Lina Wertmüller, first woman nominated for an Oscar for best director, dies at 93

Lina Wertmüller, the first woman to earn a Best Director Oscar nomination, died Thursday in Italy. She was 93 years old.

Wertmüller’s death was reported in the Italian press. According to a friend, the screenwriter and director died “peacefully at home, next to her daughter and her relatives”.

Born in Rome as Arcangela Felice Assunta Job Wertmüller von Elgg Espanol von Brauchich, Wertmüller’s family was Swiss, aristocratic and devout Catholic. Her first show job was touring in a puppet show, after which she spent a decade as an actress, director and playwright for the stage. It was around this time that she met the actor and later his frequent collaborator Giancarlo Giannini.

His first mention in Variety came in a January 13, 1965 review of “Il giornalino di Gian Burrasca”, an eight-part musical television series about a mischievous street child, who the reviewer described as “clever and intelligent.” To play the street kid, she chose the petite young freckled pop singer Rita Pavone, in what you might call an early genderfluid cast.

Wertmüller developed an early love for comics (especially “Flash Gordon”) and Soviet theater and claimed that she was kicked out of dozens of Catholic schools as a child. Thanks to friends, she was introduced to the legendary director Federico Fellini who quickly became her mentor.

Fellini hired Wertmüller as assistant director on “8½” in 1963, the same year she made her directorial debut with “Les Basilic”, which won her her first award for best director at the Locarno Festival. The film followed the lives of impoverished people in southern Italy, a recurring theme in his work.

In 1972, she made her Cannes debut with “The Seduction of Mimi”, a satire on male libido, starring Giannini, who appears in several of her films. “The hypocrisy of the Italian male sexual code is gleefully ridiculed,” Roger Ebert said of the film.

Wertmüller returned to Cannes the following year with “Love and Anarchy”, which also starred Giannini.

In 1975 she created her film “Swept Away”, in which Giannini played a sailor aboard the yacht of a wealthy man and his beautiful blonde wife, played by Mariangela Melato, who haughtily despises the sailor, mocking him at every opportunity. Eventually, however, the sailor and the woman find themselves alone on a desert island, where it is he who has the power given his practical skills. At first horrified, the woman quickly finds the reversal of the power structure irresistibly appealing, and the relationship becomes more and more sadomasochistic.

The New York Times has declared that “Swept Away” is “by far the lightest and most successful fusion of Miss Wertmuller’s two favorite themes, sex and politics, which are here so deeply and so intertwined that they become one subject, like two people in loving. ” The film won numerous awards, including one for Best Director from the New York Film Critics Circle.

However, a Guy Ritchie remake, starring his then-wife Madonna, made 27 years after the original, was criticized by critics and failed at the box office.

Wertmüller’s first Oscar nomination soon followed for “Seven Beauties,” his fifth film to be released in the United States in two years. Giannini played the role of a foolish man with seven ugly sisters who was obsessed with notions of honor during the years of Italian fascism and the Nazi occupation of the country. He kills a pimp when one of these sisters starts working for him and is sent to an asylum; finally he finds himself in a Nazi concentration camp whose commander, played by Shirley Stoler, is a fat woman with a whip he seeks to seduce.

When successful, the results are sadomasochistic at best and repulsive at worst; later, he is forced to select other prisoners to kill, which he does. The New York Times declared that “Seven Beauties” is “the most beautiful and ambitious work ever done by this gifted Italian director whose films seem to be inspired by irreconcilable contradictions” and “a manual for survival, a farce , a drama of almost shattering impact. It’s a messy epic, seductively beautiful to watch, as often heartbreaking as it is noisy, though it has a solid substructure of common sense and life-specific details. observed with precision.

In total, the film drew four Oscar nominations, including Best Foreign Language Film, Director – Wertmüller becoming the first woman ever to be nominated – Screenplay (also Wertmüller) and Actor for Giannini.

Although Wertmüller lost the Best Director statuette to John G. Avildsen for “Rocky,” his nomination made history and paved the way for eventual winners such as Kathryn Bigelow, who won in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker”, and Chloe Zhao, which won in 2021 for “Nomadland”.

Wertmuller continued to direct films for decades after the smash hits of the 1970s, but none have had the same impact. Her last feature film as director was “Too Much Romance … It’s Time for Stuffed Peppers” in 2004.

(Wertmüller was known for the long comedic titles she gave to her films. The original title of “Love and Anarchy”, for example, was “Film d’amore e anarchia, ovvero ‘stamattina alle 10 in via dei Fiori nella nota casa di tolleranza… “, which was naturally modified for distribution abroad. His 1979 film known internationally as” Blood Feud “or” Revenge “is listed in the Guinness Book of records for the longest film title: “Un fatto di sangue nel comune di Siculiana fra due uomini per causa di una vedova. Si sospettano moventi politici. Amore-Morte-Shimmy. Lugano belle. Tarantella. Tarallucci e vino.”)

In addition to Oscar recognition, Wertmüller’s films broke box office records in the United States for foreign films.

The Harvard Film Archives in Cambridge, Mass. Hosted a Wertmüller retrospective in June 2008. In introductory material, the archives stated: “During the 1970s Lina Wertmüller inscribed her name in the pantheon of Italian cinema with a series of deeply controversial and wonderfully entertaining films. Among the most politically outspoken and iconoclastic members of the second generation of post-war directors – the direct heirs of the neo-realists – Wertmüller was also one of the first female directors to be recognized and acclaimed internationally.

Wertmüller took the long tradition of Italian comedy and imbued it with politics: “Armed with deeply satirical and Rabelaisian humor,” the Harvard archives said, she “reinvented the narrative forms and the types of characters in Italian comedy to create one of the few examples. of a radical, politically galvanized cinema, which has managed to achieve wide popularity. Indeed, the fierce invectives against social, cultural and historical inequalities at the heart of Wertmüller’s mid-1970s masterpieces “Love and Anarchy”, “Seven Beauties” and “Swept Away” only seemed help films find a appreciative audience, especially in the United States. “

While praise is generally focused on these three films, the archives have pleaded for what they called Wertmüller’s “lesser-known masterpieces” such as “All Screwed Up” and “The Seduction of Mimi “.

“Really, there are two strands – two souls – that coexist in my work: the lighter associated with musicals and the more socially conscious. They are both deeply part of my nature ”, is how she describes her work in a 2019 interview with Variety.

In 2019, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well as an honorary Academy Award for her film accomplishments.

Wertmüller was married to Enrico Job, a production designer and costume designer who worked on several of his films, until his death in 2008.

She is survived by a daughter, Maria Zulima Job, an occasional actress.

Wertmüller’s funeral will take place in Rome on Saturday. The city hall of Rome announced that it would organize a vigil on Friday.

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