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La Dolce Anita Ekberg: The Swedish Siren's Life In Pictures

Icons | July 15, 2020

Swedish actress Anita Ekberg sitting by a mirror in a red satin dress and a sequinned devil-horn cap, circa 1956. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Known for cutting a voluptuous figure onscreen, Anita Ekberg is most famous for her role as Sylvia in Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita, but she was so much more than just an icy Swedish sex pot. Like so many young actresses in the mid 20th century, Ekberg was discovered on the pageant circuit. At the time she could barely speak English and hadn’t even thought of being an actress. This kind of nonchalance towards the cinema is what endeared her to audiences everywhere. Her performances were sensual and real, it felt like when she was onscreen she was onscreen for you. 

Ekberg was a Swedish beauty queen

source: pinterest

This unquestionable Swedish beauty was born in Malmö, Sweden, on September 29, 1931 into a family with eight children and beauty pageant DNA. Ekberg was persuaded to enter the Miss Malmö pageant in 1950. She easily won the contest and went on to take the competition by storm in the Miss Sweden pageant before competing for the role of Miss Universe in 1951.

At the time, Ekberg didn’t speak very much English but she was still a hit with the judges. She didn’t win the title but she did earn a contract with Universal Studios along with five other contestants. In the span of a year she went from a young model working in Sweden to a real deal Hollywood actress.

Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her

source: the scotsman

The next eight years were a whirlwind for Ekberg. Through her contract with Universal the Swedish actress was expected to take drama lessons, learn elocution, and become a well rounded member of the company’s repertoire, but she admits that she mostly rode horses during her six months with the production company. She made a few on screen appearances but was dropped from her contract as quickly as the law would allow.

In spite of her lack off a resume Ekberg was still a wanted commodity. She did a lot of modeling work and dated guys like Frank Sinatra and Yul Brynner. Weirdly enough, the guy who finally gave her a break in the American film industry was Bob Hope. When Ekberg replaced Marilyn Monroe for a run of USO shows she finally got the press she wanted and she was signed to John Wayne’s production company, Batjac Productions.

Through Batjac, Ekberg earned roles in Bloody Alley and War and Peace, the first film to take her to Rome. Throughout the 1950s she mostly worked with Warwick Pictures in Europe and with Bob Hope or John Wayne when she appeared in films in the States.

She found her greatest role in Rome

source: Cineriz

After spending so much time in Italy, Ekberg decided to stick around and marry British actor Anthony Steel. At 24 years old she was the height of fame in Italy. Everywhere the couple went they were followed by photographers, but even though they were seen as the it couple of the era, not all was well. Steel’s drinking was out of control and he was incredibly jealous of anyone who spoke to his gorgeous Scandinavian wife. In 2000 she explained:

Because he was jealous he was always picking fights with any man who approached me and the last time we met he borrowed $100,000 from me which he never paid back.

While her personal life was a mess, things were looking up for her professionally. In Rome she met Federico Fellini and he cast her on the spot for the role of Sylvia Rank in La Dolce Vita. At the time the two couldn’t speak the same language, but she says that they got along marvelously:

I didn’t speak Italian and he didn’t speak English at that time. We communicated by looking at each other. It was most amazing.

She’ll always be remembered for 'La Dolce Vita'

source: pinterest

It’s unquestionable that the pinnacle of Ekberg’s career is La Dolce Vita, the film in which she plays the “dream woman” of Marcello Mastroianni. Audiences specifically remember her for getting in the Trevi Fountain and cavorting with zero abandon. As sensual as the scene is, at the time of filming it was freezing. Ekberg said the weather was so dismal that she had to be lifted out of the fountain at the end of the shoot because she couldn’t feel her legs.

Viewers were shocked by the site of Ekberg’s body on display as the cold water clung to her skin, showing off every curve of her body. Rather than celebrate her, the Vatican condemned the film for its visions of the female form - specifically Ekberg’s breasts, but she skip a beat and lashed out at the Catholic churching, saying, “I'm very proud of my breasts, as every woman should be. It's not cellular obesity, it's womanliness.”

Her career declined in the '60s

source: WAMU

La Dolce Vita was the major peak in Ekberg’s career, and the ‘60s were the final decade where she consistently found work. After becoming a permanent resident of Rome she acted in a bevy of European films like Behind Closed Doors and The Mongols, but she was also frequently featured in films with members of the Rat Pack. She starred with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in 4 for Texas, and in 1966 she appeared in the Jerry Lewis film Way… Way Out.

In the 1970s her career shifted downward as she took roles in European B-movies like Gold of the Amazon Women and Killer Nun while in the midst of a divorce from her second husband Rik Van Nutter.

Her Final Years Were Marred By Illness

source: pinterest

Ekberg worked infrequently through the ‘80s and ‘90s, settling into some form of a normal, off screen, life in Rome. In the 2000s a series of illnesses, a robbery, and a fire left her broke while in a hospital in a hospital in Rimini. She passed away on January 11, 2015, from complications stemming from her earlier hospital stays. After decades of life away from Sweden, Ekberg’s cremated remains were returned to her motherland where she’s buried in the cemetery of Skanör Church.

Tags: Anita Ekberg | Federico Fellini | La Dolce Vita | Ladies | What Did She Do?...

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.