Though she rose to fame thanks largely to her looks, Italian superstar Sophia Loren more than proved her acting chops with a series of international hits and an Oscar win for Best Actress. But how many of her titles remain classics? Let’s take a look back at 15 of her greatest films, ranked worst to best.
Born in 1934 in Rome, Loren began appearing in films both in her native Italy and in Hollywood, popping up in several titles that played more to her incredible beauty than her acting chops. That all changed with “Two Women” (1961), a stirring drama from Italian neorealist Vittoria De Sica that cast her as a mother protecting her daughter from the horrors of World War II. The role brought her international acclaim and Oscar, BAFTA and Cannes Film Festival victories as Best Actress, making her the first performer in a foreign language film to win at the Academy. She earned additional Oscar and Golden Globe bids for De Sica’s “Marriage Italian Style” (1964), which cast her opposite frequent leading man Marcello Mastroianni.
Though her cinematic output grew sparser after she started a family with producer and husband Carlo Ponti, Loren did pop up in films from time to time, earning a Golden Globe bid for her supporting performance in Robert Altman‘s “Ready to Wear” (“Pret-a-Porter”) in 1994 and a SAG Ensemble nomination for Rob Marshall‘s “Nine” (2009). She won a Grammy in 2004 for the spoken word children’s album for “Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf,” plus an Honorary Oscar in 1991. She earned an additional Golden Globe bid for her leading performance in “It Started in Naples” (1960).
Tour our photo gallery of Loren’s greatest films, including some of the titles listed above, as well as “El Cid” (1961), “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (1963), “A Special Day” (1977) and more.
15. NINE (2009)
Directed by Rob Marshall. Screenplay by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella, based on the musical by Arthur Kopit. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Fergie, Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren.
In adapting “Nine” for the screen, Rob Marshall remains as faithful to the Tony Award-winning show as possible, proving it perhaps should’ve stayed on the stage. Loosely based on Federico Fellini’s dreamy, surreal “8 1/2,” it centers on an Italian director (Daniel Day-Lewis) struggling to complete his latest film. He finds inspiration from the various women in his life, including his mother (Loren in her final big screen role), his mistress (Supporting Actress Oscar-nominee Penelope Cruz), his wife (Marion Cotillard) and his muse (Nicole Kidman). The movie brought Loren her sole SAG nomination as part of its ensemble.
14. GRUMPIER OLD MEN (1995)
Directed by Howard Deutch. Written by Mark Steven Johnson. Starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ann-Margret, Sophia Loren, Kevin Pollak, Daryl Hannah.
If you thought that Max (Walter Matthau) and John (Jack Lemmon) would be any less grumpy with the passage of time, you’ve got another thing coming. A followup to the surprise box office hit about a pair of crotchety neighbors feuding over a woman (Ann-Margret), “Grumpier Old Men” finds the duo trying to save their beloved bait shop from being turned into an Italian restaurant. Only trouble is, the beautiful owner (Loren) has caught Max’s eye. Though it’s little more than a tired retread of the original, you can’t go wrong watching cinema’s favorite odd couple go toe-to-toe yet again.
13. BLACK ORCHID (1959)
Directed by Martin Ritt. Written by Joseph Stefano. Starring Sophia Loren, Anthony Quinn, Peter Mark Richman, Virginia Vincent, Frank Puglia, Jimmy Baird, Naomi Stevens, Whit Bissell, Ina Balin.
“The Black Orchid” is about as unsubtle a melodrama as you could possibly expect, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. Loren stars as a florist whose lavish lifestyle forces her husband into a life of crime, leading to his death at the hands of a famous gangster. She finds new love with a recent widower (Anthony Quinn), but his daughter (Ina Balin) worries he may befall the same fate as her previous spouse. Meanwhile, her delinquent son (Jimmy Baird) causes the couple further problems. It all wraps up a little too tidily to be believable, but the journey there is glossy, glamorous fun.
12. DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS (1958)
Directed by Delbert Mann. Screenplay by Irwin Shaw, based on the play by Eugene O’Neill. Starring Sophia Loren, Anthony Perkins, Burl Ives, Frank Overton, Pernell Roberts, Rebecca Welles, Jean Willes, Anne Seymour, Roy Fant.
Though it leaves a lot to be… well, desired… this adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s classic play does a fine enough job of distilling the author’s weighty themes into a two-hour film. Burl Ives stars as Ephraim Cabot, a wealthy New England farmer who takes a beautiful Italian immigrant (Loren) to be his third wife. She soon seduces Ephraim’s youngest son (Anthony Perkins), bearing his child and claiming it to be the old man’s. What worked on the stage comes across as overwrought hokum on the screen, but the actors help sell it with their subtle performances. An Oscar nominee for its black-and-white cinematography.
