Sophia Loren has vivid memories of her first Hollywood cocktail party in 1957. She was seated next to the amply endowed actress Jayne Mansfield, who was wearing a dangerously low-cut dress.
The photo of a wide-eyed, shocked Loren glancing over at Mansfield captures a classic Hollywood moment.
"I couldn't believe it," Loren recalled, laughing, during a recent interview. "I thought [her breasts] would come out!"
After half a century in the movie business — in Hollywood and Europe — Loren has a wonderful sense of humor and perspective on cinema and on life. She turned 80 in September, a fact she's still getting her head around.
"When you are 20 years old, you don't think one day you will turn 80," said Loren, by phone from her home in Geneva. "But when you do, you still can't believe it. But of course, I have still the pleasure of going on with my dreams. You can still fall in love with your future."
The AFI Fest is honoring her past, present and future Wednesday evening with a tribute at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood and Highland. The Italian superstar, who has been lauded not only for her talent but also her stunning beauty, will be in conversation with Rob Marshall, who directed her in the 2009 musical "Nine."
FOR THE RECORD
Nov. 12, 9:24 a.m.: A previous version of this online article referred to the AFI Film Festival. It is known as AFI Fest.
The discussion will be followed by the 50th anniversary screening of "Marriage Italian Style," for which she received a lead actress Oscar nomination. The film is one of many collaborations between Loren and director Vittorio De Sica and costars her frequent leading man, Marcello Mastroianni.
Marshall was surprised when he directed her in "Nine" that she could be so self-deprecating.
"She is so funny and vulnerable," he said.
And incredibly modest considering her many accomplishments, including the lead actress Oscar for De Sica's 1960 harrowing World War II drama "Two Women," an honorary Oscar and the Golden Globe's Cecil B. DeMille Award.
"I remember sitting with her at the SAG Awards," said Marshall. " 'Nine' was nominated for best ensemble. She turned to me and said, 'I'm just a little girl from Napoli. I can't believe I am here with all of these famous people.' I said all of these famous people can't believe they are here with you."
Her latest film, "Human Voice," adapted and directed by her son Edoardo Ponti, based on the 1930 Jean Cocteau short play, will also screen at the tribute. "When they told me they wanted to give me this wonderful prize, I was very happy," Loren said of the AFI honor.
"Human Voice," said Loren, "has been on her mind since I read it for the first time years and years and years ago."
It's a perfect showcase for Loren's formidable dramatic talents. She plays a desperate woman on the phone with her lover who has left her and is about to marry another woman.
"It's the story of an older woman who is really almost at the end of her life. It is a story you can do when you reach a certain age because it's about an older woman. I always wanted to do it. When I reached my certain age, I said to my son, 'Why don't we start working on this piece?' I think it's a work of art."
Being directed by Ponti was "the dream of my life realized." The grandmother of four has a strong bond with Ponti and her eldest son, Carlo Ponti Jr., who is a conductor.
Loren still looks upon her life as a "fairy tale."
"You know, I was raised during the war, and the only thing we dreamed about was to make it through the next day," she said. "I tried to use the miseries that everybody was going through during the war into something positive. I think maybe one day I would find something else."
That something else was the movies. "I found when I went to see films at the cinema in Pozzuoli there were wonderful houses, beautiful dresses and great actresses. I was dreaming a lot. But I didn't think that one day I was going to be one of them because I think I would have thought of myself as a crazy person. But if you believe in life fervently, if you believe in yourself, one day or the other, something beautiful is going to happen."
Loren met her soul mate, producer Carlo Ponti, in 1951 when she was a contestant at a beauty contest in Rome. He was 20 years older than her and married with two children. As he guided her career, they fell in love and eventually married. Ponti died in 2007 at age 94.
"I could tell that when we were together, he believed in me strongly," said Loren quietly. "He was gentle, and he inspired me very much. He encouraged me in life. He was holding my hands all the time until the end when he disappeared. I miss him a lot."
A.E. Hotchner had written an acclaimed 1979 biography on the actress, "Sophia: Living and Loving: Her Own Story," and she even played herself and her mother in the 1980 NBC TV movie adaptation, "Sophia: Her Own Story."
She decided to write her recently published autobiography, "Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow," because she felt that "being a very old person, a wise old person that it was time to tell the truth. My story has been written by many people, and sometimes they didn't say right things, and sometimes I was not happy with the result."
But the book wasn't easy for her.
"I have lived a very long life to remember everything and be very truthful about the facts and the nuances," she said. "When I think about my story, sometimes I can't believe it's my own life."