Dame in the Game: The Unexpected Feminism of Gina Lollobrigida

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This month’s “Dame in the Game” is not perhaps the most obvious candidate to be highlighted in this column. Known as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” Gina Lollobrigida became the first international sex symbol to emerge from post-war cinema, followed quickly by other screen goddesses like Sophia Loren. Humphrey Bogart once said of her, “She makes Marilyn Monroe look like Shirley Temple.” Her exotic, earthy good looks stand in stark contrast to the steely determination of Barbara Stanwyck or career morphing of consummate movie star Joan Crawford.

At first glance then, she is not a typical symbol of feminist ideals. But from the beginning, Lollobrigida led a life distinctly true to herself, not allowing male studio heads (or anyone else) dictate what direction her career should take. In her own words, she proclaims, “I had success despite everybody.” At last month’s Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, Lollobrigida was present to discuss her life as part of a celebration of her career, and there, she amply demonstrated that she deserves a place among Hollywood’s feminist icons.

Lollobrigida was born in Italy in 1927 and spent her formative years in the turmoil of World War II, losing her family home to a bomb. Lollobrigida got her start in film working as an extra in Italian films as a means of supporting her family who had lost nearly everything during the war. Having dreamed of pursuing a career in fine arts, she was a reluctant actress at first. She quickly came to the attention of producers for her beauty after making her screen debut in the Rossano Brazi film Return of the Black Eagle (1946). When offered her first leading role, she demanded a million lire in the hopes that such a sizable sum would rule her out. Much to her surprise (and chagrin), the production cowed to her demands and she found herself in pictures.

In 1950, Lollobrigida was offered her first American contract to come work in Hollywood under the control of playboy-millionaire Howard Hughes, who made a habit of signing voluptuous women and then under using their talents while keeping them close at hand. Lollobrigida was married when Hughes made the offer, and she agreed to come to America on the condition that her husband accompany her. Yet, when Lollabrigida reached the Rome airport, there was only one plane ticket, not the two that were promised. After these shenanigans, Lollobrigida became one of the few women to refuse Hughes, deciding to stay in Europe and not coming to Hollywood until 1959.

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However, she frequently worked in American-European co-productions, including the John Huston film Beat the Devil (1953) alongside Humphrey Bogart and the Carol Reed directed Trapeze (1956) where she starred as a female trapeze artist caught in a love triangle with Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. Trapeze allowed Lollobrigida to showcase her chutzpah both onscreen and off. Her character, Lola, successfully manipulates both Lancaster and Curtis to secure her place in the act and launch her career trajectory. The film achieves a high degree of realism by having the actors perform most of their own stunts. Lollobrigida trained for six months on a trapeze in her home to prepare for the film and performed the majority of her own trapeze work onscreen.

At the TCM film festival, Lollobrigida spoke proudly of her determination to stand up to men on set. Burt Lancaster was also a producer on Trapeze and regularly tried to interject directing suggestions, particularly in regards to her acting. However, Lollobrigida had signed on to be directed by the iconic Carol Reed, which she had no trouble reminding Lancaster (who promptly left her alone). A screen siren calling out mansplaining before we even had a word for it—as she puts it, “women don’t have an easy life because men always try to command situations, even in art.”

Lollobrigida’s life is littered with stories of this nature, demonstrating her continual efforts to prove her intelligence and value in the face of men who saw only her impressive physical assets. She continually upended expectations and set out to pursue career aims beyond what many even considered her capable of.

Having made a name for herself in sultry, dramatic roles in European films and American films shot in Europe, Lollobrigida finally relocated to Hollywood in 1959. There, she proved her versatility, taking on a string of comedic roles, including her Golden Globe nominated performance in Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968). The film is fairly racy for Hollywood studio fare of the era, telling the story of an Italian woman who collects child support from three different American men. She knew them as GIs during the war and is unsure which is actually her daughter’s father. Lollobrigida pulls out all the stops in the film, displaying a natural knack for physical comedy and imbuing her character’s hysterical scenarios with vulnerability and nuance.

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Throughout her acting career, Lollobrigida never abandoned her dreams of returning to the fine arts, and she used her time on set as a master class in photography. By the late 1960s, she was an accomplished photojournalist and over the course of her career, she photographed as diverse figures as Paul Newman, Salvador Dali, and Henry Kissinger. Most notably, Lollobrigida became so skilled in her photojournalism that she managed to secure an exclusive interview with Fidel Castro in 1972. Speaking of this incredible opportunity, Lollobrigida noted that she was shocked to discover Castro was more nervous to meet her than she him. Inspired by this rare access, Lollobrigida produced, directed, and wrote a documentary short entitled Ritratto di Fidel. Years before Cuba would be reopened to America, she secured a personal and in-depth look at one of the world’s most reclusive political figures.

Lollobridiga retired from acting in 1997, but she continued to pursue an avid career as an accomplished photographer, painter, and sculptor. Her work has been displayed all over the world and has won numerous accolades, including the “Legion of Honor” as “artiste de valeur” from France.

She has also continued to be a vocal activist and supporter of causes near and dear to her heart. In 2013, she sold her diamonds and jewelry collection, donating the entire $4.9 million dollars to stem cell research.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 30: Actress Gina Lollobrigida attends 'Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell' screening during day 3 of the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 on April 30, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. 25826_008 (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Turner) *** Local Caption *** Gina Lollobrigida

LOS ANGELES, CA – APRIL 30: Actress Gina Lollobrigida attends ‘Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell’ screening during day 3 of the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 on April 30, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Turner)

Speaking at the TCM film festival, Lollobrigida displayed a feisty feminism that has driven her throughout her life. Unafraid to speak her mind, she took every opportunity to prove herself as an actress and artist without compromising her beliefs and desires. With her unparalleled beauty, Lollobrigida is used to being underestimated and dismissed as an actress cast only as window dressing. But she has never been one to adhere to expectations and continues to champion the rights and extraordinary talents of women all over the world.

She ended her time at the TCM film festival with a reflection worthy of every “Dame in the Game.” “Women are not objects,” she said. “We are equal. We have the same strength—it depends what you have in your head.”

Maureen Lenker

About Maureen Lenker

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, director, and producer. She has written for Turner Classic Movies, Stage Raw, @ This Stage, LA Weekly, and more. She is also working towards an MA in Arts Journalism at USC, reporting on arts, theatre, and entertainment. When not at USC, she works on theatre productions throughout Los Angeles (primarily as an assistant director). She is a native Angelino who hates driving and cites peacoats and scarves as her favorite clothing items. An Anglophile, she attempted to fulfill her dream of attending Hogwarts by completing her master’s in British History at the University of Oxford. She is a cock-eyed optimist, rom-com aficionado, classic movie buff, musical theatre geek, and general pop culture enthusiast.