The Not-Always-Sweet Life of Anita Ekberg

EKBERG, ANITA 2It’s one of the most iconic scenes in Italian cinema: a voluptuous woman in a clinging, strapless black dress wading into Rome’s famed Trevi Fountain. The actress chosen to take this memorable dip in Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita wasn’t Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Virna Lisi or another native beauty, however. It was stunning Swedish blonde Anita Ekberg, who was one of the screen’s leading sex symbols in the 1950s and ’60s and who passed away this past weekend in Rome at the age of 83.

Born Kirsten Anita Marianne Ekberg in the southern coastal town of Malmo in September of 1931, the sixth of eight children, Ekberg started modeling as a teen and in 1950 won the Miss Sweden beauty contest. Although she failed to take the Miss Universe crown the following year, Anita was awarded a contract with Universal Pictures. Her screen debut was an uncredited role in the 1953 Tyrone Power western The Mississippi Gambler (Power was also the first of several leading men–some married–she would be romantically linked with), and while with Universal she would be used as attractive “window dressing” in such 1953 films as Abbott and Costello Go to Mars and The Golden Blade, with Rock Hudson. After playing a Chinese villager (!) in the John Wayne adventure Blood Alley (1955), she appeared with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in two of the duo’s final pictures together, 1955’s Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust (as an exaggerated version of herself) the following year.

SCREAMING MIMIIn between clowning with Dean and Jerry, Anita got several chances to display her dramatic potential. She was cast in Paramount’s lavish adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in the role of Helene, ambitious wife of Count Bezukhov (Henry Fonda); as one a group of plane crash survivors lost in the South American jungle in RKO’s Back from Eternity, with Robert Ryan and Rod Steiger; and as a criminal’s duplicitous girlfriend in the “B” drama Man in the Vault. 1956 also saw her earn a Golden Globe Award (a share of one, at least: she tied with fellow starlets Victoria Shaw and Dana Wynter) for Most Promising Newcomer. Other late ’50s Ekberg efforts included a pair of films with Victor Mature, the costume adventure Zarak (1956) and a drug-smuggling thriller, Pickup Alley (1957); Valerie (also ’57), an offbeat psychological drama set in the Old West which co-starred her then-husband, Anthony Steel; the Bob Hope comedy Paris Holiday (1958); and the decidedly off-the-wall Screaming Mimi (also ’58), a burlesque-themed noir thriller with Anita as an asylum escapee who becomes an exotic dancer under the tutelage of stripshow legend Gypsy Rose Lee.

LA DOLCE VITA1960 would bring Ekberg the role for which she would be most be remembered, as the glamorous actress who catches the eye of gossip magazine writer Marcello Mastroianni during his pleasure-seeking excursion through the streets of Rome, in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Incidentally, the pair’s late-night romp through the Trevi Fountain didn’t bother the Scandinavian beauty, who stood in the unheated water for hours during the winter shoot, one bit. Co-star Mastroianni, on the other hand, needed a wetsuit under his clothes–and a bottle of vodka–to get through the scene. Things were considerably hotter years later, though, when Anita told the New York Times, “They would like to keep up the story that Fellini made me famous, Fellini discovered me,” and claimed that in fact it was her aquatic romp that put the director on the map. Such feelings didn’t stop her from working with Fellini again in Boccaccio ’70 (1962), The Clowns (1970), and Intervista (1987), which also reunited her with Mastroianni.

4 FOR TEXASOnce she came back to Hollywood, Anita found quality roles harder to come by. She was nearly tapped to be the first “Bond Girl,” Honey Ryder, in 1962’s Dr. No before the filmmakers ultimately went with Ursula Andress. She reunited with Bob Hope (who once quipped that her parents “won the Nobel Prize for architecture”) in 1963 for Call Me B’wana, and later that year co-starred with Andress, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and The Three Stooges in the frontier comedy 4 for Texas. Ekberg proved to be a charming distraction for Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Tony Randall) in the light-hearted 1965 whodunit The Alphabet Murders, based on an Agatha Christie novel, and she went to the moon as a Russian cosmonaut in the Jerry Lewis outer space romp Way…Way Out in 1966. By decade’s end, however, she was down to making European horror films like 1969’s Fangs of the Living Dead.

The 1970s and ’80s would find Ekberg cast in such exploitation efforts as the Euro-western The Deadly Trackers (1974); the title role in the convent-set shocker Killer Nun (1978); the made-for-TV adventure Gold of the Amazon Women (1979); a distaff 007 spoof, S.H.E: Security Hazards Expert (1980); and Cicciabomba (1982), an Italian dark comedy about a once-fat girl who turns into a bombshell and seeks revenge on her former tormentors. In response to audience comments about her own weight gain since her days as a ’50s starlet, the always outspoken Anita said, “I’m very much bigger than I was…so what? It’s not really fatness, it’s development.”

By the early ’90s Ekberg was semi-retired and living full-time in Italy. Her final big-screen turn came in 1999’s The Red Dwarf, a Belgian/Italian oddity in which she played a middle-aged opera diva who has an affair with a diminutive legal office clerk. Beset by financial and health problems in recent years (A 2009 report said she was “destitute” and that she lost her home to fire while hospitalized for a broken thigh), she had been using a wheelchair since a pet Great Dane broke her hip in 2011. Married and divorced twice with no children, the beauty queen-turned-movie goddess told an Italian newspaper in an 80th birthday interview that, while she was lonely, she had “no regrets” about her life. “I have loved, cried, been mad with happiness. I have won and I have lost.” Anita Ekberg may not have always lived “the sweet life,” but she had a full one, and moviegoers are the better for her sharing it with them.