It is 4 a.m. in Rome, and Lina Wertmuller is shooting a movie. As cast and crew shiver in a cold wind, she sits impassively, peering out from behind the familiar white-framed glasses.
Suddenly she signals for the rain machine. “Azione!” Candice Bergen, in nightgown and shawl, and her Italian co-star, Giancarlo Giannini, race across a deserted piazza, screaming, snarling and clawing at each other. It’s the climactic scene in Wertmuller’s latest movie, The End of the World, In Our Usual Bed, In a Night Full of Rain. For the exhausted crew, the end of the world is not an altogether unpleasant prospect. Basta! The hoses stop and the actors retreat to a warm building, only to be called back by Wertmuller for more retakes. Tension grows. “Sometimes you must break an egg—get inside the yolk,” Lina explains. “I break everything.”
That philosophy has made Wertmuller even more controversial than her films, which include Seven Beauties, Love and Anarchy, The Seduction of Mimi and Swept Away, among others. The 47-year-old director is hailed by some as a genius, eccentric perhaps, but warmhearted and compassionate, one of the masters of modern cinema. Others see her as a cruel, overbearing tyrant who drives her actors to nervous breakdowns, or worse. “She’s ruthlessly ambitious,” says one casting director, “and she’ll trample anybody to get what she wants.” As always, the truth lies somewhere in between. Even a friend admits, “At times, Lina is lovable; at others, odious. All of us have moments when we would like to strangle her.” One thing seems beyond argument: Lina Wertmuller is the most distinguished female filmmaker in the world today. “I know they call me a crazy lady,” she says in a husky voice, “but I’m only interested in making movies and having people see them.”
During the filming of A Night Full of Rain, Lina’s single-mindedness took a savage turn, and Candy Bergen was the target. Even the director’s admirers felt she was unusually hard on her leading lady. The amores (my love) and tesoros (my treasure) that flew Bergen’s way when she arrived in Italy soon hardened into a cold, so-you-think-you’re-a-big-movie-star attitude that shocked everyone, including Bergen. “If there’s one person who doesn’t act like a movie star, it’s Candy,” says the wife of a crew member, “but Lina treated her like a number, not like a person.” Giannini, apparently feeling sorry for his co-star, befriended her, sparking rumors of a romance between the two. If so, it was brief. Those on the set suspect that Giannini and Wertmuller, close friends for years, were pulling a good-cop-bad-cop routine in order to squeeze an emotionally charged performance from the actress. “It was a traumatic situation,” confesses Bergen, “but I have to admit that no director has ever asked me to give so much of myself.”
Not surprisingly, Wertmuller loves to cause a stir. “Sure, she has temper tantrums on and off the set, but that’s all part of the business,” says Alice Columbo, an American friend whose eight-year marriage to an Italian journalist suggested the story line for A Night Full of Rain. “Behind it all is a generous soul who isn’t stingy with herself or her art.” In the flamboyant world of Italian moviemaking, however, Lina’s personal excesses seem modest, if occasionally silly. She owns 2,000 pairs of white eyeglass frames, having ordered “the minimum number from the factory so I’ll never run out.” Her dress, often a combination of hippie and gypsy, runs to Turkish harem pants, Frye boots and an incredible array of chains and good-luck charms draped around her neck. “She knew she wasn’t pretty, so she created a personality for herself,” says a colleague. “I admire her because she overcame her complex of homeliness and inferiority.”
Born Arcangela Wertmuller von Elgg, the daughter of a wealthy Roman lawyer with noble Swiss origins, young Lina grew up in Mussolini’s Italy. Her privileged childhood went largely untouched by the horrors of World War II. “I didn’t know about the poverty or the fact that jazz was banned,” she says. “But I do remember having to hide to listen to Louis Armstrong records. And we once kept a family of Jews for five months.” As a student, Wertmuller managed to get kicked out of more than a dozen schools for various infractions. Once, when forbidden to leave the classroom because the principal was about to inspect it, tiny Lina simply stood up and relieved herself next to her desk.
Despite her father’s objections, after the war Lina enrolled in a Stanislavski-method director’s academy. “When I was a girl, we all wanted to have fun. That’s all we thought about,” she remembers. “It didn’t occur to us to get married and have babies.” In 1951 she began a long apprenticeship in the Italian theater, during which she was also a puppeteer, a stage manager and a writer and director for radio and television.
The turning point in her career came in the early 1960s, when she was hired by Federico Fellini to be an assistant director for his classic 8½. She had met the famed Italian director through a childhood pal, Flora Carabella, who later married actor Marcello Mastroianni, the star of 8½. “I had known Federico a long time,” says Lina, still slightly awestruck, “but working with him opened new dimensions. It’s a gift that only great artists can give.”
