'La Dolce Vita' Star Dies At 83

Jan 12, 2015
Originally published on January 13, 2015 4:20 pm
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The actress Anita Ekberg defined Swedish beauty in the 1950s and '60s. She was blonde and statuesque, with a figure that became the punch line of countless admiring jokes. She capitalized on her sensuality in over 50 movies. Anita Ekberg died yesterday in a small town near Rome after a series of illnesses. She was 83. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It's one of the most visually intoxicating scenes in movie history. Anita Ekberg, in a black evening gown, her blonde hair gleaming, floats through Rome's narrow, shuttered streets at night, a white kitten perched on her head.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA DOLCE VITA")

ULABY: She's playing essentially herself - a glittering movie star slacking off with a handsome journalist, Marcello Mastroianni.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA DOLCE VITA")

ANITA EKBERG: (As Sylvia) My goodness.

ULABY: Before you know it, she's romping in a centuries-old baroque fountain, strapless dress and all.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA DOLCE VITA")

EKBERG: (As Sylvia) Marcello, come here.

ULABY: Anita Ekberg was already famous in 1959 when "La Dolce Vida" was filmed. The Swedish born beauty queen made her first movie with Abbott and Costello seven years earlier. Producers clamored to work with the starlet Bob Hope called the greatest thing to come from Sweden since the smorgasbord.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB HOPE: Anita Ekberg, my favorite actress.

ULABY: By 1956, Ekberg was so famous, an entire Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedy was written around trying to meet her. The movie was called, inevitably, "Hollywood Or Bust."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOLLYWOOD OR BUST")

JERRY LEWIS: (As Malcolm Smith) I saw her last picture six times.

DEAN MARTIN: (As Steve Wiley) Couldn't be with a body like that.

LEWIS: (As Malcolm Smith) What couldn't be?

MARTIN: (As Steve Wiley) Her last picture.

LEWIS: (As Malcolm Smith) Oh (laughter).

ULABY: But Ekberg tired of the limitations that came with being a sex symbol. By her own account, she so wanted to work with Oscar-winning director Federico Fellini, she tried to get his attention by driving around his film sets in a flashy Mercedes convertible. And as she told Dutch TV in 1992, it worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUTCH TV SHOW)

EKBERG: I think maybe he was the best director I've ever worked with.

ULABY: Fellini told Anita Ekberg she would not get a script for "La Dolce Vita." She had to make up her part herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUTCH TV SHOW)

EKBERG: He discussed with you what you wanted, and then he wanted your opinion. So he gave what he want wanted and you gave what you wanted.

ULABY: Fellini filmed that famous Trevi Fountain scene over seven or eight nights during a cold Roman winter. People living around the fountain rented out their balconies so fans could watch. Every take ended with roars of applause, small compensation, said Ekbert.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUTCH TV SHOW)

EKBERG: It was freezing.

ULABY: Ekberg appeared in three other Fellini films, but that scene was one of the director's favorites. Later in life, he told an interviewer every time I see her in the Trevi Fountain, I have the sensation of reliving those magic moments. Those sleepless nights surrounded by the meowing of cats and the crowd that gathered from every corner of the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA DOLCE VITA")

EKBERG: (As Sylvia) Oh, I do cry sometimes.

(CAT MEOWING)

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.