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Anita Ekberg Biography

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Birth Name: Anita Ekberg
Born: 09/29/1931
Birth Place: Sweden

Born Kerstin Anita Marianne Ekberg on Sept. 29, 1931 in Malmö, Sweden, she was the oldest girl of eight children. Already working as a fashion model as a teen, she later entered the Miss Malmö beauty pageant. Winning in the local competition took the statuesque blonde on to the Miss Sweden contest in 1950, which she also won. Urged by her mother, she continued on to the Miss Universe pageant, held in Atlantic City, NJ, that same year. Although she would not win the broader competition, it did lead to more modeling work in the States and a modest contract with Universal Pictures. In Hollywood, she quickly drew the attention of industrialist, movie mogul and notorious womanizer, Howard Hughes, who offered her a contract at his RKO studio if she would have cosmetic work done to her eyes and teeth, in addition to changing her last name. Strong willed even then, Ekberg flatly declined his offer and remained with Universal, where she made several uncredited appearances in minor films, in addition to her official feature debut in the Abbott and Costello comedy "Abbott and Costello Go to Mars" (1953).

Ekberg, who had already engaged in several brazen publicity stunts, gained considerable exposure nationwide after she replaced Marilyn Monroe in Bob Hope's USO show in 1954. Soon after, she was landing considerably more prominent roles in such films as the John Wayne-Lauren Bacall action-adventure "Blood Alley" (1955) and the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedy "Artists and Models" (1955), in which she played, not surprisingly, a gorgeous model. After appearing in the Victor Mature Afghan adventure "Zarak" (1956), she had achieved enough fame to be cast as a fictionalized version of herself in "Hollywood or Bust" (1956), which reunited her with the team of Martin and Lewis. Ekberg's first substantially three-dimensional character came with her portrayal of the self-absorbed Princess Helene Kuragina in King Vidor's "War and Peace" (1956), alongside cinematic luminaries like Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda.

Despite her serviceable performance in the big-budget epic, Ekberg's roles, while more prominent, were typically in low-profile genre pictures. A case in point was her reteaming with Mature for the crime thriller "Pickup Alley" (1957), where she played a woman caught up with an international drug smuggler (Trevor Howard). That same year, she landed the title role in the Western drama "Valerie" (157). Told entirely in flashback, it was the story of a woman (Ekberg) whose troubled marriage to her jealous husband (Sterling Hayden) ends in violence and murder. With each project growing more tawdry than the last, Ekberg next appeared as a traumatized exotic dancer in the murder mystery "Screaming Mimi" (1958), co-starring famed burlesque performer, Gypsy Rose Lee. She then played the Palmyrene Empress Queen Zenobia in the sword and sandal epic "Sheba and the Gladiator" (1959), an effort most notable for Ekberg's many elaborate costume changes.

In danger of sinking into a quagmire of gladiator epics, sordid thrillers and lightweight comedies, Ekberg was rescued by idiosyncratic Italian director Federico Fellini, who placed her in his seminal satire on mid-century Roman decadence, "La Dolce Vita" (1960). Perfectly cast as a pampered and impetuous movie star goddess, Ekberg's on screen frolic with co-star Marcello Mastroianni in the waters of Rome's Trevi Fountain went on to become one of the most remarkable and indelible moments ever captured on film. Although "La Dolce Vita" was an international sensation, for Ekberg, it did not result in an improvement in the quality of scripts she was offered. Fellini once again offered her a choice role in his segment of the Italian portmanteau film "Boccaccio '70" (1962), in which Ekberg's sensual celebrity persona was exploited to deliciously sardonic effect. That same year, she was back in Hollywood with Bob Hope for his jungle romp "Call Me Bwana" (1962), then reteamed with Dean Martin, in addition to Frank Sinatra and fellow international sex symbol Ursula Andress in the Western comedy "4 for Texas" (1963).

Other efforts included an appearance alongside Tony Randall in a comedic take on an Agatha Christie mystery in "The Alphabet Murders" (1965), followed by a turn opposite Robert Taylor in the Egyptian adventure "The Glass Sphinx" (1967). Increasingly seen only as a minor player in Hollywood productions with international settings, such as in the ensemble comedy "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium" (1969), or in leading roles in European genre films like "Fangs of the Living Dead" (1969), Ekberg chose to relocate to the friendlier environment of Italy permanently. Over the next decade, Ekberg went on to appear in such forgettable projects as the South Korean treasure hunting adventure "Northeast of Seoul" (1972) and the made-for-TV movie "S+H+E: Security Hazards Expert" (CBS, 1980), in which she played an evil henchwoman opposite former fashion model Cornelia Sharpe as a female version of James Bond.

Twenty-seven years after "La Dolce Vita," Ekberg appeared in Fellini's career reflection, "Intervista" (1987), watching film clips of herself during her heyday alongside her former co-star Mastroianni. While the film was greatly appreciated by Fellini-idolizing critics, many unfortunately chose to focus on the unsympathetic effects of time on Ekberg's once hourglass figure and flawless features. For her part, the proud actress was more insulted by the director's onscreen assertions that it was he who made her famous, rather than the reverse. Although she remained relatively active in film well into the 1990s, few of the roles were memorable. An exception came with her portrayal of an aging opera singer who becomes the object of obsession for a diminutive legal clerk (Jean-Yves Tual) in the black comedy "The Red Dwarf" (1998) from Belgian filmmaker Yvan Le Moine. Filmed entirely in black and white, the Fellini-esque picture earned the former movie diva some of her best notices in decades. Describing her failed marriages to the minor actors Anthony Steel and Rik Van Nutter as "two marriages too many," Ekberg chose to live out her unofficial retirement in relative seclusion at her seaside home just outside of Rome.

By Bryce Coleman