Born: August 14, 1928;

Died: December 9, 2021.

THREE decades before Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director, for The Hurt Locker, Lina Wertmüller, who has died aged 93, paved the way by becoming the first woman to be nominated for the award for her controversial tragi-comedy, Seven Beauties, a nomination that was all the more remarkable as the film was made in her native Italian language.

She lost out to John Avildsen, the director of Rocky, though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did go some way to make it up to her with an honorary award in 2019.

Wertmüller was never quite as big in the UK as she was in the US. And Hollywood did try to woo her. But her only Hollywood studio movie, A Night Full of Rain, flopped at the box office and she returned to Europe and her own idiosyncratic brand of film-making, which the Washington Post described as a “piquant blend of sex, politics, tragedy and humour”.

Her films were as distinctive and quirky as the white-rimmed spectacles that she wore throughout her career and which looked like they might have come from a toy shop. And her audience was essentially an arthouse audience, rather than the mainstream.

Nevertheless Hollywood belatedly attempted a remake of one of her arthouse hits. Her original 1974 version of Swept Away, a comedy with elements of romance and gender and class politics, was lauded by critics and won various awards.

But the original’s success had depended heavily on Wertmüller’s light touch. Guy Ritchie’s 2002 remake, starring his then-wife Madonna, was a rather different creature. It won awards, but not the ones that most film-makers crave. It dominated the Golden Raspberry Awards for bad films and is still widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made.

Wertmüller was born Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Spanol von Braueich, into an aristocratic family (obviously) in Rome, in 1928. Her father was a successful lawyer, her parents were devout Roman Catholics, but Wertmüller, somewhat less devout. She was reputedly expelled from no fewer than 15 Catholic secondary schools.

She worshipped the Flash Gordon comic-book character, seeing the strips as if they were little movies.

She trained as a teacher, considered law as a career, but instead went on to drama school in Rome. Initially she worked in showbusiness as a puppeteer with a prominent company, before broadening her experience as an actress, a theatre and television director, writer and even set designer.

One of her first film jobs was as an assistant director on Federico Fellini’s celebrated 1963 film, 8½. Fellini encouraged her film-making abilities and she used crew from 8½ for her own modest film debut as a writer and director, The Lizards, a portrait of the rather uneventful lives of three young men in a poor village in the south of Italy. It won an award at the Locarno Film Festival, secured a British release and marked her out as a film-maker to watch.

A long association with the Italian actor, Giancarlo Giannini, began in the mid-1960s on the television musicals Rita the Mosquito and its sequel, Don’t Sting the Mosquito.

Her career took off in the 1970s with films that mixed drama and comedy and keyed into the political and social upheaval of the time. The Seduction of Mimi starred Giannini as the eponymous anti-hero, a simple labourer who leaves Sicily for the mainland after refusing to vote for the Mafia-approved candidate in an election.

The Seduction of Mimi marked the beginning of a golden decade for Wertmüller that included Swept Away and Seven Beauties.

Wertmüller’s films were noted for their lengthy titles; Swept Away’s original title was Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto or Swept Away... by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August. It revolved around a rich, entitled woman (Wertmüller regularMariangela Melato) and a taciturn Communist employee (Giannini) and how their roles change when they find themselves stranded on a desert island.

Seven Beauties was to prove one of her most successful films and also one of the most controversial for its depiction of Nazi concentration camps and their use within a picaresque entertainment, with elements of low comedy and farce.

Giannini plays a foppish womaniser who goes to jail for killing his sister’s pimp, volunteers to join the Army fighting alongside the Germans, but then deserts and is sent to a concentration camp where, in order to save his own life, he begins a relationship with the cigar-chomping female commandant and is responsible for the execution of other prisoners, including his old Army buddy.

Although Wertmüller made Oscar history with Seven Beauties, not everyone was impressed. As well as attracting criticism for the concentration camp scenes it also angered many feminists. The essayist Ellen Willis described her as “a woman-hater who pretends to be a feminist”.

Giannini also starred in Wertmüller’s only Hollywood film A Night Full of Rain, full original title The End of the World in Our Usual Bed on a Night Full of Rain. He played a left-wing journalist and Candice Bergen was a feminist photographer and his lover.

Audiences and even critics struggled to make much sense of the film. Wertmüller was more than happy to offer lengthy explanations that proved more entertaining than the film, leading Vincent Canby to suggest in the New York Times that Warner Bros should dump the movie and distribute Wertmüller instead.

Back in Europe Wertmüller went on writing and directing throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but she never again attracted the critical kudos and attention she had garnered with Seven Beauties and other films from that period.

Her husband Enrico Job worked as production designer on many of her films. He died in 2008. He had a daughter from another relationship in the early 1990s and she adopted the child, who survives them.