Ask Lina Wertmüller if she’s pleased to be honored by Hollywood, and here’s the typical response you get from the groundbreaking director, who at 91 is still out to shock: “I certainly am. It beats a kick in the balls!”
Wertmüller, in 1976, became the first female director to receive an Academy Award nomination for helming grotesque Holocaust drama “Seven Beauties,” which received four nominations, including original screenplay for her, foreign-language film and lead actor Giancarlo Giannini. She will be celebrated on Oct. 27 with an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards ceremony, followed the next day by a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Genoma Films, which funded the restoration of her Oscar winning “Seven Beauties,” and Sardinia Film Commission are spearheading a retrospective of her films at the American Cinematheque on Oct. 20 and 25.
Wertmüller has always been a free spirit. After being kicked out of 11 convent schools, by her count, at age 16 she enrolled in a Rome drama academy, the first in Italy to teach the Stanislavski Technique, an experience she calls “a great start” in forming her as a director.
Shortly thereafter, during the early ’50s, while working as an assistant to Italian musical theater impresarios Pietro Garinei and Alessandro Giovannini, Wertmüller entered boogie-woogie contests in Rome. She cut the rug paired with her brother’s friend Sergio Corbucci (“Django”) then a struggling helmer, now a Quentin Tarantino idol. Wertmüller and Corbucci became “boogie- woogie champions of Rome,” she says, her first of a long string of awards, and one she cherishes to this day.
“We were kids, just having a good time,” she notes. “But I was a really good dancer.”
Wertmüller’s game-changing early job in film was as an assistant to Federico Fellini, on “8½ ,” whom she met thanks to her childhood friendship with Flora Mirabella, who was then Marcello Mastroianni’s wife. She often says that she was a lousy AD, but was forgiven because “I was ‘simpatica.’” Hired to help Fellini scout out interesting faces, Wertmüller cast her own mother and her circle of elegant socialites in the landmark pic in which they briefly appear playing canasta on a beach.
Wertmüller’s first feature, “The Lizards” (1963), was about three young unemployed male slackers in a sleepy Southern Italian town, trapped in their entropy and roaming the streets chasing girls. It was a woman’s view of a theme similarly dealt with by Fellini in his “I Vitelloni,” but her pic had a magnificent Ennio Morricone score. Music has always been important to her.
“After ‘The Lizards,’ which launched from the Locarno film festival, I was concerned that I would be perceived as a director who was too socially conscious; so to lighten things up I decided to do something completely different,” she said in a 2017 Variety interview.
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. Pavone in a recent interview noted that lots of girls who watched the show fell in love with her.
Aside from directing, Wertmüller wrote 35 songs for this miniseries with composer Nino Rota. Besides writing and directing for film and TV she has directed operas and composed numerous Italian pop songs.
In 1968, under the pseudonym Nathan Wich Wertmüller, she co-directed spaghetti Western “The Belle Starr Story,” toplined by Elsa Martinelli as a chain-smoking, gun-toting gambler with a fast draw. It is considered the only spaghetti Western directed by a woman and one of the few starring a woman in the title role.
“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 describes her oeuvre.
The most famous pop song penned by this maverick multi-hyphenate, performed by sublime Italian singer Mina, is titled “Mi sei scoppiato dentro al cuore” — which translates as “You Exploded in my Heart” — inspired by her love for Enrico Job, the man of her life, a great production designer and her husband and close collaborator for decades, until his death in 2008.
On screen, Wertmüller’s muse was Giancarlo Giannini, the soulful, somewhat macho, classically trained thesp with whom she started working in the mid-1960s.
Together in the 1970s they burst on the international scene with provocative pics that combined satire, sociopolitical commentary and outrageous sex such as “The Seduction of Mimi” (1972), “Love & Anarchy” (1973), “Swept Away” (1974) and “Seven Beauties” (1975).
In all these wildly innovative films Giannini embodied traits of the typical Italian Southern man and, by extension, a certain macho Italo male archetype. But Wertmüller notes that these were not naturalistic works. Really for her what counts is the type of storytelling she was pioneering.
“Yes, there is no doubt that [the characters of] Mimì, Gennarino and Pasqualino represent an image of the Southern [Italian] man,” she says. “But I would not define it as realistic. It’s the grotesque style that I invented for my films that underscores the traits of these characters.”
Wertmüller’s works often challenge Italian social and political mores drawing on her observation of society and tackle issues that still resonate today: immigration, racism, materialism, class conflict, the AIDS epidemic.
They also feature strong, unconventional female characters such as the upper-class Milanese socialite Raffaella, played in “Swept Away” by Mariangela Melato. She becomes passionately entangled with Gennarino, the communist deckhand of her chartered sailboat, when the two are stranded on a Mediterranean island. He humiliates and abuses her until she submits and is swept away by love for him. But once rescued, they quickly resume their roles in society.
Her portrayal of women has fallen foul of feminist critics who’ve denounced some of her films as sexist. “I’ve never gotten along with feminists,” Wertmüller told Variety in 2018. “Some of them felt indignant and offended by ‘Swept Away,’ but I told them that they simply had not understood the film.”
She’s often said it doesn’t make sense to mark differences between men and women filmmakers, though she also laments that not enough women directors have won Oscars.
New Yorker critic Pauline Kael in 1976 called “Seven Beauties,” in which Pasqualino [played by Giannini] seduces a sadistic, obese Nazi concentration camp commandant played by American actor Shirley Stoler, “deeply reactionary and misogynous.”
Wertmüller remains a divisive figure, though she has legions of fans, including Leonardo DiCaprio. At Cannes, where the restored version of “Seven Beauties” premiered in May, he leaped at the opportunity to meet her, hold her hand “and have a nice chat.”
“Seven Beauties,” with its groundbreaking Oscar noms, was an international hit that had film buffs from New York to New Delhi lining up outside cinemas to see the latest controversial cinematic creation by the director with the trademark white-framed eyeglasses. She bought 5,000 pairs from the factory, she says in effusive doc “Behind the White Glasses,” directed by close collaborator Valerio Ruiz.
Asked about how it felt to be the first woman nominated in the Oscar directing category, she says it was the media reaction that made her realize how significant it was.
“I was flooded with interview requests from TV networks and newspapers,” she recalls. “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.”
Wertmüller continues to get thank-you letters from women directors who say they’ve been inspired by her experience.
What she remembers about the Oscar ceremony is that they had given her a really good seat, “but I didn’t want to sit there because I didn’t have any friends next to me. So I moved to another seat near a friend, and I gave that seat to Flora [Mirabella]. When they announced who the nominees were, the TV cameras zoomed on Mirabella and they said she was me.”
At the time of her Oscar noms, Wertmüller was signed up by Warner Bros. for four English-language films, but the deal only survived one flop titled “A Night Full of Rain.”
It’s about the rocky relationship between a chauvinist Italian leftist journalist, Giannini, and his feminist American photographer wife, played by Candice Bergen. When Warner rescinded the contract, she was “somewhat relieved.” “In America I did not feel free to work the way I was used to,” she says.
Wertmüller continued to make movies, including 1989 AIDS drama “On a Moonlit Night,” starring Rutger Hauer and Nastassja Kinski, and more recently, in 2005, bittersweet romcom “Too Much Romance — It’s Time for Stuffed Peppers” with Sophia Loren, a close friend, and F. Murray Abraham. Though they are minor, even these works continue to encapsulate her two souls.
As she puts it: “Social commitment and entertainment have always been part of my nature.”