14 August 1928 – 9 December 2021

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.

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.”

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.