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Lina Wertmüller, the masterful Italian filmmaker who created a sensation in the 1970s with her earthy mix of sex and politics seen in such classics as Seven Beauties, Swept Away and The Seduction of Mimi, has died. She was 93.
Wertmüller, the first woman to receive an Oscar nomination for best director (for 1975’s Seven Beauties), died Thursday in Rome, the Italian Film Archive told The Hollywood Reporter.
In October 2019, she was given an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards.
“She would like to change the Oscar to a feminine name,” Isabella Rossellini said, translating as Wertmüller accepted her statuette. “She would like to call it ‘Anna.’ Women in the room, please scream, ‘We want Anna, a female Oscar!'”
One of the first female helmers to be internationally recognized and acclaimed, Wertmüller attained the kind of last-name notoriety reserved for countrymen like Fellini (a mentor and employer), Bertolucci, Antonioni and De Sica. Her films skewered politics and contemporary values with comic anarchy.
Wertmüller also penned the original screenplay for Seven Beauties, with her regular leading man, Giancarlo Giannini, portraying a would-be ladies’ man who deserts the Italian army and winds up in a Nazi concentration camp, where he does anything to stay alive.
In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby called the film “a handbook for survival, a farce, a drama of almost shattering impact. It’s a disorderly epic, seductively beautiful to look at, as often harrowing as it is boisterously funny, though it has a solid substructure of common sense and precisely observed details from life.”
Her screenplay and Giannini also received Oscar noms, and Seven Beauties was one of the five finalists for best foreign-language film that year.
It was the fifth Wertmüller feature to be released in the U.S. inside of two years, capping off a remarkable run that began with The Seduction of Mimi (1972), Love and Anarchy (1973), All Screwed Up (1974) and Swept Away (1974).
The risque Swept Away told the story of a domineering rich woman (played by Mariangela Melato, another Wertmüller regular) and a working-class sailor (Giannini) whose class roles are reversed after they are shipwrecked alone on a remote island. Not only does he order her around, she likes it.
Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert wrote that Swept Away showed that “a woman is an essentially masochistic and submissive creature who likes nothing better than being swept off her feet by a strong and lustful male. This is a notion the feminists have spent the last 10 years trying to erase from our collective fantasies, and it must be unsettling, to say the least, to find the foremost woman director making a whole movie out of it.”
Recognizable by film cognoscenti for her white-framed glasses and pert hairstyle, Wertmüller had first come to international attention at Cannes with The Seduction of Mimi, a comedy about a macho Sicilian metal worker (Giancarlo Giannini again) who sacrifices happiness for his code of masculinity. It was the first movie from her company, Liberty Films, in which Giannini was a partner.
Love and Anarchy (1973), starring Giannini and Melato, revolves around a brothel and an assassination attempt of Mussolini in the fascist Italy of the 1930s, and the satire All Screwed Up (1974) is an ensemble piece set in the kitchen of a restaurant in frenetic Milan. Wertmüller wrote both of those films as well.
In 1978, Wertmüller, after signing a four-film deal with Warner Bros., made her English-language debut with A Night Full of Rain, starring Giannini as a communist journalist who falls for a feminist American photographer (Candice Bergen) and follows her to San Francisco. Warners terminated her deal after the film performed poorly at the box office.
The future filmmaker was born in Rome into an aristocratic Swiss family on Aug. 14, 1928. Her name was Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Spanol von Braueich, and her father was a successful attorney. Precocious and individualistic as a child, she was expelled from a number of Catholic schools.
She entered the Theater Academy of Rome and toured Europe as an actress and with a puppet troupe. Through her friend, the wife of actor Marcello Mastroianni, she was introduced to Federico Fellini and began her film career as an assistant director on 8 1/2 (1963). She shared his interest in juxtaposing reality and fantasy.
Wertmüller then wrote and made her feature directorial debut with The Lizards (1963), a story about aimless kids that was backed by Fellini and inspired by his 1953 film I Vitelloni. She followed with Let’s Talk About Men (1965), comprising four vignettes about abusive male-female relationships.
Although Wertmüller’s more recent works never attained the level of her 1970s films, she stayed active and made a number of films in her home country.
Her other efforts, many of which never played in U.S. theaters, included Blood Feud (1978), A Joke of Destiny (1983), Softly … Softly (1984), A Complex Plot About Women, Alleys and Crimes (1985), Summer Night With Greek Profile, Almond Eyes and Scent of Basil (1986) and Crystal or Ash, Fire or Wind, as Long as It’s Love (1989), starring Faye Dunaway, Nastassja Kinski and Rutger Hauer.
She directed Italian comic Paolo Villaggio in Ciao, Professore! (1992) and called the shots for Sophia Loren in the comedy Saturday, Sunday, Monday (1990), in the 2001 telefilm Francesca and Nunziata and in Too Much Romance … It’s Time for Stuffed Peppers (2004).
The other women who have been Oscar-nominated for best directing are Jane Campion for The Piano (1993), Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation (2003), Kathryn Bigelow, who won, for The Hurt Locker (2009), Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird (2017) and Chloé Zhao for Nomadland (2020), who won.
Wertmüller was married to Enrico Job, who served as her production designer, costume designer and/or art director on many of her films. He died in 2008.
Rhett Bartlett contributed to this report.
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