If you weren’t around at the time, it’s hard to communicate just what a splashy, dominating place the Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller occupied during the 1970s. Wertmüller, who died on Thursday at 93, was far from the first celebrated woman director — just think of Agnès Varda, Shirley Clarke, Elaine May, Lois Weber, Ida Lupino, Dorothy Arzner, or Barbara Loden. But apart from the infamous Leni Riefenstahl, it’s fair to say that Wertmüller was the first woman filmmaker to become a household name. She was the first to receive an Academy Award nomination for best director (in 1976, for the riveting and outrageous “Seven Beauties”), the first to adorn the cover of major magazines (the critic John Simon, who revered her, wrote a cover story on Wertmüller for New York with the headline “The Most Important Film Director Since Bergman”), the first to rule and own the zeitgeist.
And rule it she did. “Swept Away,” Wertmüller’s controversial 1974 drama about a wealthy snob (Mariangela Melato) and one of her lowly yacht crew members (Giancarlo Giannini), who wind up swapping roles after the two are stranded on a desert island, was the kind of movie that audiences lined up around the block to see and emerged from feverishly chattering and arguing about. Wertmüller didn’t just tap the tangled sexual politics of the ’70s — she lit a fuse under them. Was she a feminist? An impishly perverse anti-feminist? A Marxist? A flamboyant entertainer? A creator of lumpen fairy tales for adults that could dip, all too easily, into crassness? Or an original and volatile artist?
She was all of the above. One element of her cachet was that Wertmüller didn’t necessarily direct movies from the point-of-view that one might have expected of a trailblazing woman filmmaker. That was part of their provocation; Wertmüller wasn’t about to let herself be pigeonholed. Her films were over-the-top, in-your-face, antically liberated, and defiantly incorrect before the term “politically incorrect” was even invented. Every relationship in them became, on some level, an operatic power duel.
Wertmüller started off as a protégé of Federico Fellini, working as an assistant director on “8 1/2” (1963), and her first film, “The Lizards,” came out the same year. It was a knockoff of another Fellini film, “I Vitelloni” (his portrait of small-town cronies that would become a major influence on films from “Mean Streets” to “Diner”), and it was focused on the follies of the male ego. Her second feature, in 1965, was “Let’s Talk About Men,” and its title pointed the way to how Wertmüller would construct her career.
Confronted with the entrenched machismo of Italian society, she didn’t create her own Anna Magnani or Sophia Loren. She created her own Marcello Mastroianni: the comically handsome matinee idol Giancarlo Giannini, who became her alter ego. He starred in four of the films that dominated her ’70s moment — “The Seduction of Mimi” (1972), “Love & Anarchy” (1973), “Swept Away” (1974), and “Seven Beauties” (1976) — and Wertmüller used his persona, a kind of Mastroianni meets noble Chaplin mutt, to project her comic vision of what she saw as the romantic war between men and women. That war culminated in the sex/class standoff of “Swept Away” (full title: “Swept Away…by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August”), a movie that turned work and gender dynamics inside out with a what-the-hell-let’s-see-what-this-looks-like transgressive blitheness that one couldn’t easily imagine today. There was a masochistic quality to it, yet what a performance Mariangela Melato gave! It was like watching some special shipwreck episode of “The Real Housewives of Bologna.” (When Guy Ritchie remade it in 2002, with Madonna in the lead role, audiences were stupefied, though maybe it should one day be tried again with Lady Gaga.)
Wertmüller grew up in Rome, where as a girl she was obsessed with comic books, and she became (among other things) an avant-garde puppeteer before moving into the world of film. Her movies had a voluptuous outsize quality, which is part of what made them popular. “Seven Beauties,” a spectacular grubby Candide picaresque in which Giannini played a small-time hood during World War II who winds up being sent to a German concentration camp, was a film that offended as many people as it enthralled. The episode it’s best remembered for is the one where the hero saves himself by launching a calculated campaign to seduce the corpulent camp commandant, played with a terrifying sullen smirk by Shirley Stoler. This was extreme filmmaking in every way, yet its intent wasn’t to reduce the Holocaust to a sordid circus. It was all about the meaning of survival, a theme it explored memorably.
Pauline Kael wrote of “Seven Beauties” that “the box-office success of the picture represents a triumph of insensitivity.” But in the late ’70s, when Wertmüller was all the rage on campuses, I went to see “Seven Beauties” over and over, hooked on the jovially audacious, irrepressible quality of Wertmüller’s filmmaking. Her movies were successful, at times breaking records for foreign films. So while it was overstating things for John Simon to put her on a pedestal with Ingmar Bergman, Wertmüllermania was not to be underestimated. She herself got to be a celebrity, parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” as the image of the feisty Italian auteur barking out pensées in her trademark white glasses became as iconic as anything in her films.
Whatever one’s opinion of those films, it would be hard to think of another European director who flew this high only to slide off the radar virtually overnight. “Seven Beauties,” Wertmüller’s most celebrated film, won her entrée to Hollywood. So she came there to make “A Night Full of Rain” (1978), which paired Giannini as an Italian journalist high on male privilege and Candice Bergen as a feminist American photographer. It was a soft-pedaled “Swept Away” in English. But this was a movie that got swept away by audience indifference.
Every filmmaker is entitled to a high-profile dud, but Wertmüller, retreating to Italy, where she continued to make dramas and documentaries, never again connected in a headline way. Her defenders (like Simon) made no great claims for her latter-day movies, even as she clung to her fondness for long titles (sample: “Too Much Romance…It’s Time for Stuffed Peppers,” from 2004). In hindsight, her films are quintessentially of their era, to the point that they’re more than a little stuck in it. Yet their resonance was real. They were grounded in the flux and the muck of the ’70s, the grand descent from idealism, all of which Wertmüller captured with a wistful look back at the world that was gone.