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Lina Wertmüller on What Being the First Female Director Nominated for an Oscar Means to Her

Plenty of ink has been spilled on the fact that, with her Oscar nomination for “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig has joined an all-too-exclusive group: the sorority of just five women who have been deemed worthy of a directing nod from the Academy. Few people recall, though, that the barrier was first broken in 1977, and that for nearly two decades, the club of female nominees boasted a single member: Lina Wertmüller.

The Italian director burst onto the international scene in the ’70s with such films as “The Seduction of Mimi,” “Swept Away” and “Seven Beauties,” the Holocaust drama that earned her the groundbreaking Oscar nomination. Her cinematic creations were flamboyant, erotic, comic, tragic, provocative. Movie lovers lined up around the block to see the latest offering from an auteur who had worked with Fellini on “8½” and who was immediately recognizable in photos in her trademark white-framed glasses.

Wertmüller’s works tackled issues that resonate today: immigration, racism, materialism, class conflict. They featured strong, unconventional female characters who refused to fit anyone’s mold — including that of many feminists, who denounced some of her films as sexist and retrograde. Such criticism drew, and still draws, a shrug from an artist better described as an iconoclast, not an icon. “I’ve never gotten along with feminists,” Wertmüller tells Variety. “Some of them felt indignant and offended by ‘Swept Away,’ but I told them that they simply had not understood the film.”

Fascinated by cinema since childhood, Wertmüller started out in the theater. “Then I met Fellini … and from then on, everything changed,” she says. “I was able to see a way of making movies that stayed inside me forever.” She collaborated on several films in Italy with actor Giancarlo Giannini and had a brief, unsuccessful interlude in Hollywood after “Seven Beauties.” Everywhere, it was an extremely male-dominated environment, but the hard-as-nails Wertmüller doesn’t recall any problems with misogyny or harassment, noting wryly: “With my personality, frankly, it would have been tough.”

Although she once declared that “there’s no difference between male and female directors,” Wertmüller admires the work of women like Jane Campion and Kathryn Bigelow, who eased her loneliness in the Oscar director nom club in 1994 and 2010, respectively. She intends to see Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” when it comes out in Italy, and she’s optimistic that the number of excellent female directors will continue to grow.

Now nearly 90 and still wearing those white-rimmed glasses, Wertmüller expounds at length on her career, her pioneering nomination, the #MeToo movement and her most recent job: directing an opera.

Do you remember hearing you had been nominated for a directing Oscar? 

I remember it well. At the time I was in San Francisco to shoot “A Night Full of Rain” with Candice Bergen and Giancarlo Giannini. Obviously I was glad, but I have to admit that at that moment, perhaps because I was so fully concentrated on the film I was shooting, I didn’t realize how important it was. Perhaps [also] because I’ve never given too much importance to prizes.

How did it feel to be the first woman nominated in the directing category? Did gender dominate the global coverage about you?

It was the media reaction that made me realize how significant my nomination was. Since I was in the U.S., I was flooded with interview requests from TV networks and newspapers. Someone told me that news reports were trumpeting the nomination as though it were a historic event. Actually, in hindsight, it was, especially for women all over the world. To this day I get thank-you letters from directors who say they have been inspired by my experience.

What kind of impact did the nomination have on your career?

It had a major impact, but it didn’t change my life. In some way, I sensed that I shouldn’t get carried away by the extraordinary success I was experiencing. As I always say, to believe in success — and the same is true for failure — can be very risky. That nomination gained me notice from many producers, and for a brief time I worked in the U.S. for Warner Bros., who gave me a contract to make four films. The first was “A Night Full of Rain,” which I have to admit did not turn out well and was a box office disappointment. Since producers only look at your most recent result, ignoring all that came before, Warner rescinded the contract.

I have to be honest: I was somewhat relieved. In America, I didn’t feel free to work the way I was used to, with the same creative freedom, like being able to change a line in the script shortly before shooting, which has made Italian cinema great. It’s not by chance that Fellini never agreed to work in America.

