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Gina Lollobrigida, an icon of Italian cinema and one of the great post-war sex symbols, died aged 95 on January 16, 2023.

She was born Luigia Lollobrigida in 1927, the second of four daughters, in the mountain village of Subiaco. During World War II, her father’s furniture factory was destroyed in a bombing raid and the family moved to Rome, where they lived in one room. “We were so poor I made my shoes from stable straw,” she said. 

After the war ended, Gina won a scholarship to the Academy of Fine Arts. A chance encounter with a talent scout led to an audition at Cinecitta, the film studio known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber.’ Her first significant roles were in Pagliacci (1948), Alarm Bells (1949), and The Bride Wouldn’t Wait (1949.)

In 1949 she married a Slovenian doctor, Milko Škofič. His photographs of a bikini-clad Gina caught the eye of American tycoon Howard Hughes, who had recently acquired RKO Pictures, and brought her to Hollywood for a screen test. Unwilling to join his stable of starlets, she returned to her husband in Italy. Hughes would spend the next decade in litigation with her.

Back in Rome, she starred in Miss Italia (1950), which had an autobiographical resonance as she had won third place in the 1947 contest. Her sex goddess status was confirmed in the anthology film, Infidelity (1952), as she played a woman whose lawyer (Vittorio de Sica) defends her in court after she is accused of being ‘too sexy.’ It was around this time that she earned the affectionate nickname of ‘La Lollo.’

She also worked in France, starring opposite Gérard Phillipe in Fearless Little Soldier (1952), and in René Clair’s Beauties of the Night. Back in Italy, she won a Golden Goblet award as Best Actress for The Wayward Wife, based on a story by Alberto Moravia. In 1953, she made her English-language debut in Beat the Devil, an offbeat caper directed by John Huston, from a screenplay by Truman Capote. The all-star cast included Humphrey Bogart, who said of Gina: “When it comes to sex appeal, she makes Marilyn Monroe look like Shirley Temple.” 

This was followed by what might be her best-loved Italian film: the provincial comedy, Bread, Love and Dreams. It was granted a Royal Command Performance in London, where she was presented to the Queen. She then starred in The Woman of Rome (1953), based on Moravia’s bestselling novel about the mistress of a secret police officer who falls for a young anti-fascist militant. Despite being mobbed at the Venice Film Festival, Gina was disappointed not to win an award for her performance.

In 1954, she worked with another Hollywood legend, Errol Flynn, in the swashbuckling Crossed Swords. By then, she had a formidable rival for the public’s adulation – another voluptuous brunette, Sophia Loren – and would bear a grudge for decades to come. “We are as different as a fine racehorse and a goat,” she snapped. 

When Gina visited the U.S., New York Post columnist Earl Wilson had the idea of introducing her to Marilyn Monroe, and he would describe their encounter in a 1957 article for Modern Screen magazine. “Gina’s calm, Marilyn’s nervous,” Wilson wrote. “Marilyn has her eye on artistic success. Gina figures she’s had that. She has her eye on that box office buck.” However, as Wilson noted, both women were quick-witted, hard-working, and “horribly unpunctual.”

On September 15, 1954, Marilyn was preparing to shoot the iconic ‘subway grate’ scene for The Seven Year Itch at the Trans-Lux Theatre in Manhattan. Grasping the opportunity, Wilson took Gina and her husband to Lexington Avenue, where a crowd had already gathered. “Fifty photographers were across the street, panting for Marilyn,” he wrote. “Slyly, I slipped Gina and Milko in through the side door on 52nd Street and we groped through the theatre.” Marilyn was finishing her make-up in the ladies’ room, and pleaded with Earl to wait “just a minute.” 

The party of three sat in the half-empty auditorium for some time before deciding to go upstairs and find Marilyn. She was coming downstairs, and so they met midway. “They were inordinately polite,” Wilson recalled. “Not more than twenty people witnessed that meeting, and some of them thought they were sneering down their noses at each other. But they weren’t! Each had heard so much about the other, that each was, understandably, sizing the other up.”

“You know,” Marilyn smiled, “I’ve been described as the Gina Lollobrigida of America – and I’ve been quite flattered.” Gina replied that before coming to America, she prepared answers for the six questions she expected journalists to ask her. But she heard one question repeatedly: “What do you think of Marilyn Monroe?”

As photographers snapped the two women, Wilson observed that Marilyn seemed “taller and softer,” while Gina was “possibly a woman of greater drive, greater confidence.” Realising that this was Marilyn’s big evening, Gina turned to her husband and said, “We go.” The visitors stepped into a limousine and, while driving back to their hotel, Milko asked Earl if Marilyn was a natural blonde. “Certainly not!” Gina scoffed. But in one of her final interviews (see here), ‘La Lollo’ remembered Marilyn fondly: “I was very excited when I met her and she was just as excited, and she surprised me with her shyness, she is the one who is remained in my heart.”

