UPDATE, Sunday 4:10 PM: Adds anecdote about Back From Eternity, below: The blond beauty who added a smoldering Swedish sensuality to the pantheon of European 1950s and ’60s screen sirens that included Gina Lollobrigida and Brigitte Bardot, died Sunday in Rocca di Papa, near Rome, according to reports confirmed by Deadline. She was 83.
She had lived in Italy for decades since a starring role, opposite Marcello Mastroianni in Federico Fellini’s groundbreaking 1960 La Dolce Vita, made her an international sex symbol. In the film she she played Sylvia, a Swedish-American movie star who arrives in Rome and captures the attention of Mastroianni’s night-crawling paparazzo, who takes her on a moonlit tour of the city. In one of the episodic film’s most famous scenes, Sylvia — poured into a strapless, form-fitting black gown — wades into the Trevi Fountain, beckoning her suitor to follow.
Later she pointedly, and frequently, remarked that it was she who made Fellini a star—and not the other way around.
Born September 29, 1931, in Malmo, Sweden, Kerstin Anita Marianne Ekberg was one of eight children of a harbor master. After winning the title Miss Sweden in 1950, she pursued a career in Hollywood, making her film debut in 1953’s Abbott And Costello Go To Mars. A string of roles followed that capitalized on her sultry voice and voluptuous figure, including Artists And Models (1955) and Hollywood Or Bust, both with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and with Bob Hope (who dubbed her “the greatest thing to come out of Sweden since smorgasbord”) in Call Me Bwana. Her considerable physical attributes were such a draw that posters for her serious 1956 plane-crash drama, Back From Eternity, downplayed the rest of the large cast including Robert Ryan and Rod Steiger in favor of a large photo of Anita and the ad-line “OOH THAT EKBERG!” In one attempt to prove she could be more than a hormone-boosting image, that same year she played Henry Fonda’s seductive, grasping wife in King Vidor’s epic film of Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace.
Two years after La Dolce Vita, Fellini cast her as again in his segment of Boccaccio 70, as a billboard image that comes to life. She played herself in The Clowns and Intervista. Over a five-decade career, she made more than 50 feature films. Her last major film role was in Yvan Le Moin’s 1999 freakfest The Red Dwarf.
Ekberg divorced her first husband, Anthony Steel, after three years of marriage in the late ’50s. Rik Van Nutter was her husband from 1963 until 1975. Ekberg’s love affairs — along with her humorous, often acid-tinged comments about the movie industry and life as a fading sex symbol — were fodder for gossip columns around the world.
“I don’t know if paradise or hell exist,” she once said, “but I’m sure hell is more groovy.”