Though La Dolce Vita is a flawed film, plotless, rambling and self-indulgent, it was a huge success that came to define the wild and carefree days of the early 1960s. The modern world was upon us, and it was symbolised by one image more than any other: Anita Ekberg in a little black dress standing in the Trevi fountain shouting out to Marcello Mastroianni.
In the film Mastroianni plays a playboy and gossip columnist living a life of drunken parties. When his girlfriend kills herself he consoles himself in the arms of a Swedish film star, which is where Ekberg came in. Sylvia, like her, is a sex symbol hounded by the paparazzi, who travels with a large entourage that includes a bitter, drunken husband. In 2005 she recalled shooting the fountain scene: it was February, the water was cold and Mastroianni was falling over, drunk on vodka. “I was freezing,” she said. “They had to lift me out of the water because I couldn’t feel my legs any more.”
She was born in 1931 in Malmo, the sixth of eight children; her father was a blue-collar worker. She became a beauty queen, winning the Miss Sweden competition after being spotted on the street by competition organisers.
That resulted in a trip to the US for Miss Universe in 1951, and although she didn’t win her looks were enough to win her a film contract with Universal. Although she wasn’t especially interested in the acting classes they offered, she did win a series of minor roles with other studios, as well as becoming an in-demand pin-up in the new breed of men’s magazines, and a regular on chat shows.
Then came what was effectively her big break: in 1955 Time published a report on “Sin and Sweden”, and seized on Ekberg as a symbol of what it saw as the new, liberated Scandinavian sexual ethos. Her roles improved correspondingly. In the second half of the decade Hollywood was hit by a financial crisis, and several productions decamped to Rome’s Cinecitta studios: wages were lower, the stars could avoid US taxes and the Eternal City was known for a while as “Hollywood on the Tiber”.
Ekberg went over to play Helene Kuragin, the unfaithful wife of Pierre (Henry Fonda) in King Vidor’s adaptation of War and Peace (1956), and went on to portray Zenobia, Queen of Palmira, who revolts against Rome, in Sheba and the Gladiator (1959). In the interim came Zarak (1956), with Victor Mature as an Indian brigand and Ekberg with a ruby in her navel.
In 1955 she met the hard-drinking British actor Anthony Steel at a premiere. They were married the following year in Florence. (They were divorced four years later, and in 1963 she married another B-movie actor Rik van Nutter, but that marriage also failed. Ekberg had a string of high-profile lovers, including Gary Cooper and Gianni Agnelli.
With Steel she became a fixture of Rome’s party set (“I was completely mashed by paparazzi,” she recalled. “And the public.”) Fellini drew heavily on their relationship for La Dolce Vita – the fight Mastroianni
When Fellini first saw Ekberg, he experienced, he said, “the incredulity one has before creatures of exceptional height, like the giraffe or the elephant.” He offered her a part in La Dolce Vita before the script was written, essentially to play an onscreen version of herself, Sylvia. (Mastroianni said she reminded him of a Nazi soldier who had arrested him during the war.) “I didn’t speak Italian and he didn’t speak English at that time,” she said of Fellini. “We communicated by looking at each other. It was most amazing.”
In truth Sylvia was the only decent role of a long career – she latterly confined herself to giving slightly sour interviews – though she scored with Fellini again in his tranche of the 1962 portmanteau comedy Boccaccio ’70, in which she played a 20ft version of herself with a terrifyingly enormous cleavage, stepping down off a hoarding advertising milk.
She appeared the following year with the first Bond girl, Ursula Andress, opposite Dean Martin again, in the ill-regarded western 4 for Texas (1963), and the same year she became something of a Bond girl in her own right in From Russia With Love: 007 shoots a hitman as he appears through Ekberg’s mouth in a giant advertising hoarding. “She should have kept her mouth shut,” Sean Connery’s Bond quips.
As it was for Fellini, Ekberg’s career became largely a case of diminishing returns. She mostly stayed in Italy, appearing in dozens of instantly forgettable films. She worked for Fellini on two more occasions: the 1970 piece for TV, Clowns, part fantasy, part documentary”, and in 1987 Intervista, in which Fellini takes Mastroianni to Ekberg’s villa and the pair watch themselves in La Dolce Vita.
She had been in a wheelchair for a few years after she was knocked over by one of her Great Danes, and had been in hospital since Christmas following a series of illnesses. One of the things that helped make her name remained, however. I’m very proud of my breasts, as every woman should be,” she once said. “It’s not cellular obesity, it’s womanliness.” And as for the film that shot her to enduring stardom, she was very definite. “It was I who made Fellini, not the other way around,” she said.
Kerstin Anita Marianne Ekberg, model and actress: born Malmö, Sweden 29 September 1931; married 1956 Anthony Steel (divorced 1959), 1963 Rik Van Nutter (divorced 1975); died Rocca di Papa, Italy 11 January 2015.
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