The granddaddy of international film festivals, the Venice Film Festival has been a leader in promoting films since it was founded 90 years ago, in 1932, and is the oldest film festival in the world.
The event was founded by the National Fascist Party and in its early days, from 1934-1942, the top prize was known as the Mussolini Cup, named for the dictator Benito Mussolini. After his fall from power — and his execution — a bit of rebranding was called for and the Golden Lion [Leone d’Oro] was born.
The first Golden Lion, in 1946, went to an American film about Texas sharecroppers, The Southerner, directed by Frenchman Jean Renoir, who had fled Europe for Hollywood at the onset of World War II.
The festival has been good for American directors over the years, with Lions going to seven U.S. directors: John Cassavetes (Gloria, 1980), Robert Altman (Short Cuts, 1993), Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, 2005), Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, 2008), Sofia Coppola (Somewhere, 2010), Todd Phillips (Joker, 2019) and Chloé Zhao (Nomadland, 2020). Lee also won for the Chinese-language film Lust, Caution in 2007.
In fact, Lee is one of only four directors who left Venice as winners of the Golden Lion twice: Andrè Cayatte (Justice is Done, 1950, and Tomorrow is My Turn, 1960), Louis Malle (Atlantic City, 1980, and Au revoir les enfants, 1987) and Zhang Yimou (The Story of Qiu Ju, 1992, and Not One Less, 1999).
Since 1949, only six women have won the Golden Lion, Margarethe von Trotta (Marianne and Juliane, 1980), Agnès Varda (Vagabond, 1985), Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, 2001), Coppola, Zhao and Audrey Diwan (Happening, 2021). German director Leni Riefenstahl, known for her role in producing Nazi propaganda films, won the Mussolini Cup in 1938.
More recently, Venice has become more relevant than ever.
In the past five years, the films that have won Venice’s top award, The Golden Lion, have proved to a reliable bell weather for the Academy Awards, which take place nearly half a year later. Two of the films that won the Golden Lion in that span went on to win the Best Picture Oscar: The Shape of Water and Nomadland. Two more of the five most recent Golden Lion winners — Roma and Joker — were nominated for Best Picture.
Click the photo above to launch a gallery of all the post-war winners of the festival’s top prize.
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