Harvey Weinstein is an occasional contributor to Deadline when he has something on his mind. With Oscar season right around the corner and the strong work of female directors front and center, Weinstein argues it’s time the Academy paid recognition to a storied Italian screenwriter/director who was largely alone among women making important films and who became the first female Oscar nominee for Best Director. Some potentially big news here: contemplating this essay and watching Lina Wertmuller’s films has emboldened Weinstein to set a 2018 production start to direct his long in the works Hossein Amini-scripted adaptation of the Leon Uris epic novel Mila 18, about the Jewish uprising against Nazi forces in the Warsaw Ghetto.
When Sophia Loren calls, you have a number of options. You can stand at attention, or you can say hello while you’re standing at attention. I chose both – with Sophia I always do. I worship her for her brilliant acting and as a link to the Italian cinema that has given me so much joy, and while we did Nine together, as a person, Sophia Loren is a ten. She always laughs first with a throaty, wonderful, and infectious laugh and then, in her charming English, “I think,” she says, “it’s time for Lina Wertmuller to receive an honorary Oscar.” She pauses just to make sure it registers and trust me, when she’s on the phone, it all registers. I can’t help but replaying those great Wertmuller movies in my head and wondering why people even waited so long. In 1992, I had the pleasure of distributing a movie that she directed called Ciao Professore, an Italian Goodbye Mr. Chips. It was a fun movie, not one of her masterworks, but really heartfelt nonetheless. I hadn’t seen her since the 90s. Sophia continued, “go to her house, say hello. You’re going to really love her and feel what I feel.” She made all the arrangements and off I went to Rome to be greeted by Lina, one of the golden age of Italian cinema’s reigning intellectuals.
I first got to know Sophia Loren when I worked on Pret-A-Porter, Robert Altman’s outrageous spoof on the fashion industry. Of course, Marcello Mastroianni was there, too, and they spoofed their brilliant Italian comedy, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow with a famous Sophia striptease. I did fall in love on the set of that movie, but it was with Marcello.
Every day, we would go to the same Italian restaurant called Stresa on the Champs-Élysées and I would ask him about all the movies he made, all the actors he worked with, and all the directors. His favorite co-star was Sophia. Their relationship seemed like a combination of best friends and brother and sister – fiercely loyal to each other. A platonic husband and wife. He did admit to me that his lifelong ambition was to play Tarzan, but Tarzan as a 70 year old Italian. Jane of course is henpecking him and the cheetah is really getting on his nerves. It was the only time I played hooky from a movie set but with all due honesty, Robert Altman didn’t need me anyhow. The movie was a pre-sold smash because Julia Roberts agreed to do it. It pre-sold everywhere. It was Julia’s love of Robert Altman that made her do it but then again, that’s who Julia is – fiercely loyal. If this is digressing a little from the main subject (Lina Wertmuller, honorary Oscar, Sophia Loren) let me just say Marcello Mastroianni is probably the best guest star you can ever have in an article. (And by the way, his entire relationship with Fellini is summed up in one scene Intervista, where he’s dressed as Mandrake the Magician. It’s Chapter 101 to see the power of actor-director partnership and how one infuses the other.)
Back to Lina, though. She was the first female director to be nominated for an Academy Award, for 1975’s Seven Beauties. But her previous writing-directing effort, 1974’s Swept Away, to this day is my defining film on the Battle of the Sexes. And yes, I’ve read James Thurber’s The Catbird Seat and seen its adaptations with Peter Sellers — but there’s nothing like Swept Away. Its politicization of gender and its heady ruminations on what it means to have versus have not makes it soar. Not only is it the Battle of the Sexes, but it’s also the Battle of the Classes – the rich, arrogant, beautiful Mariangela Melato and the commoner, Giancarlo Giannini. The sparks fly, but the politics fly too – the politics of being a woman, the politics of being a man. And on top of all that cake, the icing is the humor – flat out hilarious.
