While an Oscar appears to become increasingly meaningless with each passing year, the sentiment behind it was not lost on veteran Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller at the October 27th Governors Awards held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. As one of only five female directors to be nominated for an Oscar (among Jane Campion, Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola and Greta Gerwig), Wertmüller was also the first to be nominated for Seven Beauties. Prompting presenter Jane Campion to ask, after quipping that the number of female directors acknowledged reads more like a haiku than anything else, “How do you correct centuries of patriarchal domination? Lina Wertmüller.” The woman Billy Wilder accused of having a dick–likely an insult-compliment alluding to her “rare” female ability to direct–has indeed been instrumental in paving the way for other women after her (though Campion wouldn’t be nominated until over a decade later at the 1994 Academy Awards).
Born in Rome as Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Spañol von Braueich, it’s no secret that Lina hails from a noble and wealthy lineage, which surely didn’t hurt in helping her ascent to filmic glory, for, as has long been the case, an artist has to be rich to hold out long enough to become famous. Yet, in true rich girl turned rebel fashion, she was expelled from fifteen Catholic schools, more interested in Flash Gordon than academics.
It was being introduced to Federico Fellini through her friend’s husband, Marcello Mastroianni, that cemented Wertmüller’s transition to film (after a dalliance with puppetry, for added whimsical cachet). Indeed, her style is similar to Fellini’s in many regards, with both depicting a romanticized yet hyper-real squalor of Italy’s working class. Something of an irony considering Fellini was middle-class and Wertmüller was high-born. Then again, anarchy and socialism is yet another privilege of the rich.
In 1965, the “caustic satire of Italian masculinity” that was Let’s Talk About Men established Wertmüller’s views as feminist. Though much of her work in the 70s would not be viewed as such by today’s more faint of heart, cut and dried advocates for the equitable treatment of women. This includes Swept Away… by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August (infamously remade by Guy Ritchie and starring Madonna) and Seven Beauties, the aforementioned landmark film that garnered the first female Oscar nomination (ultimately losing to John G. Avildsen for Rocky at the 49th Annual Academy Awards in 1977). Both of which depict brutal and unpleasant violence toward the female sex (as well as dialogue like, “Sodomize me.”).
Even so, it’s something of a comfort to see that Wertmüller has been recognized, at the very least, before her death–which is more than Hitchcock could say–(at ninety-one, she’s proof positive that Italians live longer because their food isn’t shit), by an industry that has consistently been exclusionary toward women. Perhaps especially those with the big dick energy of Wertmüller that Wilder was talking about. Maybe someday, thanks to Wertmüller’s first swift kick against the glass ceiling, women won’t need to be classified as such in order to be deemed “fit” to direct. Or whatever the fuck else they want to do as a profession. In any case, a “female” Oscar called Anna, as suggested by Wertmüller to Isabella Rossellini, isn’t a bad idea.