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

Although Wertmüller lost the Best Director statuette to John G. Avildsen for “Rocky,” her nomination made history and paved the way for eventual female winners.
Image: Lina Wertmuller
Lina Wertmüller poses with the Oscar on Oct. 26, 2019 in Los Angeles.Daniele Venturelli / WireImage file

Lina Wertmüller, the first woman to score a best director nomination at the Academy Awards, died on Thursday in Italy. She was 93.

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

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

Her first mention in Variety came in a Jan. 13, 1965, review of “Il giornalino di Gian Burrasca,” an eight-episode musical TV series about a mischievous street kid, which the reviewer described as “clever and intelligent.” To play the street kid she chose petite young freckle-faced pop singer Rita Pavone, in what you might call early days genderfluid casting.

Wertmüller developed an early love of comic books (especially “Flash Gordon”) and Soviet theater and claimed she was expelled from dozens of Catholic schools as a child. Through friends, she was introduced to legendary film director Federico Fellini who quickly became her mentor.

Fellini hired Wertmüller as an assistant director on “8½” in 1963, the same year in which she made her directorial feature debut with “The Basilisks,” which went on to win her her first award for best director at the Locarno Film Festival. The film followed the lives of impoverished people in southern Italy— a recurrent theme in her work.

In 1972, she made her Cannes debut with “The Seduction of Mimi,” a satirization of the male libido, which starred Giannini, who appeared in a number of her films. “The hypocrisy of the Italian male sexual code is cheerfully ridiculed,” Roger Ebert said of the movie.

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

In 1975, she premiered her film “Swept Away,” in which Giannini played a sailor aboard the yacht of rich man and his beautiful, blond wife, played by Mariangela Melato, who looks down haughtily on the sailor, mocking him at every opportunity. Eventually, however, the sailor and the wife come to be alone on a deserted island, where it is he who has the power given his practical skills. While at first horrified, the wife soon finds the reversal in the power structure irresistibly attractive and the relationship becomes increasingly sadomasochistic.

The New York Times said “Swept Away” is “by far the lightest, most successful fusion of Miss Wertmuller’s two favorite themes, sex and politics, which are here so thoroughly and so successfully tangled that they become a single subject, like two people in love.” The film won a slew of awards including one for Best Director from the New York Film Critics Circle.

However a re-make by Guy Ritchie, starring his then-wife Madonna, made 27 years after the original, was panned by critics and flopped at the box office.

Wertmüller’s first Academy Award nomination soon followed for “Seven Beauties,” her fifth film to open in the U.S. within two years. Giannini starred as a foolish man with seven ugly sisters who’s obsessed with notions of honor in the years of Italian fascism and the Nazi occupation of the country. He kills a pimp when one of these sisters begins to work for him and is sent to an asylum; finally he ends up in a Nazi concentration camp whose commandant, played by Shirley Stoler, is a hefty woman with a whip whom he seeks to seduce.

When he is successful the results are sadomasochistic at best and repulsive at worst; later he is forced to select other prisoners to be killed, which he does. The New York Times said “Seven Beauties” is “the finest, most ambitious work yet made by this gifted Italian director whose films appear to be inspired by irreconcilable contradictions” and “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.”

In total, the film drew four Oscar nominations, including best foreign-language film, director — with Wertmüller becoming the first woman ever so nominated — screenplay (also Wertmüller), and actor for Giannini.

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

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

(Wertmüller was known for the comically long titles she gave her films. The original title of “Love and Anarchy,” for example, was “Film d’amore e d’anarchia, ovvero ‘stamattina alle 10 in via dei Fiori nella nota casa di tolleranza…,” which was understandably changed for overseas distribution. Her 1979 film known internationally as “Blood Feud” or “Revenge” is entered 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. Tarantelle. Tarallucci e vino.”)

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

The Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, Mass., held a Wertmüller retrospective in June 2008. In the introductory material, the archive declared: “During the 1970s, Lina Wertmüller emblazoned her name into the pantheon of Italian cinema with a series of intensely polemical, deeply controversial and wonderfully entertaining films. Among the most politically outspoken and iconoclastic members of the second generation of postwar directors — the direct heirs to the neo-realists — Wertmüller was also one of the first woman directors to be internationally recognized and acclaimed.”

Wertmüller took on the long tradition of Italian comedy and infused it with politics: “Armed with a keenly satiric and Rabelaisian humor,” the Harvard archive said, she “reinvented the narrative forms and character types of Italian comedy to create one of the rare examples of a radical, politically galvanized cinema that managed to achieve widespread popularity. Indeed, the fierce invectives against social, cultural and historical inequities at the heart of Wertmüller’s mid-1970s masterworks ‘Love and Anarchy,’ ‘Seven Beauties’ and ‘Swept Away’ seemed only to help the films find an appreciative audience, especially in the United States.”

While praise is usually focused on these three films, the archive made a case for what it called “lesser known masterpieces” by Wertmüller such as “All Screwed Up” and “The Seduction of Mimi.”

“Really, there are two strands — two souls — which co-exist in my work: the lighthearted one associated with musical comedies and the more socially conscious one. They are both deeply part of my nature,” is how she described her oeuvre in a 2019 interview with Variety.

In 2019, she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well as receiving an honorary Academy Award for her achievements in motion pictures.

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

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

Wertmüller’s funeral will be held in Rome on Saturday. Rome’s city hall has announced it will host a wake on Friday.