A SUNDAY DISCUSSION WITH A DIVA ABOUT HER LOVES AND SUCCESSES. Gina Lollobrigida: “I turned Sinatra down. To make it up to him, I gave him two Dali paintings.”

This 2001 interview with Gina Lollobrigida from our archive is newly published here because we feel that the “art of the interview” can provide fascinating and timeless insights.

Pietrasanta is a town that has always been frequented by the most important artists of every era, where they honed their craft, be it sculpture or architecture. Now Gina Lollobrigida works on her mysterious sculptures in this magical city. She works in a very large space where she keeps her bronzes and marbles covered with black cloths, carefully protected from dust and the prying lenses of photographers. 

She says: “I would have liked to have held my first exhibition in March, thanks to an invitation from the city of Paris. Unfortunately, due to delays with the foundry, this exhibition could not take place. Currently, I’m considering other offers: New York, Tokyo, Berlin. Until then, my work will remain an absolute secret.”

When did you decide to live in Pietrasanta? And why?

About a year ago. It is the perfect place for my work. More than ten years ago, I began to dedicate myself to my old loves—sculpture and painting, which I had abandoned as a young girl when I attended the Fine Arts Academy in Rome.

Observing is more interesting than being observed. You learn about yourself by seeking out others.

Gina Lollobrigida with her sculpture in 2003.

Gina Lollobrigida, why didn’t you become a sculptor or a painter when you were young?

Fate took me in a different direction. I had two directors stop me twice outside of my school and ask if I wanted to be in movies. Curiosity led me to make appearances in two or three films. Then when I was offered the lead role in Love of a Clown, I absolutely refused, though I was training as a lyric soprano, and the film was in line with that. But they didn’t give up, and they came back, going to my mother to try to convince me. My final strategy for getting them to leave me alone was to ask to be paid one million, which was a lot compared to the 1,000 I earned daily for secondary roles. I thought this would be enough to discourage anyone. To my great surprise, they accepted, and this is how I began my cinema career.

What year was that?

It was 1949 or 1950. Then I met De Sica in the film Bread, Love, and Dreams. He was the one who really believed in me and convinced me that, if I worked hard, I would have a brilliant film career.

Did fame come immediately?

Not exactly. I had my first international success with Fanfan la Tulipe, which was shot in France with Gérard Philipe, then things began to build to a crescendo: I worked with René Clair, Carol Reed, John Huston in the United States, France, and England, working “live” in the three languages. Italian, French, and English.

What is it like to be a big diva?

I never got used to the success. Success embarrasses me, and it bothers me to be looked at. I never sought out publicity. I’ve had too much exposure. I have had 7,000 covers, and I’ve never paid for an article. Quite a good record. I never even had a publicist. The Americans couldn’t believe it.

What were your most famous films?

With Gérard Philipe, aside from Fanfan la Tulipe, which is a classic, I did Les Belles de Nuit, and then Beat the Devil with Bogart, The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Anthony Quinn, Never so Few with Sinatra, Come September with Rock Hudson, and Imperial Venus.

Was Gérard Philipe as charming as they say?

He was a dear: cheerful, a wonderful theatre actor. He is the one who taught me French. To learn English, I placed an ad in the newspaper in the UK to find an English-speaking girl who would spend a year at my house in Rome. I received a million responses. After a year, the girl spoke perfect Italian. I also made a lot of progress, but John Huston forbade me from going any further so that I wouldn’t lose that Italian accent he found so delightful.

I never accepted a film just because. Quality was always important.

Gina Lollobrigida, what other important films did you do?

There were so many, more than sixty. Trapeze with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, Woman of Straw with Sean Connery, Solomon and Sheba with Yul Brynner, Mad Sea with Belmondo, Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, and King, Queen, Knave with David Niven. Howard Hughes invited me to Hollywood, and I signed a contract with him. I have to say that he was more interested in me as a woman than as an actress. He was possessive and did everything to keep me for himself. I was already married when I went to Hollywood, and I stayed for two-and-a-half months. I saw Howard Hughes every day. Alida Valli had a contract with him for seven years and saw him only once.

Did you have a relationship with him?

He was my most perseverant suitor. He wooed me for a good thirteen years.

What kind of relationship did you have with Frank Sinatra?

I couldn’t return to Hollywood without Howard Hughes filing a lawsuit. He said I was his property. When I finally returned to America to do a film with Sinatra, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had to pay $75,000 to Howard Hughes, in addition to my contract, just to placate him. Sinatra was so kind to me. He pursued me assiduously. He came to pick me up at the airport, waiting at the bottom of the stairs of the plane. He held a concert in my honor in Las Vegas. I was embarrassed by all of the attention, and I also felt a bit guilty. So I gave him two Dali watercolors.

Were you quite wealthy at the time?

The Hollywood contracts I had were truly a dream. They gave me everything I wanted. I had approval of the cast, the director, the producer, and I got quite a significant percentage of overall earnings. When I went to do a film, I’d take my husband, my son, my nanny, my seamstress, my hairdresser, and my “lady-in-waiting”, a French countess who helped me perfect languages. And they would send my Rolls by plane as well. Though they provided a driver. So, I showed up as a star, and my films brought in record-breaking sums. I never accepted a film just because. Quality was always important.

Did you also work in Italy?

I received offers from Fellini, Visconti, and other big directors, but I had to refuse because I couldn’t work in Rome and Hollywood at the same time. It was the golden era of Italian cinema.

When did you stop acting?

I never stopped. But I began taking photographs because I wanted to do fewer films. I began working with Time Life. I did a book on Italy, and I came to realize how creative photography is, and this is how I fell in love with it. I took photographs for thirty years. Observing is more interesting than being observed. You learn about yourself by seeking out others.

Finally, I’m doing what I have wanted to do from the time I was a child.

Gina Lollobrigida, when did you decide to take up sculpture?

After five photography books, including “Filippine” and “Italia Mia”, I did a book about children and animals called “Magica Innocenza”. It took me fifteen years to complete it. After that book, I returned to drawings and portraits. I also did a portrait of Fidel Castro in Cuba and Henry Kissinger in the United States. I returned to sculpture ten years ago. In 1992, I was invited to the Expo in Seville, and I made a child flying happily on an eagle. French President Mitterrand really admired this statue, and, shortly thereafter, he awarded me with the Légion d’honneur, which was an immense pleasure for me. I’m not only interested in form. I want there to be feeling and spirituality in my work as well. With my sculptures, I wanted to interpret the golden age of 1950s cinema that I had experienced, so joyous and full of imagination. I did this by bringing that feeling back in my portraits of some of the most famous personalities.

What kind of relationship do you have with your grandson?

Dimitri calls me “Gi”, and he’s such a sweetheart. He is like me, and is more extroverted. My son is introverted, a bit like his father who was Slavic.

Are you happy now?

Yes, very. I have just finished two large, five-metre sculptures that took me a long time. Finally, I’m doing what I have wanted to do from the time I was a child.

Is it difficult being Gina Lollobrigida?

Oh goodness. As a sculptor, I need to apologize for being Gina Lollobrigida. For my first sculpture, a critic had negative things to say about it without having seen my work. And when he did see it, he was even more irritated because he found it to be beautiful. The same thing happened to me with photography. Gina Lollobrigida is allowed to have success as an actress, but as photographer, or—even worse—a sculptor, then this is unacceptable.

Are you done with cinema?

No. It all depends on if I receive an interesting script. Unfortunately, only men continue to find age-appropriate roles. Actually, now some of them do their best films, like Clint Eastwood.

This interview was published in La Stampa on 15th July, 2001.