11. OPERATION CROSSBOW (1965)
Directed by Michael Anderson. Screenplay by Emeric Pressburger, Derry Quinn and Ray Rigby, story by Duilio Coletti and Vittoriano Petrilli. Starring Sophia Loren, George Peppard, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Richard Johnson, Tom Courtenay, Jeremy Kemp, Anthony Quayle, Lilli Palmer, Paul Henreid, Helmut Dantine, Barbara Rueting.
Although you do hear too many people talking about it today, “Operation Crossbow” holds up pretty well as a prime example of star-studded action melodrama. Directed by Michael Anderson, it’s a largely fictionalized recounting of the real life Allied operation to infiltrate the Nazi’s rocket research site. Despite receiving top billing, Loren has a pretty small role as a woman who confronts a USAAF Lieutenant (George Peppard) impersonating her husband, seeking custody of her children. Despite receiving assurances that she’ll see her kids again, her fate is sealed after she compromises the mission.
10. BOCCACIO ’70 (1962)
Directed by Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini and Mario Monicelli. Written by Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Mario Monicelli, Italo Calvino, Giovanni Arpino, Tullio Pinelli, Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Luchino Visconti and Cesare Zavattini. Starring Anita Ekberg, Romy Schneider, Sophia Loren, Marisa Solinas, Germano Giglioli, Peppino De Filippo, Tomas Milian.
Four titans of Italian cinema — Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini and Mario Monicelli — unite with international superstars Loren, Anita Ekberg, Romy Schneider and Marisa Solinas for this anthology film about modern day love and morality, based in part on the works of Renaissance author Giovanni Boccaccio. (Monicelli’s segment was originally dropped for US distribution, but is included on the blu-ray release.) Loren stars in De Sica’s segment, “La Riffa” (The Raffle), playing a beautiful carnival worker who offers herself up for one night to a lucky lottery winner in order to pay off some back taxes. But things take a different turn.
9. READY TO WEAR (PRET-A-PORTER) (1994)
Directed by Robert Altman. Written by Robert Altman and Barbara Shulgasser. Starring Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Julia Roberts, Tim Robbins, Kim Basinger, Stephen Rea, Anouk Aimee, Lauren Bacall, Lili Taylor, Sally Kellerman, Tracey Ullman, Linda Hunt, Rupert Everett, Forest Whitaker, Richard E. Grant, Danny Aiello, Teri Garr, Lyle Lovett, Jean Rochefort, Michel Blanc.
Loren’s onscreen performances became fewer and farther between towards the end of her career, so it was with great anticipation when she re-teamed with frequent costar Marcello Mastroianni for Robert Altman’s ensemble comedy about the French couture industry. The two play former lovers who reunite after several years apart during Paris Fashion Week, which finds models, designers, photographers and journalists descending upon the City of Lights. Though the film misses the mark in several ways, it’s still charming to see these two Italian superstars together again one last time. Loren earned a Golden Globe bid for her supporting performance.
8. ARABESQUE (1966)
Directed by Stanley Donen. Screenplay by Julian Mitchell, Stanley Price, and Peter Stone, based on the novel ‘The Cypher’ by Alex Gordon. Starring Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren, Alan Badel, Kieron Moore.
“Arabesque” finds Stanley Donen returning to the sort of material he excelled at in “Charade,” with Gregory Peck and Loren stepping into the Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn roles (albeit somewhat reversed). Peck is a hieroglyphics professor who finds himself embroiled in international intrigue when he’s asked to decode a cryptic Arabian message; Loren is the mysterious beauty who helps him crack the code. While it fails to capture the sparkle and wit of the director’s previous Hitchcock homage, the film is a delightful entertainment that makes good use of its leading man and woman’s star personas.
7. THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964)
Directed by Anthony Mann. Written by Ben Barzman, Basilio Franchina and Philip Yordan. Starring Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Christopher Plummer, Mel Ferrer, Omar Sharif.
Anthony Mann’s “The Fall of the Roman Empire” is the kind of full-throated, Cinerama epic Hollywood used to excel at making. Unfortunately, it was also a box office bomb, contributing to the downfall of those very films. That’s too bad, because it’s a rich, intelligent entry in the sword and sandals genre, with an all star cast of scenery chewers. Loren stars as Lucilla, daughter of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) and lover of General Gaius Livius (Stephen Boyd), who may soon take the throne. Despite its financial failure, the film did manage to score an Oscar nomination for Dimitri Tiomkin’s propulsive score.
