Lina Wertmuller, the Italian filmmaker and screenwriter of Swept Away, The Seduction of Mimi, and Love and Anarchy, died on Wednesday at the age of 93. Confirmed by the Italian press, she was the first woman nominated for a Best Director Oscar and only the second female director to ever receive an Academy Honorary Award.
The celebrated filmmaker died “peacefully at home, next to her daughter and loved ones,” according to an unnamed friend. Her final work included a 2015 biographical documentary reflecting on her life and career directed by Valerio Ruiz titled Behind the White Glasses.
“RIP Lina Wertmuller,” wrote Christina Newland, film critic for Criterion and BBC. “Not many like you, before or since.”
“Iconoclastic, indefatigable, inimitable,” wrote Russian Doll actress Natasha Lyonne. “Love you Lina Wertmuller.”
Born in 1928 as Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmuller von Elgg Spanol von Braueich in Rome, Italy, she said in the recent documentary that she was very adventurous growing up and was kicked out of at least 15 different Catholic high schools. She developed a love for comic books, such as Flash Gordon, which she described as “more cinematic than most films.”
Becoming interested in playwriting and touring with an avant-garde puppet group, Lina Wertmuller eventually became curious about filmmaking. She would go on to meet two titans of the Italian film industry: actor Marcello Mastroianni and film director Federico Fellini. The two would later release 8 1/2 together, which many film critics rank among the greatest films ever made.
Wertmuller served as Fellini’s assistant director on 8 1/2 and worked with him closely until branching out into her own success in the 1970s.
“You can not speak about Fellini. Describing him is like describing a sunrise or sunset,” Lina Wertmuller once said about her former mentor. “Fellini was an extraordinary human being, a force of nature, he was a man of extraordinary intelligence and sympathy… Meeting Fellini is like discovering a wonderful unknown panorama.”
“He opened my mind when he said something that I will never forget,” she revealed. “‘If you are not a good storyteller, all the techniques in the world will never save you.'”
In 1972, Lina Wertmuller made her debut at the Cannes Film Festival with The Seduction of Mimi, which according to Variety was a “satirization of the male libido” starring actor Giancarlo Giannini. The two would become frequent collaborators for the rest of her career.
She was nominated for the Palme d’Or, Cannes’ highest honor, two years in a row when she came back in 1973 with Love and Anarchy. She would not be recognized by the Academy, however, until her 1975 film Seven Beauties.
Lina was nominated for both Best Director and Best Original Screenplay in 1977 when the film finally made its way to America. The film lost to Rocky and Network, respectively.
The New York Times said at the time that Seven Beauties was “the finest, most ambitious work yet made by this gifted Italian director whose films appear to be inspired by irreconcilable contradictions.”
Calling it a “handbook for survival, a farce, a drama of almost shattering impact,” film critic Vincent Candy described the film as “a disorderly epic, seductively beautiful to look at, as often harrowing as it is boisterously funny.”
Her nomination paved the way for future female Best Director winners such as Kathryn Bigelow and recent winner Chloe Zhao. Lina received an honorary Academy Award in 2019, as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Mike Barnes, a writer at The Hollywood Reporter, shared that she once playfully joked that the Oscar should be renamed with a female name: Anna. “Women in the room, please scream, ‘We want Anna, a female Oscar!'” she joked.
Her husband, Enrico Job, was an art designer who worked on many of her pictures, until his death in 2008. Lina Wertmuller is survived by her daughter, an actress named Maria Zulima Job.