Italy was mourning the death of one of its greatest film producers yesterday. Carlo Ponti, the man who plucked Sophia Loren from obscurity, married her and made her a huge star, died on Tuesday night at a hospital in Geneva at the age of 94. He had suffered a brief illness.
It was in 1950, during a contest to find Italy's "Miss Eleganza" in which he was participating as a judge, that the producer's eye fell on the ingenuous young beauty from the slums of Naples, then only 15. They promptly fell in love, but the legal complications of their liaison pursued them for nearly 20 years.
Ponti was already separated from his first wife, but Italian law did not in those days allow divorce, and when he married her in Mexico he was accused of bigamy. In the end, all three of them had to adopt French citizenship, allowing Ponti to get divorced and then remarry. Embittered, they turned their backs on Italy.
Ironically, Ponti and Loren have ever since been a byword in Italy for conjugal fidelity and happiness, producing two sons, Carlo Jnr and Edoardo. The family was gathered around Ponti's bedside at his death.
Ponti was more than 20 years older than Loren and they made an odd couple, she several inches taller than him and peerlessly glamorous; he grey, balding, tubby and increasingly nondescript in appearance. She continued to bloom decade after decade, and recently starred in the latest edition of the Pirelli calendar wearing next to nothing and still looking remarkable.
Yet if Ponti appeared to be overshadowed by his wife, according to Rome's La Repubblica newspaper in reality it was she who reclined in the "affectionate and constant shade" provided by her astute and decisive husband.
Ponti graduated in Law from Milan University and went into films directly afterwards, becoming one of the key producers during the golden age of Italian cinema. His internationally famous films include the early Fellini masterpiece La Strada, Marriage Italian Style, Blow-up and Dr Zhivago. He had strong views about the sort of films he wanted to produce, which led to dramatic rows with his fellow producer Dino De Laurentis and the director Vittorio De Sica. "I make pictures, not deals", he insisted.
The big break he gave Loren was also controversial. As Franco Zeffirelli tells the story, Alberto Moravia sold Ponti the rights to his novel La Ciociara, translated as Two Women, on the understanding that Ponti would cast the great Italian actress Anna Magnani in the lead. Ponti did so, but Magnani objected to Loren playing the role of her daughter. Ponti, however got his way and his lover's career was launched.
Italy's Culture minister, Francesco Rutelli, said Ponti's death "marks the end of an era, because Ponti represented the great, courageous drive for innovation. He promoted unforgettable talents and achieved extraordinary success. I would like the flag of Italian cinema to fly at half mast."Reuse content