In Memoriam         

Anita Ekberg
Voluptuous Swedish actor who starred in Fellini's 1960 classic film La Dolce Vita



In Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960), a tipsy blond starlet, wearing a black low-cut dress, wanders into the Trevi fountain in Rome. She tries to entice her escort to join her by calling "Marcello, Marcello" in seductive tones. The scene made the Swedish-born Anita Ekberg, who has died aged 83, a sex symbol par excellence. "She had the beauty of a young goddess," Fellini said. "The luminous colour of her skin, her clear ice-blue eyes, golden hair and exuberance, joie de vivre made her into a grandiose creature, extraterrestrial and at the same time moving and irresistible." Her co-star, Marcello Mastroianni, was initially less impressed: "She reminded me of a German soldier of the Wehrmacht who in a round-up asked me into a truck." However, after a week of getting wet in the fountain and drying her frocks in the sunlight, Ekberg gained his respect and even affection.

The director Frank Tashlin once commented: "There's nothing more hysterical to me than big-breasted women – like walking leaning towers." Ekberg was a beautiful, tall, voluptuous leaning tower in Tashlin's punningly titled Hollywood or Bust (1956). Later, in Le Tentazioni del Dottor Antonio (The Temptation of Dr Antonio), the Fellini episode from the omnibus film Boccaccio 70 (1962), she was the gigantic model who comes down from her billboard promoting milk to pursue a puritan who has campaigned against the advert.

Both Tashlin and Fellini had found a way of using the former Miss Sweden in erotic satire. She was born in the city of Malmö, on the south-western tip of Sweden, the sixth of eight children of August, a doctor, and his wife, Alvah. Having been crowned Miss Malmö and then Miss Sweden, Ekberg went to the US in the early 1950s for the Miss Universe contest and stayed to appear in a number of Hollywood films. These included The Golden Blade (1953), an Arabian Nights tale starring Rock Hudson, in which she played a handmaiden, and Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953).

Ekberg was asked to be merely decorative in a few further exotic adventure tales, such as Zarak (1956), in which Victor Mature portrayed an Afghan outlaw; and to be a stooge to Jerry Lewis in Artists and Models (1955) and Hollywood or Bust, and to Bob Hope in Paris Holiday (1958) and Call Me Bwana (1963). Her looks were used more effectively in King Vidor's War and Peace (1956), in the role of Hélène, the adulterous wife of the besotted Pierre Bezukhov (Henry Fonda)

Larger dramatic roles followed in B-movies, including Screaming Mimi (1958), a bizarre psychological thriller in which she performs striptease numbers at a sleazy nightclub called El Madhouse, and gets attacked while taking a shower – two years before Psycho. In Valerie (1957), she appeared opposite Anthony Steel, whom she had married in 1956.

It was said that the career of Steel, one of Britain's biggest movie stars in the 50s, was ruined when he married Ekberg and moved to Hollywood. There, he struggled to find much work and was often referred to by the tabloids as Mr Ekberg. Their stormy marriage ended in 1959.

One of their public arguments, while being pursued by the paparazzi in Rome, was said to have inspired some scenes in La Dolce Vita.

After that film, Ekberg, never much of an actor, became a prisoner of her own image. She posed for Playboy, Bob Dylan named her in the song I Shall Be Free, and she appeared in a number of mediocre international productions including The Mongols (1961) and Four for Texas (1963), in which the director Robert Aldrich concentrated on Ekberg's bust, especially as she leans over Frank Sinatra while shaving him.

Anita Ekberg

After an unhappy second marriage, to the actor Rik Van Nutter, which lasted from 1963 to 1975, Ekberg drank heavily and gradually gained a great deal of weight. She lived alone in a grand villa in the country near Rome, guarded by two Dobermans. After a fire and a break-in at her house, she moved into a care home and in 2011 sought financial assistance from the Fellini Foundation.

When invited to celebrate the 40th anniversary of La Dolce Vita she declined, but in 2009 agreed to appear in a BBC documentary. Previously, Fellini visited her in his film Intervista (Interview, 1987), in which there is a moving reunion between Mastroianni and Ekberg, who nostalgically watch their key scene from La Dolce Vita together.

John Francis Lane writes: When Federico Fellini asked me to play one of the reporters milling around at the news conference of the movie star played by Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, I suspected he only vaguely remembered what I'd told him of my experience as a real reporter at her wedding to Anthony Steel.

At the time of the wedding, I was Rome stringer for the British newspaper the News Chronicle. It could not afford to send its showbiz columnist to Florence so I went instead. The wedding, at the Palazzo Vecchio, was attended by 50 members of the press. When we got back to the hotel, the luminaries rushed to their rooms to write their gilded prose, while I, knowing how unreliable the Italian phones were, thought it a good idea to ask the telephonist if there were problems getting through to London. She offered me a line immediately.

What to do? I took a chance. Laboriously I started adlibbing the article, following my first instinct which had been to send it all up. I had only the pay-off in my head: "The next morning they will be back on the real film set." I came out of the booth sweating and trembling, and, as I stumbled towards the bar, who should suddenly appear but Ekberg, still in that fabulous white dress with one bare shoulder that I had just ridiculed. Seeing me, the only one of her "wedding guests" around, she beckoned me to join her for a glass of champagne.

What had I done? I had dared to make fun of a goddess. It was the end of my hopes of becoming a foreign correspondent. I sipped my champagne and gulped desperately as I saw my illustrious colleagues fighting to get a line to London for what would certainly be their rapturous accounts of the fairytale we had been privileged to witness.

When I next saw Ekberg, on the set of La Dolce Vita, she was more concerned that Fellini might be sending her up. Of course he was, yet I heard him console her affectionately: "But Anitona, how could I? You are meant to be Ava Gardner!" Her marriage was brief, but thanks to Fellini, the Nordic goddess became immortal.

Ronald BERGAN
http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jan/11/anita-ekberg

 

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