Your films often feature strong, independent or unconventional characters, both female and male. Was it ever difficult to get those characters and stories on-screen?

I’ve never had problems of that type. The only problem I’ve had with producers was with “The Seduction of Mimi” [1972], but not for reasons tied to the characters. I wanted the two [lead] roles, of Mimi and Fiore, to be played by Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato. Both were already well-respected actors but had not yet played lead roles in movies. At the beginning, the producers were hesitant and had to take a gamble on these two talents. In the end, everyone was convinced of how good they were, and we formed a beautiful team.

 In your films you haven’t limited yourself to dealing with themes strictly inherent in the female sphere. What are some of the things you’ve been most passionate about?

Lina Wertmuller photographed by Mattia Zoppellaro at her home in Rome on February 14, 2018 for Variety.
CREDIT: Mattia Zoppellaro for Variety

My desire to make movies is humbly born from my passion for this profession.  … A passion for the world we live in and also for having fun has always been part of my nature. As for the themes of my films, it’s the world around me that inspired them. My main source of inspiration has always been my observation of society.  … I’ve talked about immigration, problems of [racial] integration, consumerism, social and political differences, contrasts between north and south.

Even though in my stories I reference an Italian context, my films can still talk about the world that surrounds us today. Ultimately, they’re still relevant and reflect problems and issues we’re presently experiencing.

Only four other women have received Oscar nominations for directing since yours. Why do you think there have been so few?

I think there are various reasons. On the one hand, when I started making movies, women had just started working. There wasn’t the ambition for a woman to have a career. There were social rules that said that the husband brought home his salary, and the wife took care of educating the children and running the household. I’ve always refused these bourgeois rules, and I went down a different path.

I’m sure that many women didn’t even think that they could embark on a profession such as being a film director, which had always been an almost exclusively masculine job.  … Of course, there have been some felicitous exceptions going back to the days of silent cinema: Elvira Notari, who was from Salerno and was fiercely independent, was the first [female film director] in history; Alice Guy in France, under the wings of Gaumont; and then Leni Riefenstahl in Germany, Vera Stroyeva in Russia, Ida Lupino in America. But they are unique cases of enlightened women who were ahead of their times.

Today the situation has changed. In Italy and around the world there are many woman directors. Of course, the Academy so far has given very few of them recognition. It would be interesting to know how many women Oscar voters there are. I think there are still too few of them. But I’m not saying that at the Oscars they should have quotas for women, as in parliament or on corporate boards. Cinema is an art, and what must be prized is just talent.

What do you think of the #MeToo movement?

It was about time that these stories about women who have been subjected to harassment, humiliation and abuse of power surfaced. It’s important to denounce these injustices, and I’m struck by the fact that it’s taken so many years in order for women to find the courage to come out in the open with accusations. As for the movement that’s being created around the disconcerting abuses that so many actresses have been subjected to: My feeling, I have to admit, is that the hypocrisy within the environment that had kept them hidden for so long is transforming itself, through an opposite reaction, into a witch hunt.

Wertmüller works on “Seven Beauties” in 1975.

The risk is a reverse totalitarianism. I was really struck by the explosion of reactions in France against some artists who signed the Catherine Deneuve letter. Aside from being in agreement with the letter or not, the violence with which they were attacked should be cause for reflection. I found out from an Italian newspaper that one of them, [actress and director] Brigitte Sy, saw a screening of her film canceled by a feminist group. This intimidating attitude should be considered in its own way a form of violence and is not instructive for younger people.

What are you working on? Do you have more projects planned?

Thank you for seeing me as a director who is still active and busy with work despite my age. To be honest, I would have a lot of projects, but I think that making a movie requires too much energy.

Theater continues to give me great pleasure. My last work was an opera. I directed Verdi’s “Macbeth” in Salerno, where I had the pleasure of working with my great friend Daniel Ezralow, whom I consider one of the greatest choreographers around, and with Daniel Oren, who directed the orchestra.

With reporting and translation from the Italian by Nick Vivarelli.

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