Gina Lollobrigida

In Rome the souvenir shops reproduce Gina Lollobrigida’s face on keyrings, pens and mugs, even now. They are movie stills, mostly, from the 1950s and 60s, a time when she was as much an Italian icon as the Vespa — Gina the bare-foot gypsy girl, Gina the wasp-waisted trapeze artist, Gina the coquettish queen of Sheba. And on the Appian Way, the Roman road leading out of the capital, there is a shrine to her. It is a three-storey pink villa she bought in 1954, with high walls, an electronic gate and sprawling lawns populated with statues, peacocks and lemon trees. Her house.

A maid answers the door and leads me inside to where she is waiting, standing straight spined on a mosaic floor surrounded by vases, old masters, and sculptures. At 81, she is still unmistakable — the red dress, the dark eyes beneath thick mascara, the big, auburn ‘tossed salad’ hair. (So much of a trademark did this hairstyle become, the Italians named a type of curly lettuce after her, the lollo.)

I say the house is a shrine to Gina Lollobigida because there are marble sculptures of her everywhere, ones she has made. As a sculptress she represented Italy in the 1992 Expo in Seville and in 2003 there was an exhibition of her work at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. (It is quite sentimental and kitschy, it has to be said, and has been compared to Jeff Koon’s ‘only without the irony’.) There are her awards here too, including the lifetime achievement award she was given last autumn by the National Italian American Foundation. And there is an entire wall of photographs of her with, well, everyone: Fidel Castro, Henry Kissinger, Indira Gandhi, Salvador Dali, Vladimir Putin, Mick Jagger… And Marilyn Monroe (‘Marilyn told me she didn’t sleep the night before she was photographed with me,’ she says, speaking English with a thick Italian accent, ‘because she was so afraid, so in awe.’) Also some of her leading men, such as Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra and Yul Brynner.

One of her most popular films was Come September (1961). Her co-star in that was Rock Hudson. He’s on this wall too. Was she surprised when she subsequently heard he was gay? ‘I tell you, he was not gay! He changed. He was normal. He was adorable. He was one of the person I had most joy to work with.’

She leads the way through to a sitting room dominated by a baby grand piano — as well as more vases and marble cherubs — and here she perches on a velvet sofa. I ask if she ever fell in love with her leading men. ‘I liked directors and cameramen more; actors were like my sisters because we would gossip and we were in the same profession. One exception was Yul Brynner. When we kissed in Solomon & Sheba we lost our heads and we couldn’t stop. The director says, “stop!” but we continued and we were very embarrassing. But it is something that can happen in life. You can get physical and get carried away. We didn’t hit it off at first but something happened on the love scenes. It never normally happens in the movies because it is so technical.’

Did the men she slept with consider her a trophy? ‘No, I was the one who choose all the time. I knew what I wanted. And if they didn’t want me that made me worse. I was like a man, seducing them. I was very independent. I was not waiting for someone to choose me. Obviously, at that time I could have who I wanted.’

It was reported last year that she was considering marrying her long term partner, a Spanish estate agent 34 years her junior, was that true? ‘Yes, I changed my mind though. That is what women do.’

She did get married once, to a Yugoslavian doctor. That was in 1949, just before her movie career took over. They had one son, in 1957, and divorced in 1971. In 1956, meanwhile, when she was featured on the cover of Time magazine, Humphrey Bogard was quoted as saying that ‘Gina made Marilyn Monroe look like Shirley Temple.’ That cover is now one of thousands she has collected over the years. ‘I have 6,000 with my face on. I stopped collecting after that.’ Yet she claims she does not like to be photographed. ‘I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t like being photographed. Behind the camera, I am a different person.’

She gave up acting in favour of photography and sculpture back in the 1970s, and she shows me some of the giant black and white prints of Fidel Castro she is preparing for a major retrospective of her work in Rome this June. ‘Castro trusted completely me. He was like a child. Not aware of the camera.  That was in 1974. He was more anxious to see me than I was to see him. He was very private. He took me to see his brother Raul and Raul was angry saying: “Oh because Gina is here, now you come to see me! It was been five years, Fidel!’

Her photographs of Paul Newman will also feature in the exhibition. ‘It was quite funny Paul said, “OK you can photograph me in the sauna on one condition, that you come in the sauna with me and you are also naked.” So I said yes because I had worked out a way to cut the photograph so that it only showed my shoulder. I thought I could make it decent. But my agent said, “You are 50, you are crazy to do that!” And so we decided to do it in winter in his home near New York instead. There was a little river and he broke the ice and then, wearing just his little pants, he went down through the ice and even put his head under the water. Someone else might have died. He just came up smiling. And then I had an interesting photograph with his blue eyes. He had a very masculine beauty.’ Pause. ‘He was faithful to his wife.’

