In 1960, at the tail end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, a burgeoning young starlet gliding through the streets of Rome at dawn would happen upon the Trevi fountain. There she would bathe in a velvet gown, accompanied by the slow staccato of Nino Rota’s musical score, posturing one of history’s most unforgettable cinematic moments. La Dolce Vita, directed by Federico Fellini, catapulted Anita Ekberg to fame but Ekberg would claim credit inversely. In 1999 she told The New York Times, in reference to her public perception in Italy, that “...they would like to keep up the story that Fellini made me famous, Fellini discovered me. So many have said they discovered me.'' The voluptuous, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Swedish actress was known as much for her candid opinion as she was for her striking beauty. The epitome of a Hollywood diva, Ekberg defined glamour, fostering an otherworldly allure and sharp wit that was carried with her until the end.
Discovered by Universal Studios through the Miss Universe pageant in 1951, Ekberg signed a starlet’s contract at the age of 20. Not yet poised for the silver screen, Universal provided her lessons in dance, acting, and horseback riding, which was typical of studios at the time. Foregoing drama lessons in lieu of other recreational activities, she was dropped from her contract after just six months. Shortly following, her social life became highly publicized, dating a string of Hollywood’s leading men including Frank Sinatra and Howard Hughes. Ekberg, a tabloid regular turned pin-up star, finally made her television debut in the 1955 series, Casablanca. Then, alongside Lauren Bacall and John Wayne, had her first speaking role in the 1955 film, Blood Alley. Within a year she worked with top actors including Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Audrey Hepburn. Five years later, Ekberg proved a natural for the role in La Dolce Vita as Slyvia Rank, a paparazzi favoured American actress visiting Italy’s enchanting city of Rome. Fellini took from Ekberg’s real life to embellish the character. Slvyia’s vivacious spirit echoed Ekberg in many ways. Tullio Kezich, a respected Italian film critic, recalled her stamina stating, ''She was a horse. She plunged into that cold fountain in La Dolce Vita without hesitation or a fuss. She was so Swedish and healthy; she never caught cold.”
Ekberg was not averse to the indulgences of celebrity fanfare. She participated in publicity stunts to enhance press coverage and in her early years toured Greenland with Bob Hope to entertain American servicemen. Subjecting herself to blatant objectivity was not irregular for the hypnotizing bombshell. Ekberg willingly took part and in return imprinted her remarkable sex appeal on Hollywood’s history. Her soft blonde waves, arched eyebrows, and exaggerated curves perfectly complemented the 1950’s chiffon-drenched style that she subscribed to, even well past the decade.
In later years Ekberg grew increasingly sequestered, preferring the comfort of her Italian villa to public appearances. Her second marriage to actor Rik Van Nutter ended in 1975 and she would remain single thereafter. Throughout Ekberg’s career, true vulnerability was hardly on display. In contrast, she was often quoted offering strong criticism on the traits of previous colleagues and lovers and on the shift in cinema as a whole. Ekberg died in 2015 at the age of 83 leaving behind a legacy of glamour in over forty film appearances. Just a few years before her death she publicly expressed satisfaction for a life rich in experience, both challenging and rewarding. Ekberg’s style and attitude have not only influenced modern fashion houses but continues to exemplify what is now the archetype of Old Hollywood glamour.
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