Oscars flashback: Sophia Loren made Academy Awards history with her 1962 Best Actress win

Sophia Loren is generating red-hot Oscar buzz for her performance in Netflix’s Italian-language drama “The Life Ahead.” The screen legend has earned some of the best reviews of her seven-decade career for her heartbreaking performance as a former prostitute and Holocaust survivor who takes care of children of streetwalkers.

Loren made Oscar history 59 years ago when she became the first performer to receive an Academy Award for a foreign-language film. She took home Best Actress for Vittorio DeSica’s harrowing World War II drama “Two Women,” which was also in Italian. Loren, who also starred with Charlton Heston that year in the lavish epic “El Cid,” had very strong competition when the Oscar nominations were announced in the winter of 1962.

Natalie Wood, who had received a Supporting Actress nomination as a teenager for 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause,” gave an extraordinary performance as a sensitive teenager living in Kansas during the 1920s who falls in love for the first time in Elia Kazan’s “Splendor in the Grass.”

Geraldine Page earned her third Oscar nomination (and second in the Best Actress category, for her haunting turn as a reserved young woman who falls in love for a hedonistic young doctor (Laurence Harvey), in the adaptation of the Tennessee Williams’ play, “Summer and Smoke.”

Audrey Hepburn, who won the Best Actress Oscar for 1953’s “Roman Holiday,” earned her fourth nomination in the category for her complex, iconic performance as Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

And Piper Laurie, who began her career in the early 50s in ingenue roles at Universal, earned her first Oscar nomination for her stark portrayal as an alcoholic with a limp who falls for the pool shark Fast Eddie (Paul Newman) in “The Hustler.”

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Perhaps some were surprised at Loren’s nomination. Afterall, she began her career as the latest Italian statuesque sex symbol with an hourglass figure. But Loren quickly proved she was more than just a 38-24-38 figure when she teamed up the director who would be her mentor, DeSica, for 1954’s “The Gold of Naples.”

Though her first two English-language films — 1957’s “Boy on a Dolphin” and “The Pride and the Passion” — played up her beauty, Loren earned good reviews for her 1958 romantic comedy “Houseboat” with her “Pride” co-star Cary Grant. (He accepted the Oscar on her behalf.) And she earned her first Golden Globe nomination for another enjoyable romantic comedy, 1960’s “It Started in Naples,” which was Clark Gable’s penultimate film.

Though Loren had doubts abouot playing the widowed shopkeeper with a young teenager daughter who flee Rome after the Allied bombing in “Two Women,” DeSica knew she had the chops to bring the role to tragic life.  After all, Loren had grown up poor in a single parent home outside of Naples and endured and survived the devastation of World War II.

In his review of 1977’s “A Special Day,” the New York Times Vincent Canby discussed how “Two Women” changed Loren’s career noting it was “the film that forever separated her from the mob, and so opened our eyes that never again did we look upon her work, even in bad films, as perfunctory. ” He recalled seeing it for the first time at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival, where she won best actress, that in the “rarefied atmosphere” of the festival, the drama was “a revelation of truth, but more than that, Miss Loren’s performance was astounding. The audience watched the neo-realistic movie with the sort of pleasurable excitement that might have thought unseemly when connected with the tragic events on the screen. The excitement, though, had to do with what the actress was accomplishing on the screen.” Besides the Oscar and the Cannes honors, Loren also won the BAFTA and New York Film Critics Award for “Two Women.”

Loren wasn’t the only foreign-language nominee or winner at the 34th annual Academy Awards. The academy had been embracing foreign language productions since the end of World War II and created the foreign language film category at the 29th annual Oscars; the first award went to Federico Fellini’s “La Strada.”

Fellini numbered among the foreign-language nominees in 1962 with a Best Director for “La Dolce Vita” (he lost to Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins for “West Side Story”).  “La Dolce Vita” also contended for original screenplay, art direction and costume design (black-and-white).

Two of the other five nominees for original screenplay were foreign films-  another Italian film, “General Della Rovere,” and “Ballad of a Soldier” from the USSR. Inge won for “Splendor in the Grass” with the fifth nomination going to the Rock HudsonDoris Day comedy “Lover Come Back.”

The legendary Dimitri Shostakovich received an Oscar nomination for scoring of a musical picture for the Soviet film “Khovanshchina.”

The Documentary Feature award went to France’s “Sky Above and Mud Below.”  And Best Animated Short was “Ersatz (The Substitute)” from the former Yugoslavia.

Oscars 2021 Best Actress predictions

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