“Sex appeal,” legendary actress Sophia Loren is quoted as saying in her sexy Italian accent, “is 50 percent what you’ve got and 50 percent what people think you’ve got.”
The screen siren — often referred to as an “Italian bombshell” in the press — turns 80 on Saturday. Incredibly, Loren is still as much of a bombshell as ever. But what exactly is a bombshell? Through the years, the definition hasn’t changed all that much.
The textbook bombshell
Long before Loren came along in the ’50s and ’60s, the first women described as Hollywood’s “bombshells” were blonde. Mega-movie star Jean Harlow — whom many consider the original bombshell in pop culture — sashayed onto movie screens in 1933 in the title role of Bombshell, a screwball comedy about a bleach-blond woman men couldn’t resist seeking to be taken seriously. Ever since, women considered to be sex symbols — those that not only had beauty, but often curves and also a certain je ne sais quoi about them — were labeled with the term.
Of course, there have been times when the typical bombshell, with her voluptuous hips and breasts, wasn’t the ideal female form. In the ’60s, a stick-thin Twiggy-like figure was all the rage; Kate Moss and her almost emaciated appearance referred to as “heroin chic” ruled fashion runways and magazines in the ’90s. However, even during those times when less has been more, bombshells continued to thrive. During the ’40s, when America was embroiled in World War II, alluring women such as Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable were referred to as pin-ups. But make no mistake, they were still bombshells… just under a more socially acceptable name. Marilyn Monroe, who became the most famous bombshell of all time, came along in the ’50s, pushing aside all those other curvaceous beauties. And then, there was Loren.
With her exotic looks and graceful walk, the Italian-born-and-bred actress mesmerized and captivated audiences around the world. And it wasn’t just that she was gorgeous — she was good! Loren became the first Oscar winner in a foreign language performance in 1962 when she won best actress for her turn in the Italian film Two Women. The American Film Institute announced Wednesday that it will pay tribute to the star during its annual AFI Fest in Hollywood.
Donelle Dadigan, president and founder of The Hollywood Museum, explained that Loren, with her striking good looks and impressive work, stood out even among other bombshells of her day.
“She was different in that she wasn’t the blonde stereotype,” Dadigan told Yahoo. “She was tall, she was statuesque, and … the world has a love affair with everything Italian. And of course, [there was] her body, but all this time, she oozed this confidence and sensuality. When she was up on the screen, everything else melted away.”
‘The most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen’
Another film buff, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, stops short of calling Loren a bombshell, even though he considers the actress “the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
“The reason why, I guess, I never thought of her [as a bombshell] is because that feels unfair to her, even though she probably meets whatever standard there is, I think of her as too talented,” he told Yahoo. “Even though I know many of the women who are on many bombshell lists are ridiculously talented also. And then I think the phrase ‘Italian bombshell’ minimizes her even more. I think of her as having too much class to be a bombshell. And I say that without any intent to [offend] any bombshells,” he added with a laugh.
“I feel like a bombshell is marketed,” Mankiewicz said of the term that was often used by the movie studios to advertise films. “And I definitely feel like Sophia Loren is not marketed. Sophia Loren is authentic.”
Marketing was likely at play, however, when a famous quote attributed to Loren circulated decades ago. Now, it’s so closely tied to Loren’s bombshell mystique that she was asked about it during a December 2009 interview with CBS Sunday Morning. It goes like this: “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”
“I never said it,” Loren insisted. “I owe everything to the spaghetti? It’s not true. They put it in my mouth and it still goes on. It’s not true… So silly. Can you imagine?”
The reason people latched onto the quote is easy to understand. Audiences love a woman who’s confident enough to talk about her love of food (when she looks like she occasionally eats it) and speak of her body not derisively, but in a way that shows she doesn’t take it too seriously. Confidence and boldness is key for bombshells; the cultural role is about that fearlessness just as much as it is about body type.
Hollywood beauty expert Kym Douglas described the bombshell phenomenon well: “[It’s] a woman who walks in the room and takes command of the entire party. Her presence says… I have arrived. A true bombshell is a woman who has confidence in who she is and what she does, someone who is totally comfortable in their own skin whatever size she is or isn’t. Having said that, a bombshell is a woman who has lots of sex appeal and shows it but doesn’t give it away.”
Women such as Scarlett Johansson, Christina Hendricks, and Sofia Vergara have helped to keep the bombshell tradition alive today, whether or not that’s how they choose to be described.
However, the latest wave of bombshell actresses will never be as famous as their forerunners; there’s too many of them! Now, Mankiewicz noted, movie stars and TV stars are often the same people. Kim Kardashian, who’s considered a bombshell by many, has hardly any experience on the silver screen.
Today’s so-called bombshells also aren’t thought of as being as glam as the stars of the old days. Their images are no longer so tightly controlled by the studio. There’s social media, paparazzi photos, and live interviews. It’s not easy to remain a glamorous bombshell when photographers catch you doing a morning grocery run without hair and makeup! For better or worse, their personality and those unscripted moments are also part of their image.
“What we’re realizing is being a bombshell is about more than just a visual,” Dadigan said. “It also comes from inside.”
To remember the bombshells of yesteryear, including Loren, Mankiewicz noted that audiences can’t go wrong by sitting down to watch any of Loren’s early films, which include El Cid and Marriage Italian Style.
“When she’s young and it’s in black and white, those are all worth seeing,” he said. “If you can stand it, I’d see them in Italian.”
Not that you’ll be able to peel your eyes away from Loren.