Sophia Loren kissed me twice, on her final U.S. tour stop
Sophia Loren keesed me twice.
Not passionate like Cary Grant or Marcello Mastroianni, whom she told a Ruth Eckerd Hall audience Friday was her favorite kisser on screen.
Ours was the European kind, lightly brushing each cheek, that I'd rehearsed at home in case the opportunity presented itself. The possibility occurred while researching the Academy Award winner's career to host her Q&A session, the 11th and final stop on her first-ever U.S. tour.
One recovered artifact was lBilly Crystal's anecdote about meeting Sophia - we're on a first-name basis now - while hosting the Oscars.
"Beelly, kees me twice," she implored, her Italian accent comically exaggerated in Crystal's retelling.
Such pleasures aren't easily earned with Sophia. In her memoir Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, the 81-year-old world cinema icon prides herself on quick, accurate assessments of character and intentions. After the show I learned she'd done that with me, telling her producer "I like him," after our 20 minute telephone interview.
Sophia was likely still sizing me up when we met in her dressing room, minutes before going on stage. Sitting together on a couch, making small talk, she appeared delicate yet formidable, warming up to a practical stranger after doing nine of her previous 10 Q&A stops with veteran entertainment reporter Bill Harris interviewing.
Time to take our places. One last icebreaker, courtesy of Mastroianni:
"As Marcello would say (before cameras rolled), are you ready to go for it?"
Sophia smiled.: "Ah, Marcello. Yes. Let's do it."
During the introductory video montage, I plucked a lush red rose from among dozens decorating the stage, and presented it to Sophia, taking her arm and escorting her to our chairs.
"Did you tell them about my leg?" she whispered, under the escalating roar of a standing ovation. "No, I'm sorry," I replied, and felt terrible about it.
Two days before in Sarasota, Sophia badly twisted an ankle at the airport, limiting her mobility. She'd asked me to inform the audience, so no one might think she's an invalid, and in the excitement I forgot. Scusami, signora.
Ninety minutes later, we retraced our slow, shuffling steps into the wings. Those walks were my only discomforts all evening, fearful that something very bad might happen. I do not recommend escorting a hobbled Hollywood legend while one's own knees are knocking.
In-between was magical, at least from three feet away. While Sophia reminisced about her remarkable life, she directly addressed the audience, allowing me to appear polite by staring at her profile much of the time.
She is still unfathomably beautiful, olive skinned with features of God's private design. Even the inevitable age lines are symetric with her bone structure, as if sculpted by a master. Like a Neopolitan cameo, a profile to cherish forever.
At times Sophia's gaze turned toward me, listening to a question, growing softer, more at ease, each time. I thought: This face, those eyes, are what the world fell in love with, what Grant, Mastroianni, Gregory Peck, Peter Sellers and Peter O'Toole stared into and didn't need to act much to portray love.
I had more questions than time allowed, which is good for a journalist but lousy for a film buff with such a rare opportunity. My focus was on making Sophia comfortable while not looking foolish, in the moment rather than taking notes.
I remember the laughs, like when I asked Sophia when did the scrawny girl nicknamed "little stick" began to blossom?
"Fifteen," she replied, but with her accent I heard something else. "Fifty?" I asked incredulously, thinking she was joking. "No! Fifteen!" Sophia said, and now she was, faking umbrage for the crowd, who ate it up.
Or my introduction to a clip from Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow featuring a sultry Sophia stripteasing Mastroianni. "I saw this at my father's theater when I was far too young to see it," I told her. "I would just like to thank you right now for ushering me into manhood." Big laughs, Sophia's among them.
As the clip ended and we turned to face the audience, our eyes met. "Beautiful," I mouthed to her. The expression on her face was at once a sign of "you're too kind" and "I had it going on back then."
Yet Sophia still hadn't keesed me.
That wouldn't happen until the aftershow meet-and-greet, where VIP ticketholders awaited their chance to pose for a photo with Sophia, seated with flowers on each side.
I was standing right at the corner of roses when Sophia's head tilted from behind them into view, looking straight at me. It was the sort of peering around an object she'd done in movies; spying in Arabesque, or snooping on a Houseboat. And she was looking at me. Not Peck or Grant. Me.
Our turn came, and I stepped to Sophia's side. "Don't I know you?" she asked, we posed, and she repeated several nice things she'd said during our shuffle off stage to her dressing room.
Then Sophia's face move slightly toward mine, and I knew what was about to happen. As continentally as possible, I leaned down and did the only thing left to do after such a memorable night.
I keesed Sophia. Twice.