BY LEE PFEIFFER
The cruel loss of legendary cinematic figures continues into the new year with the death of Anita Ekberg in Italy at age 83. The precise cause of death is not known at this time but she had suffered from a long illness. Ekberg was Swedish by birth but was often mistaken as a native of Italy because of her close association with Fellini and his films. She was named Miss Sweden as a teenager and competed in the Miss Universe contest before her statuesque figure ensured a career in show business during an era when full-bosomed sex sirens were all the rage. Hollywood studios were particularly on the lookout for the next exotic European beauty and Ekberg filled the bill perfectly. She slogged through bit parts uncredited in major studio productions before landing a prominent role opposite John Wayne and Lauren Bacall in the 1955 hit "Blood Alley" (in which she played a Chinese woman!) This opened doors and she went on to appear in other Hollywood hits including "Back From Eternity", "War and Peace" and the Martin and Lewis smash "Artists and Models". She would reunite on screen with the comedy team for "Hollywood or Bust". She received above-the-title billing in the 1956 adventure film "Zarak" opposite Victor Mature for future James Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli. However, it was the Fellini classic "La Dolce Vita" that made her a household name in 1960. In the film's most memorable sequence, she cavorts in the Trevi Fountain with Marcello Mastroianni while attired in a gown. Photos of the sequence remain an iconic part of film history. After "Vita", Ekberg's star burned brightly but briefly. She reunited with Fellini for a segment of the 1962 film "Boccaccio '70". She appeared opposite Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in the hit western spoof "4 For Texas" and opposite Tony Randall in "The Alphabet Murders". She had a starring role in the 1963 comedy "Call Me Bwana" with Bob Hope. The film was produced by Broccoli, now in partnership with Harry Saltzman. (It remained the only non-Bond film the men would produce during the years of their partnership). She also had a prominent role in the Jerry Lewis comedy "Way...Way...Out". By the late 1960s, however, her star had faded in English language cinema and she concentrated on starring in European productions that were often made on low budgets. Her last credited screen role was in "The Red Dwarf" in 1998.
Ekberg's love life was the stuff of dreams for the tabloid press. She had affairs with prominent male stars such as Yul Brynner and Frank Sinatra. She was married for three years to British actor Anthony Steel and was married for over a decade to American actor Rik Van Nutter, who is primarily known for playing CIA man Felix Leiter in the Broccoli-Saltzman James Bond blockbuster "Thunderball" in 1965. Supposedly, Broccoli, who was dining with Ekberg and Van Nutter, offered him the role over dinner on a whim. It was a James Bond film, "From Russia With Love", that played an important role in Ekberg's career, though-bizarrely- she never appeared in the movie, at least in the flesh. In a pivotal sequence, a Soviet agent is assassinated when he tries to climb out a window of an Istanbul apartment house, the wall of which is adorned with a giant promotion of Ekberg in "Call Me Bwana". The clever gimmick promoted the Broccoli-Saltzman comedy that was already in release.
Ekberg's later years were anything but glamorous. In her obituary, the New York Times reports that the childless actress spent her last days in a nursing home penniless and lonely. She did, however, have one last moment in the sun when she appeared in 2010 at an Italian film festival where a restored print of "La Dolce Vita" was being shown. For at least this brief moment, her glory days returned as she made a glamorous appearance that stole the show.
For NY Times obituary, click here.
Click here for review of "Back From Eternity".
Click here for analysis of "La Dolce Vita".