Anita Ekberg: Squeezed Like a Lemon

Anita Ekberg, the Fellini star who famously loses herself in the Trevi Fountain after a night of Roman high life

Anita Ekberg, the Fellini star who famously loses herself in the Trevi Fountain after a night of Roman high life in the 1960 film La Dolce Vita , opened the door of her suite at the Pierre hotel in the late morning of April 28. Like a panther in a jungle not her own, Ms. Ekberg hissed. Her wordless sigh sizzled from a chest ample enough to nurse Mother Nature. “They work me too hard,” she exclaimed, her voice deep. “They squeeze me like a lemon!”

Ms. Ekberg had arrived the day before from her home in Rome to promote The Red Dwarf , an interesting new film adapted from a short story by French author Michel Tournier and directed by the young Belgian director Yvan LeMoine. The actress plays a diva, not exactly a stretch.

“Everyone always turns this thing down,” Ms. Ekberg said, pointing to the air-conditioning switch on the wall. She fiddled with it, and then rested herself on a sofa across the room. Ms. Ekberg, who favors pasta, vodka, chocolates and wine, yanked a pleated fan from the pocket of a pair of tight black trousers. “This is my lifesaver,” the 67-year-old actress said, fanning herself. “I love it cold.”

The fan flicked beneath her large, almond-shaped indigo eyes, powdered black and blue. The Swedish-born actress wore a plain black sweater, black midcalf boots over her pants, and a jumble of gold rings and chains. She asked her publicist to get her a Perrier. “Perr-eee-airrr,” she said.

Anita Ekberg lives with two Doberman pinschers in a large villa by the sea, about 30 minutes south of Rome. “I never go in the sun. The only time I could stand the sun was when I still had my speedboat,” she said, referring to her marriage to her second husband. “Mr. Rik Van Nutter from Pomona, California,” she said, affecting a dull, nasal American lockjaw. “He mixed olive oil with red alcohol for his tan. Tans are not very attractive.”

Her first husband was the British actor Anthony Steel. Their tempestuous marriage, major paparazzi feed in its day, ended in the late 1950’s. The Daily Mail reported last year that Mr. Steel, known to suffer a drinking problem, was living in state housing near London. Ms. Ekberg never had children. “God forbid. Two marriages was two too much.”

Aside from her appearance in Federico Fellini’s Intervista (1987), Ms. Ekberg has confined herself lately to mostly small roles in European films and television shows. She lives frugally, carefully managing her savings and investments. “I have a very beautiful villa. I suffered a lot to get it, including my second husband, who stole from me. He took everything, including my Ferrari,” she hissed, her rolling r’s like the crackling of a forest fire.

“What sons of bitches I’ve met in my life,” she said, sounding more bored than angered. “I went through hell to put my feet on the ground after Mr. Van Nutter from Pomona, California, stole everything from me. I never spend masses for a dress I’ll only wear once or twice. And I pick my film projects. Not many scripts are offered nowadays, or it is always a c-a-m-e-o,” she said, licking every vowel. “These small, little parts. I know they are using me for publicity to push the film. Squeezing me like a lemon to get everything out of me …”

Ms. Ekberg checked her watch. “It’s 6 o’clock in Rome. Time for a glass of wine.” Her publicist left the room to telephone room service. “Tell them we need it immediately,” she called after her. “A very dry white wine.”

Ms. Ekberg’s role in The Red Dwarf is certainly more than a cameo. She plays the voluptuous Countess Paola Bendoni, a garish Belgian opera diva, who employs a dwarfish young clerk (played by the actor Jean-Yves Thual) in a Kafkaesque law firm to help her sort out her marital problems. His inevitable seduction distracts him from his affection for the beautiful young trapeze performer in the local circus, but the countess eventually rejects him and he descends into hell.

“He’s fantastic,” Ms. Ekberg said of Mr. Thual. “He has a very hard life. The hoodlums in Paris are always teasing him.” Ms. Ekberg explained how in the most ravishing lovemaking scene in the film, the actor who plays her husband, Arno Chevrier, lay in for her under the fluttering sheets with Mr. Thual. “The director didn’t think I should bother in case the little actor got excited,” she said.

Fame came to Ms. Ekberg as a result of a 1954 role in Bob Hope’s Christmas U.S.O. tour, the first to be televised, when she replaced Marilyn Monroe, who was sick. She had been modeling in New York since 1950, when Ms. Ekberg won the Miss Sweden contest and the prize was two new dresses and a trip to the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. “My mother pushed me like many mothers pushed others,” Ms. Ekberg said. “I never thought I would win, but to my big surprise I got my lovely trip to Atlantic City.”

After the Bob Hope gig, her Hollywood agent arranged for her to meet Fellini in Rome. The director’s actual first glimpse of the starlet was when he saw her on the road. “I was driving my Mercedes 300 SL convertible in Rome, driving fast, always fast with the top down, the blonde hair flying like hell,” she recalled.

Fellini cast her in La Dolce Vita . “When you visit Italy,” Fran Lebowitz once wrote, “you realize that Fellini made documentaries.” In La Dolce Vita , Ms. Ekberg played a glamorous star hunted by Marcello Mastroianni.

A waiter came in bearing a bottle of white wine. Ms. Ekberg tasted it and coughed as if it was poison. The waiter froze. “Why do some wines they serve in America taste like chalk?” she barked.

A long pause.

“We take it,” she shrugged.

“The recuperation of God’s gifts after World War II, the singing in the streets, the liberation of people, the red wine and spaghetti … la dolce vita ,” Ms. Ekberg smiled. She laughed about something only she seemed to see in the distance. Then tears filled her eyes. She raised her glass.

“If you want la dolce vita , then it is how you look at life,” Ms. Ekberg said. “When I go home to Rome, my roses will be in bloom again. And I’ve just built a birdbath. A wonderful birdbath. I think that is la dolce vita ,” said the woman who once lit up the Trevi Fountain.

Billy’s List: Quiz time!

1. Who scored the biggest fashion credit with the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair , opening next month?

a. Michael Kors for Céline.

b. Festive men’s wear designer Randy Barney.

c. Geoffrey Beene.

2. You know Prince Charles likes you when:

a. He calls you “ducky.”

b. He gives you a pin in the shape of a fleur-de-lis.

c. He tells you about his past life as Charlemagne.

3. Who plays computer whiz Steve Jobs in Pirates of Silicon Valley on TNT on June 20?

a. Andrew Lauren.

b. Former Calvin Klein model Joel West.

c. Noah Wyle.

Answers: (1) a; (2) b; (3) c.

Anita Ekberg: Squeezed Like a Lemon