La dolce Anita

With Anita Ekberg, talk usually revolves around the Fountain of Trevi, a monument forever associated with the scene in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita in which she dances in its waters so alluringly. Nearly 40 years later, conversation wandered a few hundred yards away, to the Spanish Steps.

"On the Piazza di Spagna, in the 50s, I was completely mashed by paparazzi. And the public. My blonde hair," the Swedish-born Ekberg explained matter-of-factly. She added, more dismissively: "Now everybody is blonde here. Have you seen a news presenter on television that is not blonde? I mean, there are more blondes here, especially on Italian television, than in the whole of Scandinavia. Really. And they are all dark Mediterranean. But they all want to bleach their hair. Blonde, blonde, blonde."

Ekberg, 68, is still blonde, her hair falling in soft waves below her shoulders. During an interview over a hearty restaurant lunch of sparkling Italian prosecco, smoked salmon and assorted seafood, her slanting blue eyes were masked behind a pair of huge black-framed designer sunglasses, but they were artfully evoked by a rock-size aquamarine pendant and matching ring. Her figure, for which she was far more famous, was concealed under a black tunic, leggings and boots.

It has been decades since she looked like the sex goddess who entranced Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini's 1960 classic. Or sounded like one. Her once satiny, babyish whisper ("Marcello, come, join me") has become harsher with time and tobacco. With her deep, authoritative voice, imperious manner and carefully tended face, she looks and acts very much the diva. Even more than her Arctic blondness and improbably full figure, it was that quality that inspired Fellini to weave his satirical look at Roman decadence around her persona. And that is the quality that drove the Belgian director Yvan Le Moine to cast her as a mercurial retired opera star in his feature film debut, a Fellini-esque art film called The Red Dwarf.

"It was an easy choice. I needed someone famous, someone strong and capricious who fit the part, a kind of retired diva," Le Moine explained. It is less obvious why Ekberg, who lives alone in quiet semi-retirement in her villa outside Rome, accepted the part of a spoiled, overweight opera singer who has an affair with a dwarf.

The decision took some time. "I got the script in Italian and English, and I thought it was so scabroso ," Ekberg explained, her gravelly voice dropping an octave over the Italian word for salacious. "And I said no, no and no. I am not going to do that kind of role. And they begged me and the director came to Rome two or three times to try and convince me - 'Ah, I need you, I want you'." She returned to her own voice. "Actually, he's not really a dwarf, you know; he just, he never really grew," she said of her co-star, Jean-Yves Thual.

In the film, shot in black-and-white, Thual plays a poetically-minded law clerk who becomes sexually obsessed with Countess Paola Bendoni, a famous opera star, who, while seeking his services in a divorce case, playfully allows him to seduce her. They make ill-paired love, but she soon tires of him and he strangles her in a jealous passion. The camera lingers sometimes unkindly over Ekberg's heavily made up face and vast, flowing caftans, but the rollicking bed scenes, she explained with a giggle, were actually performed beneath the sheets by Thual and the actor (Arno Chevrier) who plays her hulking gigolo husband.

The fact that she had not made a film since 1996 - when she took a small part in an Italian film, Bambola, as a 70-year-old trattoria owner who dies in a gas explosion - goes unmentioned. Instead she unfurled another motive: "Lollo-brigida wanted to do it. Well, it's the kind of role that would suit her," she said with a throaty laugh. "I can't stand her."

Ekberg has lived in Italy for the better part of three decades, but her feud with the Italian sex symbol Gina Lollobrigida is only a few years old. They met for the first time, she said, at a neighbour's party. "I remember it so well. I had on an emerald green chiffon long evening gown," she said. "In comes Lollobrigida, in August, with a copy Chanel suit. Black. Wool. And boots. In August. And lots of jewels. I always call her a Christmas tree." When Ekberg went up to introduce herself, she said, Lollobrigida cut her off and walked away. She did it again at another party.

Ekberg got her revenge a month later, when both actresses were booked on the same flight to Latin America. In the VIP lounge, Ekberg instructed her secretary to buy some sandwiches - and to offer to buy Lollobrigida some as well. "She stood up and took my magazines without even asking," Ekberg recalled indignantly. "They were sealed; she broke the seals and started to read just like that. And then, when the sandwiches came she didn't even say to my secretary, 'Grazzie,' much less offer to pay for hers."

