By Anne-marie O'neill
May 31, 1999 12:00 PM

It’s approaching bedlam in suite 805 of the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills. Photo assistants are balancing lights, stylists are conferring with a hairdresser, and a couple of burly security guards hover nearby. Sophia Loren, her auburn hair piled up in huge curlers, glides through the bustle like a silver spoon through gelato. Resplendent even in a casual blouse, tan pants and black boots, she selects a tuna sandwich from a lunch platter before turning her attention to a more sumptuous array of goodies nearby. “Ooh, that’s nice,” she coos to a $1 million, 11.5-carat diamond ring in a case of Harry Winston jewels borrowed for the photo shoot.

It’s not the diamonds that dazzle the crew as the Italian screen legend disappears to slip into something more spectacular. Twenty minutes later she emerges from a bedroom, luminous in a red chiffon Armani gown. “Oooh! Aaah!” she teases as she floats regally out to a balcony to take in the view of an unusually smog-free Los Angeles. “Bellissimo!” she pronounces.

Beautiful indeed. If Loren’s face is a gift from Mother Nature, she ought to send a thank-you note. In a city where the fountain of youth is as close as the nearest overbooked plastic surgeon, Loren, who will turn 65 on Sept. 20, endures as the world’s eighth natural wonder. (She swears she has had neither a nip nor a tuck.) On June 2 the Council of Fashion Designers of America will honor her with an award for “a lifetime of glamour”—a quality she personified at this year’s Oscars.

At an Academy Awards ceremony notable more for its length than its luster, Loren stole the show as she sashayed out, elegant in a black Armani, to present the award for Best Foreign Language Film. (It went to her countryman Roberto Benigni.) Afterward, like a savvier Cinderella, she skipped the parties (“I was very tired,” she explains) and left her fellow stars gasping for more. “She’s incredible,” says Matt Damon, 28. “I passed her that night at the Oscars, and I remember Ben [Affleck] and I just kind of looked at each other, and it was like, ‘Wow! There she is.’ ”

Many of the 70 million TV viewers felt the same. “I almost fainted,” says Loren’s old pal Merv Griffin, 73, who was watching the gala from Mortons. “I thought, ‘Holy God, is that glamor!’ ” The former chat show host was in good company. Later, he recalls, “Nancy Reagan called and said, ‘Did you see Sophia?’ ”

Perhaps it’s her sultry, almost haughty strut and those eyes like double espressos that cause heads to swivel. Or that well-toned, statuesque shape that some of today’s skinny young starlets should go to school on. Whatever the essence of Sophia, she gives hope to aging boomers everywhere: Yes, almost 65 can look that good.

But how does she do it? And more importantly, can she bottle it? Since her Oscar cameo, Loren says she has been overwhelmed by fan mail and received “a garden” of bouquets, including white roses from Benigni and pink ones from Giorgio Armani. “After the Oscars, I received so much mail and so many compliments from friends,” she says. “It’s a wonderful feeling that people like you and have such esteem for you. I’m enchanted that people talk to me this way. It’s like winning the lottery.”

Adulation is hardly foreign to the actress who has spent half a century making women marvel and men dissolve. “I never saw so much woman coming at me in my entire life,” gasped William Holden, her costar in 1958’s The Key. “The girl makes you think all the wrong thoughts,” panted a usually unflappable Clark Gable, her leading man in 1960’s It Started in Naples.

Peter Sellers and Cary Grant would not have argued; both smitten costars reportedly declared their love. As did Tom Hanks (well, almost) when he spotted his idol backstage at the Oscars this year. “I didn’t even say hello,” recalls the 42-year-old awestruck actor. “I said, ‘Miss Loren, you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.’ ” Screen veteran Charlton Heston has been there, done that. “She looks exactly the same as she did when we made El Cid nearly 40 years ago,” he says. “She is still stunningly beautiful.”

Uh, you might want to rephrase that, Chuck. “If you’re mature, that ‘still’ upsets you a bit,” chides Loren, who counts Jack Nicholson, Billy Crystal, Sean Connery and Jim Carrey among her current favorite male leads. After all, as she points out, Hollywood isn’t exactly an equal-opportunity employer. Age discrimination is “still a big problem,” Loren adds, “and I don’t think it will ever be solved.”

Not that she has anything but affection for her younger colleagues. Julia Roberts has “a beautiful laugh, which is her own.” Demi Moore? “She dares, and I like a person who dares.” Gwyneth Paltrow? “Very tender,” she says, then adds, “but nowadays girls don’t need any advice. They all look so very sure of themselves.” True enough, says Whoopi Goldberg, who hosted the Academy Awards. “All these nice, wonderful girls coming up, they’re cute,” Goldberg says. “But there’s only one Sophia, honey. And she don’t need a push-up bra.” Or anything else, for that matter. Who among today’s crop would have the moxie to dance a striptease—at age 59—as Loren did for Marcello Mastroianni in 1994’s Ready to Wear? Or to seduce septuagenarian Walter Matthau in 1995’s Grumpier Old Men? “She’s not only the most beautiful woman in the world, she’s one of the most talented actresses,” says Grumpy guy Jack Lemmon. “She’s got brains and wit and everything that we consider attractive.”

