Groundbreaking Italian director Lina Wertmüller, who was the first woman director to earn the Academy Award nomination for Best Director, has died at the age of 93. The Italian press reports, per Variety, the writer and director died “peacefully at home, next to her daughter and loved ones.”
Born in Rome in 1928, Wertmüller was expelled from dozens of Catholic schools as a child, and greatly loved comic books like Flash Gordon and Soviet theater. As a young adult she worked as an avant-garde puppeteer on stage, before being taken under the wing of legendary film director Federico Fellini, who by then had directed La Dolce Vita.
At the age of 35, Wertmüller worked as an assistant director on Fellini’s 1963 film 8½. In the same year, she made her directorial feature debut with The Basilisks, about three aimless young men living in an impoverished town in Southern Italy. With The Basilisks, she won her first award for best director at the Locarno Film Festival.
She moved on to make comedies, musicals, and she is still the only woman to direct a spaghetti western. She began to gain widespread notoriety in the ‘70s for her sharp look on political identity, with The Seduction of Mimi and Love And Anarchy debuting and competing at Cannes.
In 1976, she received two Academy Award nominations for her 1975 feature Seven Beauties, a grotesque and nightmarish Holocaust odyssey starring Giancarlo Giannini, who also received an Oscar nomination. Giannini had previously starred in Wertmüller’s epic romanic comedy Swept Away. She continued to create films until 2004, when she capped off her career with the dramedy Too Much Romance... Time For Stuffed Peppers starring Sophia Loren.
Although the Oscar for Best Director in 1976 went to John G. Avildsen for Rocky, her work opened the concrete sealed door for women directors. Since 1976, only five women directors have been nominated in the category. Most recently, Chloé Zhao won the award last year for her feature Nomadland.
In 2019, the Academy awarded Wertmüller an Honorary Oscar for “her provocative disruption of political and social norms delivered with bravery through her weapon of choice: the camera lens.”
Fellow Oscar-nominated women directors Greta Gerwig and Jane Campion presented Wertmüller with the special award during the tribute ceremony. While introducing the director, Gerwig called Wertmüller’s films “the cinema of seduction” describing them as “personal, truthful, and idiosyncratic” and the director as “naughty and playful” and an “earthbound body saint of cinema.” who is a “godmother to us all.”
“How do you correct centuries of patriarchal domination?” Campion said. “You are a film warrior, an artist who is brave and brilliant. Seven Beauties is one of the best films of the twentieth century.”
Upon accepting her Oscar, Wertmüller memorably said, “I would like to change the name Oscar to a feminine name—Anna.”