Interview with Lina Wertmüller, first woman nominated for Best Director in 1977

Lina Wertmüller died in December 2021, aged 93.
This interview dates back to June 2020, and we chose not to alter it.
May this legendary artist rest in peace.

Lina Wertmüller Italian director

Lina Wertmüller © to the owners

Ciao, Professore! [Io speriamo che me la cavo], The Seduction of Mimi [Mimì metallurgico ferito nell’onore], Love and Anarchy [Film d’amore e d’anarchia, ovvero: stamattina alle 10, in via dei Fiori, nella nota casa di tolleranza…], Swept Away… by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August [Travolti da un insolito destino nell’azzurro mare d’agosto]: there wasn’t a time in life that the Italians didn’t know about Lina Wertmüller’s movies, but there was probably a time they didn’t immediately realise that most of their favourite Italian movies were all made by her.

Lina Wertmüller is not seen around very often, she rarely gives interviews and – although her courageous movies challenge politics in the most provocative and disruptive way – she never took part in any sort of political parade: she just creates masterpieces and lives her best life.
And it’s always been like that.
It’s been like that all through the many decades she’s been making the history of worldwide cinema directing more than 20 films, and it was like that when she started her career as a screenwriter and director assistant for Federico Fellini in La Dolce Vita.

Lalla Kezich replacing Lina Wertmüller at the 1977 Oscars ceremony

Lalla Kezich replacing Lina Wertmüller at the 1977 Oscars ceremony © to the owners

It was also like that in 1977 as she became the first woman in history to be nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards for her work on the film Seven Beauties [Pasqualino Settebellezze], which she eventually lost to John G. Avildsen for Rocky. She attended the Oscars ceremony at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles anonymously, with someone else replacing her in the theatre hall.
Seven Beauties tells the story of an Italian war prisoner who finds his own special way – let’s call it the Italian way – to survive a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.
Yes, this is also what 1999 Oscar winner Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful [La vita è bella] is exactly about, but apparently, no film critic in over 20 years has ever noticed the analogy.

Lina Wertmüller has always relentlessly kept herself away from the spotlight, making life extremely easier for journalists, who, each time they have the honour to speak with her, make it absolutely clear they have no clue whatsoever about who they are talking to, and regularly come up with incredibly irrelevant questions and appalling statements.

Lina Wertmüller Italian director

Lina Wertmüller, Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato shooting The Seduction of Mimi © to the owners

You may have seen pointless TV anchorman defining her clever films “cool comedies”, you can witness random showgirls calling her “quite smart” and “funny”, and you could hear illustrious critics questioning her for hours about her white glasses [she designed her own white glasses and wanted to have them produced; the factory required a minimum order of 5,000 items, so she still owns thousands of white glasses – end of the story], which is really none of our business, and certainly not something you would spend ages debating around.
That would be like asking Steven Spielberg where he gets his ball caps from.
Who cares?
And just to make it perfectly clear: Lina Wertmüller’s films are not comedies.
Not everything that makes you laugh out loud is comedy.
If the reason it makes you laugh is also the same that makes you cry, that thing is called a masterpiece.
As the lady turned 92 in 2020, she was eventually awarded an Academy Honorary Award at the 92nd Academy Awards.
But then again, the ceremony took part separately from the official Oscars night.
One year earlier, she had been inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Lina Wertmüller accepts the Honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards with Sophia Loren and Isabella Rossellini

Lina Wertmüller accepts the Honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards with Sophia Loren and Isabella Rossellini © to the owners

When it comes to accolades, apart from one minor award called Vela d’argento she was given in 1963 for her first movie I basilischi – Lina Wertmüller received no formal recognition in Italy until she turned 80, as she was granted, from 2008 on, a series of honorary awards.
Throughout her career, she received awards from the US, Switzerland and even Iran, and she was awarded at the Berlin International Film Festival in the 1980s.
She received nothing from notoriously cinephile France.

She was actually never awarded Best Director for anything at all, which is questionable, to say the least, and frankly suspicious to say the most, given that the two main outstanding actors she launched, Giancarlo Giannini and the late Mariangela Melato, were awarded a total of 8 awards for their work in various films directed by her.

