Sophia Loren: how Cary Grant begged me to become his lover

Sophia Loren

When the young Sophia Loren dances a sultry flamenco in the role of Juana in the 1957 film The Pride and the Passion, the onlooking crowd of peasants appear spellbound, not least among them Cary Grant, who plays the English hero.

Now the public are to learn what the film star was really thinking as he watched Loren stamp her feet and swirl her skirt.

The Italian screen goddess, who turned 80 last month, was drawn into a torrid love affair with Grant during the making of the film in Spain and her memoirs, to be published in a few weeks, will reveal the intimate details of the matinee idol’s determined pursuit of her on set, despite the fact he was 30 years older than her and married to his third wife.

In her first volume of autobiography, prompted by the discovery of a cache of letters and souvenirs in her Swiss home, Loren recalls that Grant urged they pray together for guidance about whether to leave their partners.

“You’ll be in my prayers,” he wrote, using a reverent, almost spiritual approach, and sending daily bouquets. “If you think and pray with me, for the same thing and purpose, all will be right and life will be good.”

Loren was on the point of marrying film producer Carlo Ponti and faced a choice that was to shape both her personal life and her career. Grant asked the actress to marry him while they were filming the adventure romance, based on a novel by CS Forester set during the Napoleonic wars, and her new book will include photographs of his other love notes. One reads: “Forgive me, dear girl. I press you too much. Pray – and so will I – until next week. Goodbye Sophia. Cary.”

Loren grew up as Sofia Villani Scicolone in Pozzuoli, a poor town outside Naples, and her memoir, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, will chronicle her hard early life, begging for food from American soldiers as a thin teenager nicknamed “toothpick” then posing for photographs in Rome, until she won a beauty pageant that crowned her La Regina del Mare (Queen of the Sea). She then caught the eye of Ponti, who was 22 years her senior and became her mentor, director and eventually her husband of 40 years.

Speaking two years ago, Loren explained that she had been in search of a father figure, but it had to be the right man: “You know, I had to make a choice, Carlo was Italian; he belonged to my world. I know it was the right thing to do, for me.

“At the time I didn’t have any regrets, I was in love with my husband. I was very affectionate with Cary, but I was 23 years old. I couldn’t make up my mind to marry a giant from another country and leave Carlo. I didn’t feel like making the big step.”

But the Grant dilemma did not go away. In 1958 the couple were the focus of Hollywood gossip columnists when they starred together in the romantic comedy Houseboat, set in Washington and based on an idea by Grant’s wife, Betsy Drake, who had been expected to star in the film. As the Grant marriage deteriorated, Loren replaced Drake as the star of the film and the sexual tension between the actors made director Melville Shavelson complain later that the film had been difficult to make.

Journalists were clearly as beguiled by Loren as Grant had been when she came to film on location: “Few men who have encountered her are going to be coherent about her – not within the next 24 hours at least,” wrote the London Evening Star’s Harry MacArthur.

The title of Loren’s memoir is taken from the 1963 three-part Italian comedy anthology directed by Vittorio De Sica in which she played three different roles and, in the author’s own words, it is a collection of “unpublished memories, curious anecdotes, tiny secrets told, all of which spring from a box found by chance, a treasure trove filled with emotions, experiences, adventures”.

The contents of the box include unseen pictures, letters and notes from Frank Sinatra – a long-time friend of Loren who also starred in The Pride and The Passion – Audrey Hepburn, Richard Burton and Marcello Mastroianni. Among the candid anecdotes is an account of her firm response to advances from Marlon Brando when they were filming the 1967 film A Countess from Hong Kong.

“All of a sudden he put his hands on me. I turned in all tranquillity and blew his face, like a cat stroked the wrong way and said, ‘Don’t you ever dare to do that again. Never again!’,” Loren recalls.

“As I pulverised him with my eyes he seemed small, defenceless, almost a victim of his own notoriety. He never did it again, but it was very difficult working with him after that.”

Two years ago, the turmoil surrounding the making of The Pride and The Passion was the subject of an acclaimed BBC 4 radio play, The Gun Goes to Hollywood. Written by Mike Walker, it was a fictional attempt to tell the behind-the-scenes story, including Sinatra’s decision to leave the production early and the Grant/Loren romance from the point of view of a script doctor called in to help.

Sinatra is believed to have taken the part of a cobbler and rebel leader to be near his wife, Ava Gardner, who was shooting The Sun Also Rises in Europe, during a time when the couple were having problems. When he failed to reconcile with Gardner he left Spain, asking director Stanley Kramer to reduce his part as much as possible.

Powered by article was written by Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent, for The Observer on Sunday 19th October 2014 00.05 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010