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Lina Wertmuller

Biography from Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film

Occupation: Director, screenwriter
Also: Actress, playwright

Birth Name: Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmuller von Elgg Spanol von Braueich

Born: August 14, 1928, Rome, Italy

Education: Stanislavskyan Academy of Theater, Rome

European director whose grotesque/comic treatments of weighty political, social and sexual themes earned her a sizeable cult following in the mid-1970s. Wertmuller was born to a family of Swiss aristocrats; her father, a lawyer, dominated his family and young Lina constantly fought with him. A product of a Roman Catholic education, Wertmuller brought her domestic battles into the classroom and, as she approached college age, could boast of having been thrown out of fifteen schools. Her father wanted her to attend law school but Wertmuller decided, at the instigation of a friend, to enroll in theater school.
    After her graduation in 1951 she became an itinerant theatrical jack-of-all-trades, traveling through Europe as a producer of avant-garde plays, puppeteer, stage manager, set designer, publicist and radio/TV scriptwriter. Through an acquaintance with Marcello Mastroianni, Wertmuller was introduced to Federico Fellini, who offered her a production position on his film 8 1/2 (1963). Through her work on this production Wertmuller developed a desire to direct her own film. Enlisting the services of several technicians from 8 1/2, Wertmuller (with the financial backing of Fellini) made her first film, The Lizards (1963). A second film, Let's Talk About Men (1965), performed decently at the box office, but when she had difficulty obtaining funding for a third film, Wertmuller returned to her work in the theater and TV.
    Wertmuller re-emerged as a major film director through her friendship with actor Giancarlo Giannini, who had already established a reputation as a popular stage star. Wertmuller directed him in a TV production, Rita the Mosquito (1966); Giannini then recommended a play she had written, Two Plus Two Are No Longer Four, to Franco Zeffirelli, who agreed to produce it with Giannini starring. The critical and financial success of this production was the breakthrough Wertmuller needed. Giannini and Wertmuller now agreed to collaborate on films. Their first production, The Seduction of Mimi, a comic examination of sexual role-playing and political maneuvering, garnered Wertmuller the best director award at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival. Their next film, Love and Anarchy (1973), won Giannini the best actor award at Cannes and, booked for distribution in New York in 1974, gave American critics a first look at a new directorial sensibility. Its success prompted the release of The Seduction of Mimi in the US.
    The release of these films created an almost instantaneous cult around Wertmuller, which was fueled by the release of All Screwed Up (1974) and Let's Talk About Men and culminated with the release of Swept Away (1975) and Seven Beauties (1976). These films combined heavy-handed caricature with extended, often violent, political and sexual debate. Wertmuller's satirical thrust was so broad that both feminists and anti-feminists, liberals and conservatives flocked to her films. On the whole, however, Wertmuller's women characters were treated with contempt - from the shrill, ultra-chic Mariangela Melato in Swept Away and Summer Night (With Greek Profile, Almond Eyes and Scent of Basil) (1987) to the Felliniesque, wide-angle exaggerations of The Seduction of Mimi and Seven Beauties (1976). Her male characters were not much more sympathetic, but their broad, macho posturing and chauvinism was tempered by the Chaplinesque pathos of Giannini's performances-particularly his pathologically comic Pasqualino in Seven Beauties (1976).
    After Seven Beauties (1976), Wertmuller's reputation took a sharp downward turn. Her first American film, The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain (1978), was both a critical and financial flop and her subsequent, sporadic productions have failed to recapture her audience.
    Though Wertmuller has had a prolific career since, and is still actively directing, none of her later films have had the same impact as her mid-1970s collaborations with Giannini. Wertmuller is married to Enrico Job, an art designer who worked on several of her pictures.

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