The thing is, look at history.
What’s the point of giving Charlie Chaplin‘s The Great Dictator the Outstanding Production Oscar in 1941, when you can reward the romantic psychological thriller Rebecca instead?
But after all these years, tell me which one your kids will have certainly heard about.

In the same way, Lina Wertmüller will be loved and appreciated for generations to come – and not for having won an Oscar at the end of her life, but for having been one of the best film directors of all time.

Lina Wertmüller movie posters

Madam, what a huge honour this is for me. I’m quite frightened, to be honest.

Oh come on, it’s alright. Don’t worry.

How are you, how are things going?

I’m really good, I’m lying on the couch. I’m watching from the window and I can see a small Italian flag waving in the wind, but the colours are upside down. So it’s red, white and green instead of green, white and red. That’s weird.

Everyone seems confused, nowadays. 

Lina Wertmüller accepts the Honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards with Sophia Loren and Isabella Rossellini

At the Academy Awards in 2020 © to the owners

So, congratulations on winning the Honorary Oscar. How was the experience?

It’s been great and exciting. Sophia Loren was also there, and it was important to have her there, and then my family was there, too. It’s been a great experience.

You didn’t attend the Academy Awards ceremony when you were nominated in 1977. Why?

I did attend. I was there, but I’d put someone else in my place. This person was precisely Lalla Kezich. She was the wife of Italian screenwriter Tullio Kezich. She travelled all over the world pretending she was me.

Why did you do that?

I’m just very playful, I like to play. I just don’t like to take things too seriously.

I always thought that Life is Beautiful has a lot in common with Seven Beauties, but it seems like nobody realised it. Do you feel the two movies are vaguely similar?

Well, no, I don’t think that either. Maybe something they have in common is the grotesque side of the story and not taking too seriously something that is really serious.

Lina Wertmüller Italian director

White glasses on the phone © to the owners

In 1968 you made the Western movie The Belle Starr Story [Il mio corpo per un poker] using the male pseudonym of Nathan Witch. What would have happened if you had used your real name?

Haha, well, nothing would have happened – what would you expect me to say about it? It would have been exactly the same, the movie would have gone on as usual. I don’t think this is something that would have changed things, so I don’t know what to answer.

What are the steps of your creative process? How do you come up with stories and ideas?

You’re asking me very difficult questions. I don’t know. I have no idea.

You have no idea.

Well, you know, life is all around us, and then you just pick what is running past you. Your voice sounds very young. How old are you?

I’m in my thirties.

You sound much younger, how come?

I have no idea.

Ok, that’s fine.

What would you be doing right now if you didn’t make it as a film director? Did you have a plan B?

No, I don’t remember having any plan B. I don’t think so. My daughter here is saying that I’ve always done what I wanted to do, so that’s fine, I think.

Okay.

Do you know how old I am?

Sure. You’re turning 92 this August.

I don’t want to hear it, please! Haha. Just kidding.

Would you like to say something about your time working with Federico Fellini?

Federico was like an entire world of his own. He was this entire world I had the chance to get to know and work with, and this cannot be summarised just like that. That wouldn’t be fair. We ought to sit around a fireplace and start talking about this very long story that lasted for years and years of my life.

Lina Wertmüller Italian director

Lina Wertmüller © to the owners

I would love to sit by a fireplace with you Madam, but it’s June.

I’m sitting on my terrace now, and I’ve got these two sphinxes that look very austere. They look quite rigid and they are always staring at me in this nasty way. It’s as if they are always angry at me.

So why did you buy them?

I didn’t buy them, they were already here when I got the house.

But you didn’t get rid of them.

No, never. I don’t know why. Do you always have the answers to all the questions in your life?

No. That’s why I interview people. Maybe you guys have more answers than me.

Well, I would gladly answer, but I don’t know what to say. Ask me some questions and I’ll do my best to answer.

That’s what I’m trying to do. So, for example, if you were to make a film today about the new generations’ ideals – or lack of ideals, what would the film be about?

Such a difficult question. I don’t know. Ideals or lack of ideals. I have no idea. My daughter here is saying that technology is increasingly becoming a problem and people should use their mobiles less.

In your opinion, why are today’s kids being strongly encouraged by adults to take part in environmental causes, but not in calls for action on civil rights, as was the case in the 1960s and 1970s?

Probably we cared less about the environment. Probably we cared more about other small and big problems in our society.

