ROME – Italian actress Virna Lisi who played memorable roles in European and Hollywood films including 1965 comedy classic “How To Murder Your Wife,” with Jack Lemmon, in which she famously pops out of wedding cake wearing a bikini, and also a masterfully maleficent queen in Patrice Chereau’s “La Reine Margot,” died in Rome on Thursday. She was 78.
Lisi had been recently diagnosed with an unspecified form of cancer, according to Italian press reports.
Born in Ancona 1936 as Virna Pieralisi, she began her film career as a teenager in 1953, initially thanks to her stunning looks. Her increasingly important parts in Italian postwar pics include 1957 drama “La Donna Del Giorno,” 1963 crimer “Il Delitto” Dupre, with Alain Delon, and Mario Monicelli’s 1965 Italo comedy classic “Casanova ’70’,” in which she co-starred with Marcello Mastroianni.
In 1965 Lisi was put under contract by Paramount. She debuted in Hollywood as a blue-eyed temptress opposite Jack Lemmon in Richard Quine’s “How To Murder Your Wife,” followed by “Not With My Wife, You Don’t” with Tony Curtis, in 1966, directed by Norman Panama, and “Assault on a Queen” with Frank Sinatra, also in 1966, directed by Jack Donohue.
Tired of being relegated to playing “dumb blonde” roles, Lisi in the late ’60’s broke her seven-year Paramount contract, after paying a costly penalty fee and reportedly turning down the lead role in Roger Vadim’s “Barbarella,” which went to Jane Fonda.
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Back in Europe, Lisi struggled to find roles appropriate to her stature. But one came along in 1994 with her performance as the witchy queen Caterina de’ Medici in “La Reine Margot,” which won her the Prix Du Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and also a Cesar, France’s top film nod. She was honored with a career Italian Golden Globe in 2004 and also received numerous other Italian nods.
More recently, Lisi’s career mostly involved Italian TV series with the notable exceptions of Cristina Comencini’s ensemble drama “The Best Day Of My Life.” Lisi’s last film performance, after a twelve year hiatus, is in Cristina Comencini’s upcoming comedy “Latin Lover,” now in post.
Lisi is survived by a son, Corrado, and three grandchildren, Franco, Federico, and Riccardo.