And she makes it all look so easy. Loren’s beauty secrets? “A lot of rest. Good thoughts. Exercise,” says the star. She rises most days at 5 a.m. and usually goes to bed by 8 p.m. In between, her daily beauty rituals are decidedly low-maintenance. She washes her hair with baby shampoo and colors it herself when necessary. (Lately, she has been road-testing blonde streaks, “because every teenager does that,” she says.) She does her own manicures and her own makeup, using products blended to her skin tones by a movie-makeup-artist friend from Italy. Her only indulgences, she says, are the potions—such as an eye cream containing vitamin A and a rosewater face lotion. These are specially formulated for her caramel-smooth skin at a lab she won’t name tucked away somewhere in France. At the five-bedroom Geneva apartment she shares with her husband, producer Carlo Ponti, 85, or relaxing on their 40-acre Southern California ranch, Loren forswears glamor gowns for sweatpants and T-shirts, but never, ever, jeans. “They’re too heavy,” she declares. Having no patience for shopping, she attends Armani’s ready-to-wear shows in Milan, where she selects her dressier wardrobe from his comparatively low-key collections. “A woman wants to be sexy,” says Loren, who disdains the garish, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination fashions seen on today’s runways. “But she has to be comfortable in what she wears.”

As for plastic surgery, she hasn’t ruled it out but says she isn’t ready yet. “Some people like to keep their lines,” she says. “But maybe one day I’ll say I don’t like that anymore. Then I’ll pick up the phone and go.” In the meantime, Loren opts for daily exercise: 45 minutes of stretching and abdominal crunches and a one-hour walk. She also keeps a lid on la dolce vita. She eats European style: a light breakfast of decaf and an English muffin, mid-morning sandwiches, a large lunch (usually pasta, chicken, salad and fruit) and little, if any, dinner. “She weighs now what she did years ago,” says Hollywood fashion designer and friend Nolan Miller. “I don’t think it would ever enter her mind to be a size 6.”

Of course, when it comes to eternal beauty, fabulous genes don’t hurt a bit. Loren was born Sofia Scicolone, the illegitimate daughter of aspiring actress Romilda Villani and engineer Riccardo Scicolone. She and her sister Maria, now 61, grew up poor in Pozzuoli, near Naples. As a young woman, mother Romilda won a Greta Garbo lookalike contest. Yet at age 12, her little Sofia “was thin, dark and very shy,” as Loren herself recalls. Her classmates called her stuzzicadenti: toothpick.

All that changed one day when she was 14 and found herself flirting with a young man on the beach. “He said, ‘You really are beautiful,’ ” says Loren. “And I was laughing—but I still remember.” Buoyed by that first drop of what would soon swell into an ocean of approbation, she plucked her eyebrows, bought some lip gloss and never looked back. By 16, having blossomed into a voluptuous head-turner, Loren was working as a comic-strip model in Rome when she was discovered by Ponti—already a successful producer—at a beauty pageant.

He was 21 years her senior and married, but it would be the start of a lifelong collaboration. It would produce most of her five dozen films and her two sons, to whom she is slavishly devoted—Carlo, 30, an orchestra conductor, and Edoardo, 26, a film director, both still single. As for the couple’s 33-year marriage, which followed Ponti’s 1965 divorce, it is still going fortissimo. “I knew immediately she was someone remarkable,” Ponti once said. “Something played off her that gave her a kind of illumination.”

Remarkably, that something failed to light the screen at first. Declared “impossible to photograph” after her initial screen test, she was urged to lose weight and get a nose job. (She refused.) Her luscious looks initially consigned her to cheesecake roles such as the wet-suit-clad Phaedra in 1957’s Boy on a Dolphin. Ironically, it was her gritty portrayal of a mother protecting a daughter from the ravages of World War II in 1961’s Two Women that allowed Loren to become the actress and star that she was destined to be. Former movie critic Vincent Canby recalls the transforming moment at the film’s Cannes premiere: “The lights came up on her in the audience, and there was this most beautiful woman in a dress cut down to the navel looking ravishing,” he says. “She had been on the screen as this tattered, worn, raped survivor of war, and the contrast just sent the audience into hoots of applause.” For the role, she won a Best Actress Oscar—and in 1991 took home an honorary Academy Award for being “one of the genuine treasures of world cinema.”

Not that there hasn’t been some vinegar with the oil. Loren has endured two miscarriages; two difficult, bedridden pregnancies; a 17-day jail stint in 1982 for underpaying taxes in Italy; and a medical scare last August that saw her hospitalized for 10 days with an irregular heartbeat. (She has since recovered.) But her spirit remains indomitable—and unassailed by the aging process. “I haven’t started worrying about that,” says Loren, who says she looks at least 15 years younger than she is. “Why should I?” Her confidence doesn’t stem just from being one of the world’s most stunning—and age-resistant—women. “Being beautiful can never hurt,” she says. “But you have to have more. You have to sparkle, you have to be fun, you have to make your brain work if you have one.”

Flattered by the renewed attention, Loren the wife and mother finds herself preoccupied by more pressing concerns than Loren the sex symbol. Such as badgering her two unmarried sons for grandchildren. “I want to be a grandmother,” she says emphatically. “Oh, yes—but I want to be the sexiest grandmother in the world.” Bravissima!

Anne-Marie O’Neill

Julie Jordan in Los Angeles, Cathy Nolan in Geneva and bureau reports