Sophia Loren

Sophia Loren, the greatest of all the Italian movie divas, also got her start in film in the bleak postwar years, and while some of her early earthy roles recalled Magnani's stoic characters, Loren quickly metamorphosed into a full-blown sex symbol. Her dark, almost feline features and sculpted curves, combined with an aggressive sexuality, captivated audiences worldwide.

Whether she played in dramas, romances or light comedies, Sophia invariably portrayed women who were not to be trifled with. In 1961's Two Women, for which she won an Academy Award, she wrenchingly played a woman determined to survive and nurture her daughter in war-torn Italy. The two women face danger and deprivation; ultimately, they are both raped by soldiers. Sophia's character despairs and is disillusioned as her life spins out of control but she is never, ever, defeated. Perhaps Sophia could relate to such characters because she grew up hungry in Naples, a fact that in part accounted for the name she was called by the other children in her Pozzuoli neighborhood: Sophia Stuzzicadenti (Sophia the Toothpick). If ever a youthful nickname did not prophesize the destiny of its bearer, this was it! Characteristic of her modesty and wit, a grown-up Sophia once told a star-struck interviewer, "Everything you see I owe to spaghetti."

Sophia's success and persona spring directly from her upbringing. "The two big advantages I had at birth," she says, "were to have been born wise and to have been born in poverty." Sophia's off-screen life rivaled her film roles for drama. She waited for years for her married mentor, director Carlo Ponti, who had discovered her in a beauty pageant, to win an annulment of his marriage. In the meantime, she was linked to many famous leading men, including Cary Grant, her co-star in the drama The Pride and the Passion and in the light comedy Houseboat. In order to marry lawfully, Loren and Ponti became French citizens in 1966.

Approaching 70, Sophia Loren is as beautiful as ever and as successful. She still occasionally acts in films, such as Grumpier Old Men with Jack Lemmon and the late Walter Matthau (1995), and has also penned a best-selling autobiography and several cookbooks. In a British poll last year, Sophia was named the most beautiful woman of the millennium. Sophia Loren was never afraid to challenge herself or others' expectations of her. "Mistakes," she once said, "are part of the dues one pays for a full life."