hasn’t been a major American actress of star calibre to burst on the scene, outside of Kim Novak, since Grace Kelly. Part of the answer seems to be that all the girls who show up in Hollywood these days turn out to be a replica of the girl next door. And about as glamorous. Pigtails and jeans may turn a head or two on Main Street but they don’t cause a stampede at the box office. … In the impact of the foreign stars on the American public, Italy continues to play the biggest role.
Three years earlier, Gina’s arrival in the US was hotly anticipated in an article in the January 1954 edition of Screenland magazine – It’s true what they say about Gina:
Fortunately for 150 million Americans, particularly the masculine half of the population, this tantalizing Roman dish of potent anatomical force, already considered Europe’s Queen of Perfect Pulchritude, will be paying our shores a visit around the first of the year. Luscious new star of the Italian cinema, Gina is probably the most perfectly formed creature Europe has ogled since Aphrodite. Her challenge for the title of Number One International Pin-Up Girl is a formidable one. In the six years since this Roman tidbit was chosen Miss Italy, she has become one of Europe’s biggest box-office attractions. …
There is no question that her extraordinary appeal has also had a profound effect on some of filmdom’s outstanding connoisseurs of female attributes. Errol Flynn, who chose Gina as his leading lady in “Crossed Swords,” had this to say: “What a department store this lovely is! She has everything you could want on every floor, and plenty of overstock, too.” Humphrey Bogart, soon to be seen with Gina and Jennifer Jones in John Huston’s “Beat The Devil,” was overheard muttering these lava-soaked words: “This gal is molten ore. What an ingot! She burns me, burns me, burns me. Look at me, I’m a crisp!” And John Huston himself had this point to make: “In any serious discussion of Gina’s talent, you can’t ignore her bosom. That, my friend, is an extraordinary talent to have and to hold. In fact, every time I recall Gina to mind, I must confess that even her elbows seem to be bosoms.”
The piece goes on to recount how Gina’s male leads reacted to their first encounters with her:
When she first met Bogart and Flynn and John Huston, they did not understand her. They could not see how a woman who, when she was before a camera was a Latin volcano, could, when she was by herself, be so demure. They used to call her Lollofrigida or Lollofrigidaire. But once they found out that she was naturally shy with anyone not her husband, and was not a snob at all, everyone became good friends.
Indeed Humphrey Bogart revises his opinion and memorably observes that “She makes Marilyn Monroe look like Shirley Temple.”
The overt sexism is particularly striking given that the magazine’s readers are predominantly female. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most perceptive analysis of Gina’s appeal to her male fanbase comes from her husband:
She is every man’s ideal come to life. She is the epitome of woman, caught at that moment when her beauty and femininity are at their zenith — rich, full and ripe. Her greatest appeal is with married men. They see in her the wife incarnate, beautiful, ever-appealing, always fertile.
Gina’s second career
With the advent of the 1970s, Gina Lollobrigida’s career as a movie star is petering out and she embarks on a new life. In 1971 she and Milko divorce (they separated in 1966) and she plunges into a second career, reprising the interest in fine arts she gave up to become a star and building on what she learned during her time on sets talking to directors and cinematographers.
Perhaps her most striking achievement is to get an exclusive interview in 1972 with reclusive Cuban revolutionary and prime minister Fidel Castro. She uses this as the basis for Ritratto di Fidel, a short documentary written, directed and produced by herself.
She also turns her hand to photography and sculpture. Italia Mia, published in 1973 is the first of five books of photos, while in 2003 a collection of 38 of her bronze sculptures is exhibited at a number of venues including the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
She still has time to become a voracious collector of glitzy jewellery – opulent creations of gold and precious stones. In 2013, she auctions 23 of her Bulgari gems, worn at landmark moments during her career, at Sotheby’s in Geneva, using the proceeds to donate £3.2 million to stem cell research.
And then there’s the gossip and scandal surrounding her liaisons, many with much younger men. Well, we won’t go down that rabbit hole except to note Gina’s disputed marriage to Spanish businessman Javier Rigau y Rafol, 34 years her junior, whom she originally met at a party in Monte Carlo in 1984.
Want to know more about Gina Lollobrigida?
Gina Lollobrigida died on 16 January 2023 and there are plenty of excellent and informative obituaries, notably in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, The Economist and The Scotsman.