Lina Wertmüller and Giancarlo Giannini

Lina Wertmüller and Giancarlo Giannini © to the owners

What’s the secret behind the success of Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato as a pair?

When it comes to pairs, it’s always a mystery why they work or they do not work together. It’s a mystery from all points of view, including from the pair’s own point of view. We are talking about two great actors here, who have also been excellent co-workers and fellows for each other – you know – two great artists, indeed. I could go on for eight years talking about them…

Let’s sit by a fireplace.

Exactly.

Was it hard to hold back laughter when filming those incredibly amusing scenes such as fights and rages?

I don’t know. We had so much fun making movies, that’s right. But your voice… you really sound like a little girl.

It’s all an act. I am not a little girl. Which movie do most people identify you with?

Swept Away. Unavoidably, it’s Swept Away.

Are you happy about that?

Well, it is like that. It’s, you know, it’s all about the situation: Swept Away… by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August.

You often said you’re passionate about dialects, especially Southern Italy dialects. How do you learn dialects?

You’ve got to listen a lot. Listening, imitating. That’s it, in short. You also need to travel. Travelling is great to learn dialects, of course.

Lina Wertmüller and Enrico Job

Lina Wertmüller and Enrico Job © to the owners

Certain visual things are pretty unique to your films – how do you come up with these ideas?

I don’t know. My late husband, Enrico, was also really into these things. You didn’t get to meet my husband, did you?

Unfortunately, not.

Yes, unfortunately for you.

Your full name is Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Spanol von Braueich. How did you decide you wanted to go by Lina?

That comes from Arcangelina, so it ended up being just Lina. You really have a very youthful voice, you know that?

Never cared for my voice, Madam, but if you say so, thank you. 

It’s alright.

Your movies’ titles are often very long. You were even listed in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest film title, which was the original title of Blood Feud [Fatto di sangue fra due uomini per causa di una vedova, si sospettano moventi politici], which counts 179 characters. How do people react to this?

They typically just remember the beginning of the title. Many very long titles are just used in short, it is understood that you would just use the beginning of the title.

I often feel that film critics don’t really get the meaning of your long film titles, they just find them comical, which I don’t think they are.

Of course, they are not. They are not comical by any means. I mean, they may come across as amusing, rather than comical, and it’s amusing that people just remember the beginning.

Lina Wertmüller and Giancarlo Giannini

Lina Wertmüller and Giancarlo Giannini © to the owners

In the 2015 documentary dedicated to your career, Behind the White Glasses, Giancarlo Giannini compares you to people like Fidel Castro and Napoleon, who were both Leo. Giancarlo Giannini is also a Leo. And you are a Leo too. Anything to declare about that?

No, I never noticed this thing before. You are making me notice it now. Leo is born towards the middle of the year, so he has quite a strong temper.

What do you think of today’s cinema?

What do you mean?

What’s your opinion about the stuff you’re seeing on the screen nowadays, in Italy? 

It’s not always very serious. Sometimes it is, but not always. Then the thing is that these are topics that could be discussed for very long.

I have all the time in the world. No fireplace as it’s summer, but for the rest, I’m all ears.

Umh.

Lina Wertmüller smoking a cigarette

Lina Wertmüller © to the owners

Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Oh well… they need to watch a lot of films to start white. And then they should try to get the maximum in terms of learning out of the films they watch. I wouldn’t know what else to say. Federico Fellini once said “Your story should read the same way you would tell it to your friends while hanging out at the bar”, and I followed this advice. I followed Federico’s greatest advice.

I once heard you saying that either you are a good storyteller, or you aren’t.

Oh, that’s for sure. This is absolutely true. Either you have the talent, or you don’t.

Are you working on something new, these days?

I’m just reflecting on the sound of your voice.

What do you exactly see in my voice?

A lot of youth.

Maybe you get me because I’m a Leo too. 

Maybe it’s this.

Anyway, are you working on something new, these days?

Yes, I am.

May I ask what this is about?

No, better not talk about it. I don’t want to jinx it.

What an incredible honour has it been for me, Madam! Thank you so much. And thank you for making these wonderful films. I’m your number-one fan!

Thank you, thank you!

Lina Wertmüller Italian director

Lina Wertmüller shouting at somebody © to the owners

All the pictures published were provided from Lina Wertmüller’s private collection © to the owners

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