Did you know Sophia Loren once played me in a movie?
Okay, she actually played a Middle Eastern temptress named Yasmin Azir in a 1966 film called Arabesque, but hear me out.
Over the weekend I watched the wonderful new short documentary “What Would Sophia Loren Do?” on Netflix and it got me thinking about what she meant to me and the women of my family.
When I was growing up in California in the 80s and 90s, there were very few actresses who looked like me—or my mother or her friends. “Beauty” was the sum of three things: thinness, blondeness, and athleticism. For my mother, coming of age in mid-century Iran, things had been no different.
With the sole exception of Sophia Loren.
She was a dark-haired, dark-eyed spitfire. Curvy and cat-eyed. Sure, she was beautiful, but just as importantly, she was never once anyone’s fool.
Sophia Loren was us. An idealized us, but a recognizable us.
My mother in the 1960s. Note the bold cat-eye and exuberance (very La Loren).
I still love her films and have watched most of them many times. My favorites are the three shorts she made with (swoon) Marcello Mastroianni (“Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”), but the one where she plays Yasmin holds a special place in my heart.
Arabesque is not a work of high art. It wasn’t meant to be. “ABOUT 10 minutes after ‘Arabesque’ gets under way,” a New York Times reviewer wrote in 1966, “you’ll lose track of its plot completely, and that’s as it should be.”
It’s true. But that’s not even the worst part. The Orientalism, though mild by today’s standards, verily oozes off the screen.
Sophia Loren is the film’s saving grace. Swathed in Dior, with the strongest cat-eye game in history (sorry Cleopatra), she bestows “Yasmin” with her singular mix of glamour, smarts, and earthiness.
I loved “What Would Sophia Loren Do?” I loved thinking about what Sophia Loren meant to me and the women of my family. I loved re-watching Arabesque (though by “watching” I mean fast-forwarding to Sophia’s scenes).
It meant something to see even a glimpse of “us” in a film. My gosh, it still does.