Lady L (1966): Peter Ustinov’s Misfire of Romain Gary Novel, Starring Paul Newman and Sophia Loren

Lady L, the film version of the Romain Gary novel, had originally been scheduled as a starring vehicle for Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida at MGM under the helm of George Cukor.  The sets have been built, but the script and other problems intervened, and the project was shelved.

In 1964, under a producing deal with Carlo Ponti, with MGM handling release, Sophia Loren and Paul Newman starred in the film under the direction of Peter Ustinov, who also wrote the screenplay.   The movie finally opened, after many delays, in 1966.

Newman was miscast: His persona seemed too American and modern for the part of a bomb-toting French anarchist at the turn of the century.  Sophia Loren fared slight better as the fey poseur Lady L, though the part was not particularly suited to her Italian temperament.  The film seemed too tame, genteel and lightweight, lacking the epic sweep and nostalgic glamour that its subject matter called for. 

The story opens with an eighty-year-old Dowager Duchess telling the story of her life to Sir Percy (Cecil Parker), her poet laureate friend, in the summer house of her magnificent English palace. The Duchess, who has been playing a joke on British society for decades, relates her humble beginnings as a Paris laundress who makes deliveries to a fashionable bordello, Le Moulin Bleu, presided over by LeCoeur (Michael Piccoli). Prominent officials, like French cabinet minister Philippe Noiret, frequent the house.

In short order, the future Lady L becomes the laundress for the house, and while she becomes friendly with the prostitutes and is admired by the male patrons, she remains chaste!  Enters Armand (Paul Newman), a roguish, Robin Hood-style bank robber, sought by the police and seeks refuge in the bordello where Lady L, now his mistress, protects him.

Subsequently Armand joins up with an underground revolutionary movement led by Koenigstein (Eugene Deckers). This band of petty anarchists, sought by the Parisian police head Inspector Mercier (Claude Dauphin), is planning the assassination of the visiting Prince Otto (Peter Ustinov), but Lady L foils the attempt. She meets Dicky, Lord Lendale (David Niven), a British aristocrat looking for a wife, who offers her a bargain: if she’ll marry him, he will save her lover from the police. Lord Lendale closes his eyes during the following years to his lady’s continuing affair with Armand.

Fifty years later, Lady L is a widowed Dowager Duchess and her son, the Duke, and her other noble children are the offspring of Armand, who now works as the Duchess’ chauffeur. It turns out that the ex-laundress, who had climbed to high estate isn’t a legitimate duchess and had never actually married Lord Lendale.


Sophia Loren
Paul Newman
David Niven
Claude Dauphin

Philippe Noiret*

Michel Piccoli

Marcel Dalio

Cecil Parker

Jean Wiener

Daniel Emilfork

Eugene Deckers

Jacques Dufilho

Tanya Lopert

Catherine Allegret

Peter Ustinov


A Carlo Ponti Production presented and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Directed by Peter Ustinov.
Screenplay: Ustinov from the novel by Romain Gary.

Camera: Henri Alekan.
Music: Jean Francaix.
Film Editor: Roger Dwyre.