6. HOUSEBOAT (1958)
Directed by Melville Shavelson. Written by Melville Shavelson, Jack Rose and Betsy Drake (uncredited). Starring Cary Grant, Sophia Loren, Martha Hyer, Harry Guardino.
Though the results look like fun and games, the shooting of “Houseboat” was far from harmonious. Betsy Drake wrote the screenplay as a vehicle for her and then-husband Cary Grant, who was having an affair with Loren while filming “The Pride and the Passion.” He conspired to replace Drake with Loren, removing her name from the script. However, their affair ended bitterly before production wrapped on “Passion,” leading to tensions during their next feature. On-set problems aside, this romantic comedy about a widower and his children living with a beautiful nanny on a dilapidated houseboat is delightful, charming entertainment.
5. EL CID (1961)
Directed by Anthony Mann. Screenplay by Philip Yordan, Fredric M. Frank, Ben Barzman, story by Frank. Starring Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, Raf Vallone, Genevieve Page, John Fraser, Gary Raymond, Herbert Lom, Douglas Wilmer.
Admittedly, it’s a tad bizarre to see Charlton Heston wearing dark makeup to play fabled Spanish warrior Rodrigo Diaz (a.k.a El Cid). Yet that does little to diminish Anthony Mann’s entertaining and intelligent saga, which follows El Cid as he overcomes family and political turmoil to lead the Christian nation in their fight against the Moors. Along the way, he finds time to romance the beautiful Dona Ximena (Loren). Largely dismissed in its time, the film has since gained notoriety amongst cineastes, including Martin Scorsese, who assisted in its restoration and re-release in 1993. Miklos Rozsa’s Oscar-nominated, soaring score is a standout.
4. A SPECIAL DAY (1977)
Directed by Ettore Scola. Written by Maurizio Costanzo, Ruggero Maccari and Ettore Scola. Starring Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, John Vernon, Francoise Berd.
Though all of the awards attention was focused on Marcello Mastroianni (who earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for his performance), frequent costar Loren is his equal in every way in Ettore Scola’s supremely moving, small scale drama. “A Special Day” recounts the historic moment in 1938 when Adolph Hitler paid a visit to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, spreading Fascism throughout Europe. Yet it’s far from a political story: rather, it’s about two neighbors — a liberal journalist (Mastroianni) and a dour housewife (Loren) — who find solace in each other while avoiding the lavish parade enjoyed by their fellow countrymen.
3. MARRIAGE ITALIAN STYLE (1964)
Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Screenplay by Renato Castellani, Tonino Guerra, Leo Benvenuti and Piero De Bernardi, based on the play by Eduardo De Filippo. Starring Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Aldo Puglisi, Tecla Scarano, Marilu Tolo.
The dream team of Loren and director Vittorio De Sica produced several international hits, including this delightful romantic comedy that included Italy’s favorite leading man, Marcello Mastroianni. Set during World War II, “Marriage Italian Style” centers on a rich businessman (Mastroianni) who meets a poor prostitute (Loren) while vacationing and brings her back to his home to be his housekeeper and lover. He consents to marrying her while she’s on her deathbed, after which she enjoys a speedy recovery. The movie brought Loren Golden Globe and Oscar nominations in Best Actress and competed in Best Foreign Language Film.
2. YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW (1963)
Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Written by Bella Billa, Eduardo De Filippo, Alberto Moravia, Isabella Quarantotti and Cesare Zavattini. Starring Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Aldo Giuffre, Agostino Salvietti.
Vittorio De Sica’s “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” is a wholly original comedic creation, an anthology film with Loren and frequent costar Marcello Mastroianni starring in three different stories of love and desire. In “Adelina of Naples,” Loren plays a poor woman supporting her out-of-work husband by selling black market cigarettes. In “Anna of Milan,” she’s a rich housewife who must choose between her wealth and her artist lover. And in “Mara of Rome,” she’s a prostitute serving a high class, neurotic client. (All three men are played by Mastroianni). The international hit won the Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film.
1. TWO WOMEN (1961)
Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Screenplay by Cesare Zavattini, based on the novel by Alberto Moravia. Starring Sophia Loren, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Raf Vallone, Eleonora Brown.
With “Two Women,” Loren went from international sexpot to world-renowned leading lady, going against type to play an ordinary woman facing enormous strife. Directed by Italian neorealist Vittorio De Sica, it centers on a widow (Loren) trying to protect her young child (Eleanora Brown) from the horrors of World War II. Originally cast as the daughter, the then 25-year-old Loren was given the part after Anna Magnani dropped out, and she proves more than capable of handling the grittier role. Her efforts paid off with BAFTA, Cannes and Oscar wins for Best Actress (the first time a foreign language performance prevailed at the Academy).