Ekberg said that on the flight she carefully asked her fellow first-class passengers if they minded if she smoked, and they eagerly told her to go ahead. As she lit her cigarette, from three rows away, she said, Lollobrigida bellowed: "Anita, will you put out that cigarette? It smells like hell!" Ekberg smiled wickedly and switched to Italian to finish her tale. "So I just looked at her and I said very loud, 'Oh, Gina, why don't you stop being such a pain'." The audience, she said, laughed appreciatively.

Lollobrigida, however, said she had no interest in the opera star role. "I remember receiving an awful, vulgar script," she said. "Obviously, I sent them to hell." She had more innocuous memories of the airplane incident. "Anita was smoking in a no-smoking area and I cannot bear cigarette smoke," she recalled. "I asked her to put it out but she continued. That was it."

Ekberg stopped smoking more than a year ago, to prove a point to a friend who stopped smoking and "never stopped whining about it". She said she had not missed cigarettes at all: "I am strong and determined".

It is sometimes hard to recall that this Anita Ekberg, who speaks in a Bette Davis staccato and recoiled when a waiter tried to give her a water glass as if she had been slapped in the face ("I never drink water at a meal," she said, waving for more wine), was once the ripe blonde goddess who drove men - and especially Italian men - wild.

In the 1987 film Intervista, a mock documentary about film-making, Fellini takes Mastroianni to Ekberg's villa, and the two stars, both aged and bloated, look at their younger, lithe selves in scenes from La Dolce Vita. Ekberg, who said she did not have any rapport with Mastroianni - "he was always very closed up" - has fonder memories of Fellini, who remained a friend until his death in 1993. "I didn't speak Italian and he didn't speak English at that time. We communicated by looking at each other. It was most amazing. We didn't need dialogue very often. With the little Italian I knew, and the little English he knew, we communicated very, very well." He called her "Anitona," an endearment that underscores size and that was quickly adopted by all Italians. "I hated the name," she said. "But he gave nicknames to everybody."

Ekberg is not sentimental. She still fumes at how Fellini insisted on filming Intervista at her villa and allowed his crews to track mud on to her carpeting. "They underpaid me a lot, that is for sure," she said, "but I didn't know what to ask." These days, she is more careful about money and charges $10,000 for a public appearance - and some interviews (though not this one). Such requests, her agent said, are frequent, and almost always linked to La Dolce Vita.

She has more than 50 other films to her credit. A former Miss Sweden who was born in Malmo, she moved to Hollywood in 1951 and soon became sufficiently famous to play herself, a busty sex symbol, in a 1956 Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy, Hollywood or Bust. Aside from playing Helene in King Vidor's 1956 version of War and Peace, most of her movies have titles like Sheba and the Gladiator (she played Queen Zenobia of Palmyra), and have faded from memory.

The part of Sylvia, a lovely, capricious Hollywood star who goes to Rome on a shoot in La Dolce Vita, however, is immortal. Fellini, who didn't believe in writing out scripts, borrowed freely from Ekberg's life to create her character. Sylvia, like her, was a glamorous sex symbol hounded by the paparazzi, who travelled with a large entourage that included an alienated, hard-drinking husband. Ekberg's own estranged mate was Anthony Steel, a fading British leading man whose drinking destroyed his career. They divorced in 1963 and the following year she married another B-movie actor, Rik Van Nutter. That marriage ended in 1975. She dismissed both marriages as "unfortunate" and said she chose not to dwell on her past love affairs, though in her heyday she was romantically linked with some of the most famous men in the world, from Gary Cooper to the Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli.

Looking back, she mostly examines the ravages time has wrought on others. "He was so beautiful," she said of the French actor Alain Delon, whom she met in the early 60s. "He has not aged well, I think. But there again, if a woman gets older - and we all do get wrinkles - so do the men. But they criticise the woman, and they don't necessarily criticise the actor; he can look like hell. Look at Marlon Brando: the last pictures of him, he's like a wine keg. Really."

Flamboyant in interviews, Ekberg is described by colleagues as actually reserved and private. She almost never goes home to Sweden, she said, and gets on with only one of her seven siblings. In Italy she goes out rarely. She says her girlfriends gave up on her because she would not leave the house without spending hours applying makeup. "As if I could go out in a scarf and tracksuit, like some ordinary housewife," she said.

"She has a tough hide, and she is very strong and wilful, funny, and very exaggerated, very Hollywood," Le Moine said. "But there is something also touching about her. She lives alone, in solitude and great fragility."

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