One of the reasons why Anita Ekberg has been on my mind lately is because I recently sat down to watch Hollywood Or Bust. I even managed to write about one of my favourite scenes from the film where Ekberg kisses Jerry Lewis. In short it led me to reconsider what I really know about Ekberg the actress.
Born in Malmo, Sweden in 1931, no one imagined Anita Ekberg would become a sex symbol. However, by the time she was in her late teens, she was encouraged by her mother and friends to enter Malmo’s beauty contest. She consequently won the Miss Sweden contest and was exposed to the glitz and glamour that was the Miss Universe beauty pageant. She didn’t win but the exposure she received won her a scarlet contract with Universal studios.
Ekberg’s first recognised role was as a Venusian guard in the comedy Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953). It was a promising start that eventually led to Ekberg winning a Golden Globe award for new star of the year for her performance as a Chinese villager in Blood Alley (1955) along side screen legends John Wayne and Lauren Bacall. Interestingly, following her success at the Golden Globes, Ekberg was promised big things by Hollywood studios. Her first lead role came in Back From Eternity (1956). She even put in a good performance as Henry Fonda’s unfaithful wife, Princess Helena in War and Peace (1956).
Notably in this period Ekberg was typecast in roles that exploited her buxom physique. It didn’t necessarily bother her but with real meaningful female character roles in Hollywood alluding her, she instead found international fame in several major Italian films during the 1960s.
The most celebrated of the Italian films that made her an international star was La Dolce Vita (1960). Italian director Federico Fellini, who first noticed Ekberg years earlier in the 1956 film War and Peace alongside Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn, cast Ekberg as Silvia, a Marilyn Monroe-esque movie starlet who arrives in Rome to shoot a movie. In the film’s most famous scene she wades in the Trevi Fountain, wearing a black strapless dress and playfully skips around trying to entice Marcello Mastroianni to join her.
Following the success of La Dolce Vita, Ekberg worked for Fellini again in the segment of Boccaccio 70 (1962) entitled ‘The Temptation of Dr Antonio’, in which a provocative poster of Ekberg comes to life and drives the moral crusading good doctor crazy. The role in turn helped Ekberg’s chances of appearing in the first of the planned James Bond films Dr No (1962). Unfortunately though she missed out on the part of Honey Ryder losing out to Ursula Andress.
Despite Ekberg’s disappointment of not landing a role in Dr No, she was instead compensated with a supporting role in Bob Hope’s adventure-comedy Call Me Bwana (1962). Several other big studio productions also helped fix Ekberg in American audiences minds, notably the comedy western 4 for Texas (1963) with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and the murder mystery film The Alphabet Murders (1965) alongside Tony Randall and Robert Morley. But these films in truth like most of the films in Ekberg’s career focussed on her ‘full fantasy figure’ rather than giving her the opportunity to really act. Soon thereafter, Ekberg turned her back on Hollywood and from the late ’60s returned to Europe to make movies there.
It’s fair to say Ekberg enjoyed the privileged life she attained through film fame. She was often linked with many leading Hollywood men including the likes of Frank Sinatra and Errol Flynn. Dubbed the ‘ice queen’ in those early Hollywood days, she would later marry twice. She was often outspoken and famously, years later once said that “It was me who made Fellini famous, not the other way round.” But she was also equally candid once saying that her greatest regret was not having any children.
In her last years, she apparently led a quiet life. Having said that she did make an appearance in 2010 at the world premiere of a newly restored version of La Dolce Vita but regrettable she returned to the villa she was living in south of Rome. Ekberg, in some distress died at the age of 83, penniless after years of fame in 2015. Before she died it was reported that she was very saddened by her advancing old age, the problems associated with a fall where she broke her hip and her illness.
While we can honestly say Anita Ekberg was never really a great actress, her legacy in film is still nonetheless forever immortalised in one electrifying performance as Sylvia in the film La Dolce Vita (1960). I guess looking back now it was a dream role. A dream role that film enthusiasts can experience again and again thanks to home entertainment and the occasional special screening of the film at your local theatre.