As the gun smoke cleared at the end of World War II, Hollywood studios and movie audiences fell head over heels in love with the beauties of European cinema. Stars of the French and Italian screen flocked to the palm-tree lined streets and golden sands of California to make their mark in movies, and Tinseltown couldn’t get enough.
It was during this period that an ambitious young film director was striding past the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome when he was stopped in his tracks by a raven-haired student with big brown eyes.
Nineteen-year-old Gina Lollobrigida had a beguiling, carefree charm as she hung around the gates of the grand old institution where she was studying, and he couldn’t take his eyes off her. Not only was her face the epitome of Neapolitan beauty, her figure was the type that inspired the great Italian artists – she was a dark-haired Renaissance goddess come to life.
Humphrey Bogart would later famously say she made Marilyn Monroe look like Shirley Temple. The director instantly knew he had stumbled across a star, and he begged her to appear in one of his films.
“Curiosity led me to make appearances in two or three films,” humble Gina said of the moment she was discovered. “I had two directors stop me twice outside of my school and ask if I wanted to be in movies.”
Gina happily played small parts, but when she was offered the lead role in Love of a Clown, aka Pagliacci (1948), she “absolutely refused”. She was more interested in painting and sculpture. The producers, however, wouldn’t give up.
“They came back, going to my mother to try and convince me,” she explained. “My final strategy for getting them to leave me alone was to ask to be paid one million lira, which was a lot compared to the 1000 lira I earned daily for secondary roles. To my great surprise, they accepted, and this is how I began my cinema career.”
Sensuous and sophisticated, Gina embodied Italy’s postwar energy and glamour, and she quickly became a sensation. She was dubbed “La Lollo” and it didn’t take long for Hollywood to notice. In 1950, the powerful mogul and movie maker Howard Hughes opened a magazine and saw a photograph of Gina in a bikini. He decided she had to be his.
The mega-wealthy playboy was a regular at the glitzy Cocoanut Grove nightclub, where he dined with the Golden Era’s most desirable stars. Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers and Ava Gardner all had love affairs with Howard. But his aggressive pursuit of Gina was more like coercion than seduction, and it would derail what should have been a true Hollywood success story for her.
At the time, Howard’s directorial output at RKO (which he owned) was being derided as “little more than vehicles for [Jane] Russell and various girlfriends”. But as the sole owner of the studio, Howard could do what he wanted – and he did, with no regard for the wishes of others.
When Howard’s representatives contacted Gina and invited her to Hollywood, he expected she would be grateful and obedient. But he hadn’t counted on the fiery spirit of La Lollo.
At first, Gina was excited by Howard’s offer, but she told his representatives she had a condition: she wanted her husband to come. Gina had married a man named Milko Škofič, who had proposed at a time when she was feeling vulnerable and alone. As a 19-year-old, Gina had been raped, leaving her deeply traumatised, so when Milko proposed, she thought the benign physician was her best chance at a normal life.
“I felt ruined,” she would say of that period in her life. She wouldn’t go to Hollywood without her husband. Howard’s men told Gina the studio would fly them both over together, but after she agreed she discovered they’d only booked one ticket. Milko told Gina to go without him. He trusted her and said he didn’t want her to resent him for preventing her from chasing her dreams.
“He said, ‘Go. I don’t want you to say one day that I didn’t let you have a career.’ So I went alone,” she said.
With her husband’s blessing, Gina was free to pursue a career in Hollywood. But when she arrived, the reality was very different to what she’d imagined. “All I saw was Howard Hughes,” she said flatly.
Howard set Gina up in a hotel suite, but it would be just as accurate to say he locked her up. Guards were stationed outside her door and she was only allowed to leave the room if she was accompanied by Howard. She languished in this way for six weeks until one day Howard turned up and told her he was taking her to a meeting. The next thing she knew, he was flying her to Las Vegas, where he tried to convince her to leave her husband.
“Hughes asked me to divorce Milko and marry him. Then I would have a fast, brilliant career. Millions, furs, jewels, everything I could desire,” she said.
But Gina refused Howard. “I was married, and for me the marriage was one for life,” she said. Fed up, she demanded her give her a screen test. When he gave her a script to read about divorce, Gina announced she was returning to Rome. Before she left, Howard plied her with champagne at a party he threw in her honour. In the early hours of the morning, he gave her a contract to sign. Gina was tired and tipsy and she couldn’t read English very well. She asked what the contract said and then scrawled her signature and returned to Italy. Little did she realise the contract effectively forbade her from working in Hollywood unless she was working for Howard.
Back in her home country, Gina threw herself into acting. Her breakout performance in Bread, Love and Dreams (1953) earned her widespread praise and a nomination for a BAFTA award. But the Italian siren who was declared “the most beautiful woman in the world” remained locked out of the wider studio system thanks to her contract with Howard.
“I couldn’t return to Hollywood without Howard Hughes filing a lawsuit. He said I was his property,” she said.
She cleverly got around Howard’s terms by appearing in Hollywood films shot on location in Europe. She was a hard-working star and appeared opposite Humphrey Bogart in Beat the Devil (1953). This was during the era when Hollywood’s obsession with Italian cinema hit fever pitch.
The on-set culture was described by Time magazine thus: “Drinking orgies, studio spies and gorgeous villas with swimming pools were the rule of the day.” However, devoted wife Gina remained professional, so much so that Humphrey Bogart christened her “Gina Lo-lo-frigid-er”. Still, she was making headway; the Time article about the rise of Italian cinema had her face on the cover.
As Gina fought her way back into Hollywood, she became increasingly frustrated at seeing another Italian actress scooping up the opportunities that should have been hers. Sophia Loren was seven years her junior and unencumbered by the crushing restrictions that blocked La Lollo’s ambitions. Gina made no attempt to hide her resentment of her rival. “I succeeded only thanks to myself, without any producer supporting me. I did everything alone,” she once said in a veiled swipe of Sophia’s husband Carlo Ponti, who invested heavily in launching Sophia as an international star.
Gina eventually triumphed. In 1956 she started in Trapeze opposite Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, and Hollywood studios could no longer deny her star power. In 1959 she was cast alongside Frank Sinatra in Never So Few for MGM, who wanted La Lollo so badly they paid off Howard.
“MGM had to pay $75,000 to Howard Hughes, in addition to my contract, just to placate him,” Gina said. She was so captivating that Frank fell in love with her and pursued her assiduously. “I was embarrassed by all of the attention and I also felt a bit guilty. So I gave him two Dali watercolours,” she said.
Despite her unwavering devotion to her husband, Gina’s marriage to Milko was far from perfect, and in 1971 she divorced him. “He played tennis and counted the money. He did not do anything else,” she said.
She’d also later reveal she regretted not giving in to Howard’s odious advances. At the time she was naive, she explained. “He was too rich. There was too much of a difference between me at that time and him. I couldn’t concede to have a man near me where I had zero and he had too much.”
But no matter the regrets or Howard’s attempts to stall her Tinseltown dreams, in the end Gina and her incredible talent would triumph.