Carlo Ponti

Film producer who discovered Sofia Scicolone - Sophia Loren - and controversially married her


Carlo Fortunato Pietro Ponti, film producer: born Magenta, Italy 11 December 1912; married 1946 Giuliana Fiastri (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1957/1965), 1957/1966 Sophia Loren (two sons); died Geneva 10 January 2007.

Carlo Ponti was one of the most successful producers of the post-war Italian film boom, backing works by directors such as Alberto Lattuada, Federico Fellini and Vittorio De Sica, but there can be no doubt that the most spectacular "production" of his long career was the transformation of Sofia Scicolone from impoverished bit-part actress into Sophia Loren, international film star, iconic embodiment of Italian womanhood and, not irrelevantly, the second Signora Carlo Ponti.

Although they made an incongruous, even comical, couple, with the statuesque Loren towering over the diminutive, balding and bespectacled Ponti, their partnership endured for more than 50 years, surviving not only the inevitable rumours of extra-marital dalliances on both sides, but also the condemnation of the Vatican and occasional brushes with the law.

Unlike his fellow producers Dino De Laurentiis, Goffredo Lombardo and Alberto Grimaldi, who all came from the Naples area, Carlo Ponti was born in the industrial north of Italy, in Magenta, near Milan, in 1912. He was the son of a lawyer and, after receiving a law degree from the University of Milan, began work in his father's practice where he met clients involved in the film industry.

Ponti decided on a change of direction, and his skill at negotiating contracts led to a rapid rise in the business, culminating in 1941 in his first venture as a producer. The film Piccolo mondo antico (Old-Fashioned World), set in Milan and directed by Mario Soldati, made a star of its leading lady, Alida Valli, but its anti-Fascist theme earned Ponti a brief spell in prison. Two years later, Ponti oversaw the directing début of his friend and fellow Milanese Lattuada (who had been assistant director on the Soldati film) when he produced Giacomo l'idealista ("Giacomo the Idealist").

At the end of the Second World War, Ponti joined the Lux production company, where he worked on some of the earliest films of the Neo-Realist school, including Luigi Zampa's Vivere in pace (To Live in Peace, 1947), Pietro Germi's Gioventù perduta (Lost Youth, 1947) and Lattuada's Senza pietà (Without Pity) and Il mulino del Po (The Mill on the River, both 1948). In 1950, having helped launch the career of Gina Lollobrigida, Ponti, by now married, joined forces with De Laurentiis, a fellow Lux employee, to form the production company Ponti-De Laurentiis. The pair were quick to signal their intentions, aping the big business style of Hollywood moguls, while producing films which included comedies featuring the ever-popular Totò, adaptations of Emilio Salgari's swashbuckling pirate yarns, and steamy dramas showcasing the talents of Silvana Mangano (De Laurentiis's wife).

At about this time, Ponti, in his occasional capacity as beauty contest judge, was struck by the charms of a contestant appearing under the name of Sofia Lazzaro, and promptly offered her a screen test, followed by small parts in films such as the Mangano vehicle Anna (1951), directed by Lattuada. The following year, Ponti helped her to win the lead in a film produced by his friend, Goffredo Lombardo, head of production at Titanus; it was Lombardo's inspiration to change his new star's name to Sophia Loren.

In 1954, Ponti and De Laurentiis enjoyed their greatest success with Federico Fellini's La Strada (The Road), featuring Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina, which went on to become the first winner in open competition of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. That year, Ponti cast Loren opposite Quinn in Pietro Francisci's Attila (Attila the Hun) and in a segment of De Sica's L'oro di Napoli (Gold of Naples).

Ponti and De Laurentiis continued their attempts to win a share of the American-dominated foreign market by combining big-budgets and Hollywood stars in such films as Mario Camerini's Ulisse (Ulysses, 1955), with Kirk Douglas, Mangano and Quinn, and a ponderous adaptation of War and Peace (1956), directed by King Vidor and starring Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer, Henry Fonda and Vittorio Gassman.