Gina Lollobrigida has the most robust ego I have ever encountered (and I have encountered Julie Burchill). Her anecdotes usually end with someone telling her how beautiful and talented she is. Vainglorious, yes, but perhaps only because this is what people expect of her, of a diva, of a legend. And she is sweet with it, funny and mischievous too, rolling her eyes suggestively. She is, above all, a good storyteller with some good stories to tell. ‘I am like an icon,’ she says, ‘a legend and even now if I go to the most remote place in the world they recognise me. Yet at the same time I am very unknown because they don’t know the real me, they just know an idea of me from the movies. Some people when they see that I also do the sculptures and the photography they think it is too much. It disturb them. They think this successful, beautiful woman shouldn’t have to do anything else. They think the beautiful woman shouldn’t have a brain. In the end my name worked against me as a photographer and sculptress because people were jealous that I was also to do other things so well. If it had been Mrs So-and-So then my photography could have been recognised for how good it is.’

She grew up in Subiaco, a medieval hilltop town not far from Rome, the second of four daughters. Her father was a carpenter. Hers was a strict catholic upbringing. ‘The priest where I was born was more important than the mayor. We could not have sex before marriage. Even when I was singing for the soldiers that was thought too much. I couldn’t even wear the trousers.’ She used to get about on a donkey, an image she made famous in her first big feature film, Luigi Comencini’s Bread, Love and Dreams (1953).

She says she became an actress by mistake. ‘I had won a scholarship to study art and sculpture at the Academy of Fine Art in Rome and wanted to continue with that, but then I was spotted in the street and asked to be an extra. They paid me 12000 lire, about 12 dollars. I bought a coat and an umbrella and I couldn’t sleep that night because I was so happy, and I remember when I bought my first diamond necklace I could sleep because it didn’t mean as much to me as that umbrella. After that they asked me to be in another film. I said no thank you because I wanted to be an artist not an actress and after ten days they came back and they persuaded my mother instead. I said OK I’ll do it, but only if you pay me one million lire. I thought this would make them stop and go away, but they said yes.’

How did her husband feel about being married to a sex symbol? ‘ I wanted him to be jealous but he wasn’t, he was Yugoslavian, you see, not Italian. Perhaps he just pretended he wasn’t jealous. Anyway, an Italian man would not have been able to hide his jealousy. Howard Hughes was the jealous one. When he saw me in the movie that I got one million lire for he wanted me so badly that he had me flown out to Hollywood. I stayed there two months and a half and saw him every day. He gave me the use of a chauffer driven car and when I wasn’t with him he would have his secretary keep an eye on me. He was very possessive. And secretive. He wanted to marry me but I was already married and divorce was not possible for me. It was not in my head. For me at that time marriage was forever. But he was so persistent. He probably wanted me more because he couldn’t have me. He didn’t stop wanting me for 13 years. He was the most persistent man in my life. He wasn’t used to a girl who didn’t care about money like me. The difficulty for me was that he was too rich. I didn’t like the imbalance.’

I ask about the crowds who used to mob her at Cannes and New York. ‘When I did the New York premiere of Bread, Love and Dreams there were 1,000 photographers waiting for me at the airport. The flashbulbs. It was unbelievable. the photographers were so excited to get me. One photographer even managed to bring along a donkey. In New York! Do you imagine! It was even more crazy when I went to see Peron. There 60,000 people were waiting for me at the airport.’

Did the adulation go to her head? ‘No, it was more that I was afraid that someone would be killed. Big crowds are dangerous. I never got used to the popularity. I didn’t like the publicity, but you had to do it. The first time I went to a theatre in Buenos Aires there were 30 arrested, nine wounded, that is frightening. Another time I went to open a casino with Peron on a private train and we couldn’t get off because there were so many people and the train had to go one kilometre back so as we could get out. There were 700 bodyguards, but the trouble was they wanted to see me as well so that caused trouble.’

I ask about her most controversial film, The Dolls (1965) in which she appeared to be naked during a love scene, a cinematic first in Italy. She claimed she wore a flesh coloured body stocking. Nevertheless, she and the director were charged with an offence to public decency. Both were given a two month suspended sentence. ‘We wanted to make a point, not only the director but the actors. The scene was nothing compared to what you see today in the movies but it was considered too sexy, then. Too daring. Movies today go too far. They are not subtle. I like a gentle suggestion rather than something vulgar. The imagination is the most erotic tool.’

What does she make of actresses today who have plastic surgery and breast implants? ‘I think if they feel better about themselves after the surgery that is their business. For me it would be the opposite because being with a man, if instead of touching you he touch a piece of silicone that would be disturbing. The real trouble with actress today is they all look alike. You don’t know what is real, what is silicon. In my day we were different one from the other. And we were natural, our breasts were natural.’

Stories of her feuds with other sex symbols were legendary. Whenever she was in the same room as Anita Ekberg or Sophia Loren, for example, the hisses could be heard all over Italy. When I ask about this she gives me a steady look. ‘No, I had no rivals because I was number one all over Europe. To be the rival of Gina Lollobrigida was a fashion. Everyone claim they were my rival but it was silly because I was the symbol of Italy. I was an icon. I was Gina Lollobrigida.’