Even though she was born in Malmö, Sweden on September 29, 1931, Anita Ekberg was an Italian actress. She had become a star elsewhere first but it was in Rome that her marquee lights flared. She was a living, breathing representation of cinema that drove both men and women, avowed cinephiles as well as Sunday movie-goers, crazy. And it is Rome, too, that Ekberg would call home ever since the fifties, never returning to her native Scandinavia.
She was a model during her teenage years, becoming Miss Malmö and then Miss Sweden. In 1951, she competed for the Miss Universe title and failed, although her participation got her signed with Universal. Her blonde mane and Russ Meyer bends caught the eye of filmmaker Howard Hughes. He asked her to anglicize her Swedish name, which he deemed unpronounceable. She refused, retorting that if she were to become famous the public would have to learn to pronounce it, and she remained a nobody, then it would not matter.
Ekberg began shooting in Hollywood, headlining alongside the likes of Tyrone Power, Jerry Lewis, Robert Mitchum and Bob Hope. Concerning the actress’s curves the latter has been quoted as saying that her parents deserved the Nobel Prize in Architecture. It is that same plump and fleshy body, rightly aligned with the changing standards of the time, that made Ekberg the sexy poster child of a nascent eroticism replete with pin-ups and new publications like Playboy magazine.
The paps started buzzing soon after that. The clandestinely-shot and immediately-published photos of a domestic dispute with her first husband, actor Anthony Steel, caught the attention of Fellini just as he was prepping for “La Dolce Vita.” He cast Ekberg in the role of Sylvia, a character that blended Monroe, Gardner and all the others who came to Rome to be in the movies. Fellini called Ekberg “phosphorescent.”
Before shooting, fellow actor Marcello Mastroianni expressed some doubt concerning the one whom he’d nicknamed “Iceberg.” He said, “she reminds me of a German soldier for the Wehrmacht who once tried to get me to climb in a truck.” Just as well: the two actors became very close.
Anita Ekberg, who passed on yesterday at the age of 83 in Italy, will always be associated with her character of Sylvia. In the eyes of filmmakers and movie-watchers alike it’s as if she’s remained forever wading in the waters of the Trevi Fountain. She would later appear in various films shot in Italy, many of which were passably forgettable.
Above all, however, Ekberg became a fixture on Rome’s society circuit, attracting gossip columnists who relished her affairs, and her falling outs especially those with Gina Lollobrigida, that other Italian sex bomb.
Alcohol abuse gradually started doing a number on Ekberg’s appearance, she gained weight. In the rare interviews that she gave (always about “La Dolce Vita”) she would describe, with a voice that sounded like Bette Davis’s, how women do not have the right to grow old while Brando can self-assuredly look like a barrel of wine.
Later on, Fellini himself would commit the permanence of the myth as well as the physical decay of actors to film in 1987’s “Intervista.” In one scene Mastroianni and Ekberg, both old and wrinkled, look at their younger selves in a scene from “La Dolce Vita” as we hold our breath collectively, basking in the moment (click on the link below to view).