Italian Cinema Sex Symbol
By Ed Garea
Laura Antonelli, a self-described “ugly duckling” as a child who later became one of Italy’s top sex symbols in the 1970s, died June 22 at her seaside home in Ladispoli, west of Rome. She was 73.
Roberto Ussia Spinaci, the councilman in charge of social services in Ladispoli, confirmed her death, attributed to a heart attack. (She was found by her housekeeper.) Since 2009, he said, she had been a ward of the city, unable to care for herself.
Beginning in the mid-1960s and continuing for almost a quarter-century, Antonelli appeared in more than 40 films, beginning in 1964 with an unbilled appearance in The Magnificent Cuckold and continuing through Malizia 2000 in 1991. Her breakthrough to stardom came in the 1973 erotic comedy Malizia (“Malicious”), a coming-of-age film where Antonelli’s sexy housekeeper seduces a young man and his widowed father, a performance that won her a Nastro d'Argento award in 1974. The film broke box office records in Italy and established Antonelli as a major attraction. Other notable films included Till Marriage Do Us Part (1974), The Innocent (1976), Wifemistress (1977, in which she played a repressed wife experiencing a sexual awakening), and Passion of Love (1981). Antonelli was in the mold of other sex symbols such as Brigitte Bardot, Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, and Monica Vitti, who reigned in an era when the sex was more suggestive and left to the imagination. Her career faded when sex comedies went out of style in the 1980s.
She said in an interview that she never thought of herself as being particularly sexy, but added that she had no qualms about being considered a sex symbol or appearing in the nude. “If I manage to communicate a kind of sensuality on the screen, it must mean that there is something in me that I can express,” she said. “I am proud of it. After all, sex is a reality which lives in our dreams, in our sentiments. The important thing is to use it well and never let it degrade into pornography. Naked beauty without intelligence fades quickly.”
She was born Laura Antonac (or Antonaz) on Nov. 28, 1941, in Pola, which was then in Istria, Italy. (It was later occupied by Yugoslavia and is now part of Croatia.) After the war, her parents fled, living in Italian refugee camps in Genoa and Venice before settling in Naples, where her father became a hospital administrator.
While in her teens. Antonelli wished to become a math teacher, but in an interview she said her parents had other ideas about a career. They hoped that she would develop some grace, feeling she was clumsy and ugly. Towards that end, she took hours of gym classes, where she concentrated on gymnastics, excelling in rhythmical gymnastics, a form of dance. She graduated as a gymnastics instructor and took a job in Rome, where a desire for a modeling career led her to meet people in the entertainment industry.
From there she appeared in television commercials, including one for Coca-Cola, and worked for a month as a television announcer before being fired for what was described as a wooden delivery. However, a soft-drink commercial she made attracted the attention of a film director, who was taken by her physical charms.
This would lead to minor roles in such forgettable fare as Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966), where she had her first credited role as Rosanna. She first attracted attention for her role as Wanda von Dunajew in the 1969 erotic drama Devil in the Flesh. It was filmed for the German market and didn’t make its Italian debut until 1973. The Italian authorities wasted no time seizing it under pornography laws and the film didn’t see the light of Italian theaters until 1975, when it was released with the sex scenes cut and replaced with plotless judicial scenes. Customs authorities in both the United States and England also confiscated it in 1969, later allowing it to be released with all sex scenes cut, trimming the film by as much as 45 minutes in some cases. But it did get Laura Antonelli on the silver screen radar and would lead to bigger and better roles. In 1975, she played a seven-minute nude scene in The Divine Nymph, with Terence Stamp, which was unheard of at that time.
While most of her film career was spent in Italy, she did a handful of films outside the country, including A Man Called Sledge (1970), a Western co-starring James Garner, made in the U.S., and Swashbuckler (1971) with Jean-Paul Belmondo, filmed in France and Romania.
A marriage to publisher Enrico Piacentini ended in divorce, after which she took up with actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, with whom she starred in several movies.
The quality of her movies declined during the 1980s as she starred in erotic films and comedies, eventually landing on television miniseries.
Her life was turned upside down in 1991 when she was arrested with cocaine in her home in Cerveteri. Police, acting on a tip, raided her apartment in Rome and found a small quantity of cocaine. She was accused of drug dealing and, after a long trial, sentenced to three years in prison. The verdict was later commuted to a form of house arrest. Humiliated and ostracized within her industry, Antonelli never made another film. She was later diagnosed as suffering from acute depression. She challenged her conviction, which was overturned in 2000. She then sued for 1,000,000 Euros in compensation for her lost career and ruined health. The Italian Supreme Court awarded her 150,000 Euros. She later faced further tragedy when a botched facelift left her disfigured. In November 1996, she was admitted to the psychiatric ward of a clinic in Civitavecchia.
In recent years, she sued her son and housekeeper for misappropriating funds. In 2010, her friend, actor Lino Banfi appealed to the state to help relieve her economic troubles. She then withdrew from public life entirely, issuing a statement, "Earthly life no longer interests me."
She is survived by her son, and a brother, Claudio.