The two then went their separate ways, with Ponti forming his own Compagnia Cinematografica Champion. In 1957, during a visit to Hollywood, Ponti obtained a Mexican divorce, followed by a marriage by proxy, also in Mexico, to Sophia Loren. With divorce illegal in Italy, the couple were loudly condemned by the Vatican, and Ponti was informed by the Italian authorities that he would face charges of bigamy should he return home, while Loren would be charged with "concubinage". Ponti stayed in America, co-producing Loren's Hollywood films and ensuring that she became Italy's best-known cinematic export, despite the fact that most of her films were box-office failures.

In 1960, the Pontis negotiated a return to Italy to make La ciociara (Two Women), directed by Vittorio De Sica, but, during the shooting, the couple were summoned to appear before the public prosecutor. Both denied being married, which, in Italy at any rate, was technically true, and the case was adjourned. De Sica, who enjoyed a special rapport with Loren, coaxed a career-best performance from his star which duly won her the Academy Award for Best Actress the following year, the first for a role in a foreign-language film.

Now based in Paris, Ponti produced a number of films for such directors of the nouvelle vague as Jacques Demy, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol, while teaming his wife with Marcello Mastroianni in the hugely popular comedies Ieri, oggi, domani (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, 1963) and Matrimonio all'italiana (Marriage - Italian Style, 1964), both directed by De Sica.

In 1965, Ponti scored his greatest success with David Lean's blockbuster adaptation of Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago. The film, though frequently cumbersome and unconvincing, survived poor initial reviews to become a major box-office hit and to collect five Academy Awards. Also in 1965, the Pontis solved their marital and legal difficulties by taking out French citizenship. Ponti's first wife obtained a divorce, leaving Ponti and Loren free to marry in Paris the following year.

Professionally, Ponti enjoyed mixed fortunes for the remainder of the 1960s: the success of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-up (1966) being balanced out by the resounding disaster that was De Sica's Amanti (A Place for Lovers, 1968). Ponti and De Sica fared better, at least in Europe, when reuniting Loren and Mastroianni in 1969 for I girasoli (Sunflower), while Dino Risi's La moglie del prete (The Priest's Wife, 1971), again with Loren and Mastroianni, proved as popular with Italian audiences as it was unpopular with the Vatican.

Following a couple of violent thrillers directed by Sergio Martino, Ponti paired Loren with Richard Burton in what would prove to be De Sica's last film. When the director was diagnosed with lung cancer, Ponti insisted on paying his medical expenses and retaining him as director. The resulting film, Il viaggio (The Voyage, 1974), was an embarrassment for all concerned, but, when De Sica died at the end of the year, it was Ponti who paid for his funeral, an acknowledgement of his contribution to Loren's career, as well as his pivotal role in Italian cinema.

In 1975, during what Italians term the anni di piombo ("years of lead"), Ponti survived a kidnapping attempt when his car was ambushed and riddled with bullets on the Appian Way. A second attempt later in the year was also foiled. In 1977, Ponti's villa and offices were raided by police, and the following year a warrant was issued for his arrest on charges of currency smuggling and the illegal possession of archaeological artefacts. Tried in absentia in 1979, Ponti was found guilty and sentenced to four years' penal servitude and fined 22 billion lire (some £12.5m). After much legal manoeuvring (and rumours of a deal with the government), Ponti was finally cleared in 1990, regaining possession of both his villa and his art collection, which had been seized 12 years previously.

By 1980, Ponti had effectively retired from film production, leaving the day-to-day running of his affairs to Alex, his son from his first marriage. That year, Loren appeared as herself in the television movie Sophia Loren: her own story, in which Ponti was played by Rip Torn. Amateur psychologists were amused to note that Torn was tall, in possession of a full head of hair and free of spectacles.

John Exshaw

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