In Beautiful But Dangerous (1955) – in which she sang arias by Tosca – Gina was billed as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world.’ Her global fame increased with the release of Carol Reed’s Trapeze (1956), co-starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. When her double was injured, Gina insisted on performing the stunts herself. She then played Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Anthony Quinn as Quasimodo. In 1957, her son Andrea Milko Škofič – or Milko Škofič Jr. – was born, and her husband gave up his career in medicine to become her manager. 

Lollobrigida returned to the screen in Anna of Brooklyn (1958), playing a wealthy widow who returns to the village of her birth. In 1959, she co-starred with the Italian-born French actor, Yves Montand, in Jules Dassin’s The Law. She was paired with Yul Brynner – a last-minute replacement after the death of Tyrone Power – in King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba, and with Frank Sinatra in the wartime drama, Never So Few. She disliked Sinatra, whom she said was frequently late on the set and never apologised. According to Gina, he also had “absolutely no sense of humour.”

She moved to Toronto in 1960 after her husband was denied Italian citizenship, and they later decamped to California. Following a glossy melodrama, Go Naked in the World (1961), Gina found an ideal screen partner in Rock Hudson. Her role in the romantic comedy, Come September, won her the 1961 Golden Globe as World Film Favourite, and they would reunite for 1965’s Strange Bedfellows. “I knew right away that Rock Hudson was gay when he did not fall in love with me,” she said, but would seemingly contradict herself in another interview: “I don’t think he was gay then – people can change,” she said in 2015. “He was the most adorable person I ever worked with.”

She continued making films in Europe, such as Imperial Venus (1963), in which she was cast as Napoleon’s sister. In Woman of Straw (1964), she nursed a British tycoon (Ralph Richardson) and was wooed by his nephew (Sean Connery.) Hotel Paradiso (1966) was based on a French farce by George Feydeau. In Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell (1968), Gina convinced three former G.I.s – played by Phil Silvers, Peter Lawford and Telly Savalas – that each was the father of her daughter. She won a David di Donatello award (Italy’s equivalent of an Oscar) for this performance.

By the mid-1960s, her marriage was over in all but name. She had a high-profile romance with American businessman George Kaufman, and a fling with South African heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard, whom she dismissed as “cheap publicity seeker” when he revealed that she had once driven him to his hotel wearing nothing but her mink coat. She was also linked to President Sukarno of Indonesia, and even Prince Rainier of Monaco made a pass at her in front of his wife, Grace Kelly. “Obviously, I said no!” Gina added.

In 1971, with divorce soon to be legalised in Italy, she left her husband for good. After playing the Blue Fairy in an Italian television production, The Adventures of Pinocchio, her attention turned away from acting. The first of her six books of photography, Italia Mia, was published to acclaim in 1973. A year later, she scooped a rare interview with the leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro. “We spent twelve days together,” she said. “He didn’t interest me as a political leader but as a man. He realised that I hadn’t gone there to attack him and he readily accepted me.” Gina was also an accomplished fine artist, with marble and bronze sculptures entered at an International Expo in Seville.

After more than a decade away from the screen, she made a comeback in 1984 with a five-episode arc on Falcon Crest, a soap opera set in California wine country, earning a Golden Globe nomination. She also starred in a Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo (in a role originally written for Anna Magnani), and appeared in a TV remake of The Woman of Rome.

In 1999, Gina was named as a candidate for the European Parliament by the Democrats, a centre-left party led by Romano Prodi, former Prime Minister of Italy. Her bid was unsuccessful, but she served as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, working for its Food and Agriculture Organisation. In 2020, she publicly endorsed Pope Francis’ progressive views on LGBT rights; and in 2022, she was a candidate for Sovereign and Popular Italy, a newly-formed Eurosceptic alliance.

Gina was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015, and continued to make headlines over her “weakness for younger men.” In 2006, aged 79, she had announced her engagement to Javier Rigau i Ràfols, a 45-year-old Spanish businessman. Then in 2013 she sued him for fraud, accusing him of staging a wedding in Barcelona with an impostor. Rigau was acquitted, but the Vatican subsequently granted Gina an annulment. 

In 2020, her manager Andrea Piazzolla was charged with circumvention of an incapable person, and her son – from whom she was, by then, estranged – requested the Italian Supreme Court to appoint a legal guardian for Gina. Although the court determined she was mentally capable, medical evidence indicated ‘a weakening in her correct perception of reality’ and that she was in a state of ‘vulnerability.’

Gina died at a clinic in Rome, having undergone surgery for a broken hip a few months earlier. “In the immediate period after the war and throughout the 1950s there was one face that represented Italian beauty in the eyes of the world and it was that of Gina Lollobrigida,” Il Corriere della Sera reported. “More than (Sophia) Loren, but also more than (Lucia) Bosè, (Gianna Maria) Canale, (Silvana) Mangano or (Silvana) Pampanini …”

Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni described Gina as a “great talent, passionate, intense, enthralling … one of the most important performers of her generation,” while culture minister Gennaro Sangiuliano wrote: “Farewell to a diva of the silver screen, protagonist of more than half a century of Italian cinema history. Her charm will remain eternal.” Even her erstwhile rival, Sophia Loren, was “deeply shaken and saddened.”