Carlo Ponti, one of Italy’s best film producers, died January 9, 2007, at a hospital in Geneva, Switzerland, where he had been undergoing treatment for pulmonary complications. He was 94. “His death marks the end of an era in filmmaking because Ponti embodied a great and courageous push to innovate and promote unforgettable talents and enjoyed huge success,” said Francesco Rutelli, the Italian cultural minister.
Ponti produced more than 150 films, including “La Strada” in 1954, “Dr. Zhivago” in 1965, and “Blowup” in 1966. In the end, however, he was best known as the husband of Sophia Loren, whom he first met in 1950, when she was a 15-year-old beauty contestant from Naples. At the time he was married to Giuliana Fiastri, a marriage that eventually ended in 1957, but not without creating a furor. Italy had no divorce laws at that time, and the Vatican refused to grant him an annulment. When Ponti married Loren in Mexico in 1957, the Italian authorities charged him with bigamy. In 1960, the couple returned to Italy but were summoned to court, and denied being married. In 1965, Ponti, Fiastri, and Loren all became French citizens in Paris where officials settled the marital issues and untangled the legal and financial issues. Ponti then legally married Loren in 1966; in 1968, he was acquitted of the bigamy charges. The couple eventually had two sons, symphony conductor Carlo Jr. and film director Edoardo.
Ponti was born in Magenta, Italy, and studied law at the University of Milan. After graduation, he briefly practiced law. It may have been his love for money and women, it is said, that attracted him to the film business. He set up a company in Milan and joined forces with Lux Film. In 1940, as World War II was raging across Europe, the company produced “Piccolo
Mondo Antico” (“Small Old-Fashioned World”), adapted from Antonio Fogazzaro’s late 19th century romantic novel. The movie was directed by Mario Soldati with Alida Valli in the lead role. It became a great success, and Ponti moved south to Rome to produce for Lux. He was soon joined by Dino de Laurentis and together they made a number of successful postwar films, including Giuseppe De Santis’s “BitterRice” (“Risa Amaro”) an earthy drama of human passions among women rice workers in the Po Valley, and Luigi Zampa’s “To Live in Peace” (“Vivere in Pace”) a World War II comedy-drama.
In 1950, DeLaurentis and Ponti left Lux and formed their own company. They produced, among other notable films, Rosselini’s “Europa ‘51,’” a drama with Ingrid Bergman, and Fellini’s “La Strada,” starring Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina. The two producers parted ways in 1955, when Ponti’s main concern became boosting the career of Loren. Ponti produced most of the films that Loren made for Hollywood between 1956 and the early sixties. None of them were memorable except for the movie that adopted Moravia’s “La Ciociara” (“Two Women,” 1960). For her performance, Loren won a Best Actress Oscar -- the first given to a non-American actress in a foreign language film. Loren plays a young widow in 1943 Italy who flees the allied bombing in Rome to return to her native village. Later Ponti teamed up with Vittorio De Sica and together they produced two hugely popular movies, “Marriage Italian Style” (l964) and “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (1965).
Under an agreement with MGM, Ponti produced three movies in English by Michelangelo Antonioni: “Blow Up” (1966), “The Passenger” (1975), and “Zabriskie’s Point” (1970). In 1977, he produced another popular Italian movie, Ettore Scola’s “Una Giornata Particolare” (“A Special Day”), starring Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. The movie won the 1977 Golden Globe award for best foreign film.
In his later years, Ponti left much of his company’s activity to his son by his first marriage, Alex. Ponti and Loren became jet-setters and frequently traveled between their homes in California, Geneva, and Paris. As the Washington Post noted in an article recalling his life, Ponti became perhaps the most envied man in the world as the husband of Sophia
Looking back in his life, Ponti said in 2002: “I have done everything for love of Sophia.” Despite all the numerous movies he produced and the celebrity status he achieved, Sophia Loren was and continues to be his greatest success story. •t