During 8½, with Fellini’s blessing, Wertmuller persuaded one of his cameramen to help her film a story of peasant life in Sicily. The Lizards, shot on a meager budget of $60,000, is considered by many to be her finest work, although there have been few screenings outside Italy. A second, strongly feminist film, This Time, Let’s Talk About Men, was released in 1965 to modest acclaim. For the next few years Wertmuller had difficulty raising money for her movie projects, despite several well-received TV programs. Returning briefly to the theater, she fell in love with sculptor Enrico Job, and they soon married. Lina also met a rising young actor named Giancarlo Giannini, who brought one of her plays to the attention of director Franco Zeffirelli. He staged it, with Giannini in the starring role. “Giancarlo introduced her to backers and producers,” says Job, who is three years younger than his wife. “Without him, she’d probably still be waiting for a chance.”
A string of film hits followed, most of them starring Giannini and all dealing, in one way or another, with Wertmuller’s favorite themes of sex and politics. For Seven Beauties in 1975 she was nominated for three Academy Awards—best director, best screenplay and best foreign language film. (Nothing better illustrates the love-hate feeling Lina’s friends have toward her than Giannini’s observation as he was flying to Los Angeles for the Oscar ceremonies that year: “I hope she doesn’t win. She’s hard enough to live with as it is, but if she wins she’ll become impossible.” She did not.) Ironically, Wertmuller’s onscreen attitude toward women has drawn harsh criticism, especially from feminists. In Swept Away her 1973 film about a man and a woman stranded on a deserted island, the director was accused of glorifying a brutish ideal of male sexual domination. But Lina, who claims to be a “75 percent” feminist, rejects the argument that she deliberately sets out to degrade women. “Some feminists have this party-line attitude,” she says, “and they can be very extremist. The most enlightened characters in my film are women.”
Whatever her feelings about women, it’s clear that Wertmuller loves men, especially her husband. Married for nine years now (Lina refuses to discuss a previous relationship with a policeman), the couple lives in a newly furnished, $500,000 art nouveau apartment overlooking Rome’s Piazza del Popolo. For A Night Full of Rain, Job designed the main set, an extravagant apartment full of antiques, paintings and, if the viewer looks closely, photographs of Lina and her family. Painter Graziella Rotunno says of Wertmuller, “She respects Enrico’s talents as an artist enormously, especially because his art is not commercial. His shows cost him money.” (Some examples of his art: a man sculpted in bread, which the pigeons ate, and a figure in wax that melted under hot lights in five days.) Once, another friend recalls, Lina spent three hours shouting down a gallery owner. She felt he wasn’t doing justice to her husband’s work. “I hear a lot of people say she’s hard, unfeminine,” says her English teacher, Sue Brooks, “but at home, she seems very feminine to me, as though she wants to play the housewife.”
During work on A Night Full of Rain, Lina usually arrived at the huge Safa Palatino studios in central Rome at dawn, long before anyone else. “Before shooting began at 8:30 or 9,” recalls Alice Columbo, who did the English adaptation for the film, “she had already checked out the set, props, lights, camera placement, costumes and even the actors’ makeup. She’s involved in everything, nothing escapes her eye. She knows everything technical about film.” Some students were invited to watch her edit the movie but soon got bored. “Aha,” she crowed, “everyone wants to be a director, but when it comes to hours and hours of tedious work, they don’t want to know.”
Both admirers and critics agree on Wertmuller’s extraordinary energy—even on her days off. She studies English for an hour, reads five daily newspapers and talks to friends on the phone. “A lot of directors and writers live in an ivory tower,” comments one of those friends, “but she’s always surrounded by people—her films reflect what she sees around her.” Active politically, Lina is an avowed socialist who, unlike other prominent Italian directors, refuses to identify with the country’s growing Communist party. Domestic chores, big and small, seem to delight her. On Sunday nights, when the maid is out, Lina likes to cook roast chicken with lemon for Enrico. Recently she’s spent hours trying to find a mate for her new basset hound, Giacomo, who also has a role in the movie. “Her biggest problem seems to be finding enough hours in the day,” says Sue Brooks, “and sleep is what she sacrifices.”
Now on a whirlwind tour of the United States to promote A Night Full of Rain, Lina returns to Italy soon to prepare for a 10-hour Italian TV series on Marco Polo, which will take most of the year. She also has two more English-language films in her contract with Warner’s.
Has it ever occurred to Lina that her own story, especially the endless battles to get what she wants, might someday make a good film? “Ah,” she says with a smile but no answer to the question, “in work, love and the movies, everything is a fight.”