However the movie of hers that most stunned me when I was a student was Seven Beauties. There are four or five movies from my youth that I saw multiple times – Shoot The Piano Player, And Now My Love, Spartacus, The Wild Bunch – Seven Beauties was one of those. I watched it four, five times when it first came out. The style was new, overpowering. It was art reflecting generations of Italian art and a story about fascism and the horror of war and the horror of prejudice and the horror of infamy. The actress Shirley Stoller haunted me and when I close my eyes and think about her, I just see pure evil. It is, in my opinion, one of our greatest movies. A movie that spits in the face of fascism and celebrates the indomitability of the human spirit.
When we were prepping Woman in Gold, I watched it again. I watched it because I wanted to go back and tell this story, which was a triumphant story, but I wanted to remind myself just how brutal conditions were. I’ve made and distributed movies about the Holocaust. I was severely criticized for Life Is Beautiful and severely rewarded for it. It remains a personal favorite. There are many others. I guess it is personal – I lost eight great aunts and uncles to Auschwitz. Luckily for me, my grandmother and grandfather moved to America in the 20s while their families stayed back in Poland and Belarus. My great grandmother escaped with the Zionists as did one of her sons.
When I was a kid, I got to go to Israel and visit them. My aunt gave me a book called Mila 18 to read on the trip. It was a book that inspired me. It’s the story of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. It’s the triumph of a few Jewish rebels (men and women) who think they’re going to die and instead defeat thousands of German soldiers in the ghetto, and half of them escaped. I developed a script with my great writer friend Hossein Amini – it’s a movie I swore I’d direct myself – and in watching Seven Beauties again, I just decided, “time to make it next year.” I’ve already started to talk to people about it after delaying it for so many years. I am now committed.
But that’s Lina’s influence on me, those movies of hers. Watch them all. There’s so much to learn and so much good in all of them from performances to style to her versatility. Anyhow, my buddies Pascal and Fabrizio and I were entertained by Lina and a translator. The apartment had Rembrandt lighting and her voice reminded me of Mariangela Melato. Great throaty laugh. Loved gossip and talking about movies, and so loved Sophia. A force of nature. Lina was hilarious and pointed. At a time when we’re finally starting to universally celebrate the contributions of female directors, and fight back against the outrageous lack of their representation, it’s necessary that we take time to honor a trailblazer like Lina Wertmuller. She is and was a fearless visionary in a time where women had to fight tooth and nail to even be in the same room as their male contemporaries. As Sophia said, she was a pioneer for both her gender and the art of filmmaking as a whole. The last couple of years, what the Academy has done is absolutely revolutionary in terms of opening its arms to so many different people. Lina Wertmuller receiving an honorary Oscar, for me, is that Charlie Chaplin moment when a great icon of cinema comes to Hollywood and receives the respect of her peers. Sophia asked me to do this over a year ago, but I knew there were a lot decisions about who was getting the honorary Oscars. Decisions had already been made and there’s no point in throwing your hat in the ring when you know you’re going to lose. I told her that and said “let’s wait a year, things could be different.” And with the incredible accomplishment of Patty Jenkins and Wonder Woman and Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, things are different.
Without getting thrown out of the Academy for personally politicking, I ask everyone to be open to the idea – hopefully that’s diplomatic enough to save my expulsion. I get a big kick out of how much lobbying is going on amongst friends of mine for various openings on the Board of Governors, which of course is the body that gets to choose who receives these honorary Oscars. And so, to all of them, I just want to say I voted for all of you at least twice, but just so you could have a good think about Lina.
I hope we can all continue to watch those incredible movies. The ones that Lina made. The ones that those great Italian directors – Vittorio De Sica, Fellini, Antonioni, and so many, many more made. When Sophia Loren calls, I hope the Academy will listen and honor a woman in her 80s that has the soul of a rebellious teenager. In a year that celebrates women, wouldn’t it be wonderful to finally award the first female director ever nominated?