05/06/2011 10:37 am ET | Updated Jul 06, 2011

Sophia Loren Honored at Academy

Sophia Loren and son

Sophia Loren arrives at the Academy with her son Edoardo Ponti.

I have been in love with Sophia Loren all my life. Or at least as long as I can remember fantasizing about beautiful women. I had briefly met her twice... before last night. Once, many years ago, when I sold my screenplay of The War Horses to producer Joe Levine and I visited his Embassy Pictures offices, where producer Carlo Ponti and his wife Sophia were in the conference room... and I was rendered speechless. Then, years later, at a cocktail party at Billy Wilder's apartment after he had directed our film, Buddy, Buddy; she was across the room and I was dumbstruck at her beauty and charm. This week, she was honored by AMPAS, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, at their Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, and I had an opportunity to say hello. Oh, yes, it was a spectacular evening, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of her receiving her first Academy Award for Two Women in 1961.

sophia and billy at Academy

Oscar-winning actress Sophia Loren and emcee Billy Crystal at arrival at Academy. Photo by Matt Petit, ©A.M.P.A.S.

She had requested that Billy Crystal emcee the evening, and he did a spectacular job, funny and reverential at the same time, emphasizing again that he is the best MC of the annual Oscar event since Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. (Hopefully, he hinted, he will do it again next year.) He introduced the plethora of film clips, several guests, and then sat with the 76-year-old stunning beauty in an intimate chitchat to conclude the evening. She was obviously overcome by the emotion of the evening, but still was radiant and charming, witty, utterly winning the hearts of an audience already smitten. Billy recounted the evening in '91 when he first emceed the award ceremony and she came up behind him and whispered into his ear, Billee, Billee... and he was wiped out. We saw a clip from the devastating film, Two Women, the scene after she and her daughter had been attacked in a church... and she told the audience that originally director Vittorio De Sica had wanted Anna Magnani to play the older woman and her to play the daughter, but Magnani refused to be in the same film with her. ("I am not a bad person, so I don't know why.") Then De Sica said he wanted her for the mother and would use a younger girl as the daughter. It was the first time that an actress in a foreign language film had been honored this way by the Academy.

billy and sophia on stage

Billy and Sophia on stage. Photo by Matt Petit, ©A.M.P.A.S.

She went on to relate how, as a young girl (16), she had gone to Cinecitta Studio to meet De Sica, who sat her down on a bench and interviewed her, then told her, an inexperienced Neapolitan girl, to come to his office in two days. She said, "I am too shy to do a film audition" and he laughed, then said, "Just come." She was then told she was in his film, The Gold of Naples, and to report to work. The start of her amazing career. They did fourteen pictures together in the next twenty years, and De Sica's son, Christian, made some remarks early in the evening. So many highlights of an extraordinary night. Her son, Edoardo Ponti, introducing a clip of his mother starring in a film he directed, A Special Day, then breaking down in sobs as he recounted how embracing his mother's behavior toward everyone stood out. There was a film clip from old friends Giancarlo Giannini and Lina Wertmuller, and Tom Hanks was seen in another clip. A close friend of Sophia's, Italian actress, Jo Champa (married to my friend Joe Farrell), spoke movingly about her attributes as a friend and confidant. John Travolta spoke briefly. Director Rob Marshall introduced a clip from their film, Nine, and was gushing in his enthusiasm.

What I came away with at the end of the memorable evening was how extraordinary a talent this woman was, with a range of performances probably unrivaled in film history. As the Academy's Ellen Harrington said, "You see somebody who is able to travel between Italian performances, European films, Hollywood movies, comedies, dramas, tremendously important movies, with such a sense of ease and such presence."

This weekend I am going to rent/find (via Netflix, Hulu and YouTube) a half-dozen of her films and pay homage to her by viewing them all... then doing the same next weekend. My problem is choosing what to view... will it be Man From La Mancha, Houseboat, Two Women, Marriage Italian Style, Desire Under The Elms, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, or Arabesque? I must see them all... after all, a man in love can't be choosy.

To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues), email him at jayweston@sbcglobal