Italian director Lina Wertmüller has always been framed as a series of contradictions: feminist or “woman hater”; “tyrant or genius”; “odious” or “lovable.” Those descriptions likely mean little to Wertmuller, whose 20-plus films have, like Wertmüller herself, gleefully embraced contradiction, particularly the paradoxes of gender and politics.
In 1976, Wertmüller became the first woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for her film Seven Beauties (it would be nearly 20 years before another woman—Jane Campion—earned a nomination). Like all of her films, Seven Beauties is an often brutal but compelling mix of politics and sex, exploring everything from survival to female physicality and Italian politics all in the midst of a concentration camp. Seven Beauties came on the heels of other modern classics like The Seduction of Mimi and Swept Away, a film that explores class and privilege and politics, played out in an aggressive relationship between a rich socialite and her communist deckhand as they struggle for power on an abandoned island. The films were proof, to a handful of feminists, at least, that Wertmüller was not one of them. Instead, Wertmüller was labeled, “male chauvinist” for depicting women in brutal situations.
But Wertmüller has never been interested in orthodoxy, and her films have never been interested in the “correct” ways to depict women. Instead, they revel in the clash of socialism and capitalism often played out in personal relationships, particularly in sex. (Wertmüller is a socialist who once called her politics, “more of an attitude than a political belief.”) It’s almost funny now to revisit profiles of Wertmüller from the height of her fame in the 1970s; so many seemed confused by Wertmüller’s demanding style of directing, confused by her ambition or her commitment to her idiosyncratic vision. They all agree, however, that Wertmüller is a masterful director and that she produced some of the 20th century’s most memorable films.
Jezebel spoke to Wertmüller around her retrospective at Quad Cinema, which runs until May 1.
JEZEBEL: You were the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Director. Can you talk a bit about what that experience was like?
LINA WERTMULLER: The nomination was a big surprise for all of us who made Seven Beauties. It was the first time that a foreign film was nominated for four Academy Awards. I received the news while I was in San Francisco for the shooting of my first American movie, A Night Full of Rain with Giancarlo Giannini and Candice Bergen. I remember how media talked about my nomination. TV news and newspapers talked about a historic event for women. I was a little scared by all the glamor because I’ve always thought that believing in success can be dangerous for artists.
It was another 20-ish years before another woman was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director. Recently, there’s also been a lot of conversation about the lack of women directors in Hollywood. Do you have any thoughts on the gender imbalance among film directors?
I simply think that there’s no difference between male and female directors. We are artists and our aim is to make good films. It doesn’t depend on your gender. I feel that times are changing; there are many women directors that are very talented and I wish the best to all of them.
As a follow-up: During the span of your career, you were one of the only women making films. What was that experience like—being the lone woman?
I was not the only one, indeed. Before me, there were many pioneer female directors. Since the silent era, we had great filmmakers such as Elvira Notari who was born in Salerno and Alice Guy who grown up at Gaumont. Elvira was one the first directors of all time. She started making films from the very beginning of the century with her own production company.
I have to admit that I’ve never felt it was a problem that I was one of the few women making films.
Your first big break was working as the assistant director on Federico Fellini’s 8½. Can you share some of your experiences working on what’s now considered an iconic film?
Federico was a master and a friend to me. The experience was really enlightening. As I always say you can’t learn from a director like Fellini, you can just appreciate his way of working because he had no rules. He was free to make changes and take new decisions every time on the set.
When Swept Away was first released, it was met with quite a bit of criticism from feminists who saw the film as unnecessarily violent against your female lead, Mariangela Melato. In hindsight, it seems like a strange criticism that misses the political dimensions of the film. Can you perhaps talk about your feeling about that line of criticism?
I’ve never understood feminists who criticized Swept Away but when you make a film, people are free to see what they want and can express every feeling the movie opens in their mind and hearts. From my point of view, there’s not a message against women’s freedom. It’s the opposite to me. My leading female character is a free woman, she makes choices following her own will.
There’s been a lot of exploration of the relationship between certain actor/actresses and directors (i.e. Herzog and Kinski or Fellini and Mastroianni) and you, of course, made numerous films with Giancarlo Giannini. Could you share a bit about your working relationship with Giannini? What about him made him ideal for your films?
Giancarlo is a very skilled actor. He has an enormous talent that emerges in every film we made together where he plays very different roles. We worked hard to create new characters, reading together the script and by making many days of rehearsals before filming. Our collaboration on a film started many months before shooting. We also used to take one week at least in order to create the right look of the character by making screen tests in 35 mm. Those screen tests were essentials to see the effect of costumes and makeup on the big screen.
Enrico Job, my ingenious husband who was set and costume designer of our films, was also a key figure in that process.
Since this interview comes during a retrospective of your work, I wanted to ask you about legacy. In particular, what do you want your legacy as a filmmaker to be?
I don’t really think about my legacy. I just hope that my movies will continue to be seen and to be appreciated by new generations.