19 December 2014

Virna Lisi (1936-2014)

On 17 December 2014, Virna Lisi passed away at the age of 78. The seductive Italian actress appeared in more than 100 film and TV productions and is internationally best known as a tempting blue-eyed blonde in Hollywood productions of the 1960s. But she proved to be more than a pretty face. From the late 1970s, she had a career Renaissance with three-dimensional character parts in a wide variety of Italian and French films. A triumph was her portrayal of a malevolent Catherine de Medici in La Reine Margot (1994) for which she won both the David di Donatello and the César award. Yesterday, Italian media quoted her son as saying that Lisi had passed away peacefully in her sleep, a month after being diagnosed with an incurable illness.

Virna Lisi
Romanian postcard by Casa Filmului Acin. Retail price: 2 Lei.

Virna Lisi
Italian postcard. Photo: Paramount. Publicity still for Assault on a Queen (Jack Donohue, 1966).

With Such A Mouth...

Virna Lisi was born as Virna Lisa Pieralisi in Ancona, Italy in 1936. Her father had a marble exporting business on the Adriatic coast. Her brother, Ubaldo Pieralisi, later became a talent agent, and her sister Esperia Pieralisi also became an actress.

Virna began her film career as a teenager. She was discovered by two Neapolitan producers, Antonio Ferrigno and Ettore Pesce, in Paris. Her debut was in La corda d'acciaio/The line of steel (Carlo Borghesio, 1953-1958).

Initially, she did musical films, like E Napoli canta/Napoli sings (Armando Grottini, 1953) and the successful four-episode film Questa è la vita/Such is life (Luigi Zampa a.o., 1954), with the popular Totò.

Her looks were more valued than her talent in some of her early films, like in Le diciottenni/Eighteen Year Olds (Mario Mattoli, 1955) with Marisa Allasio, and Lo scapolo/The Bachelor (Antonio Pietrangeli, 1955) with Alberto Sordi.

She incarnated more demanding roles in Il cardinale Lambertini/Cardinal Lambertini (Giorgio Pastina, 1954) opposite Gino Cervi, La Donna del Giorno/The Doll That Took the Town (Francesco Maselli, 1956), the peplum Romolo e Remo/Duel of the Titans (Sergio Corbucci, 1961) featuring musclemen Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott as the two legendary brothers Romulus and Remus, and Eva/Eve (Joseph Losey, 1962) starring Jeanne Moreau.

In the late 1950s, Lisi played on stage at the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, and appeared in I giacobini by Federico Zardi, under the direction of Giorgio Strehler.

During the 1960s, she performed in stage comedies and she also participated in some very popular television dramas. On TV she also promoted a toothpaste brand, with a slogan which would become a catchphrase amongst the Italians: "con quella bocca può dire ciò che vuole" (with such a mouth, she can say whatever she wants).

Virna Lisi dead at 78
Italian postcard by Rotalcolor, Milano, no. 660.

Virna Lisi dead at 78
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, Berlin, no. 2481, 1965. Photo: publicity still for La tulipe noire/The Black Tulip (Christian-Jacque, 1964) with Alain Delon and Virna Lisi.

Virna Lisi
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Film-Vertrieb, Berlin, no. 2869. Retail price: 0,20 MDN.

Tempting Blue-eyed Blonde

In France, Virna Lisi played the role that brought her first international attention, in La tulipe noire/The Black Tulip (Christian-Jacque, 1964). As the heroine to Alain Delon’s dashing swashbuckler, she combined sexiness with dexterity.

In the 1960s, Hollywood producers were looking for a successor to Marilyn Monroe and so Lisi then made a dent in Hollywood comedies as a tempting blue-eyed blonde.

She first starred opposite Jack Lemmon in George Axelrod’s satirical How to Murder Your Wife (Richard Quine, 1965). At IMDb, reviewer Mdantonio takes his hat off for her performance: “What most everyone fails to mention in the comments is the incredible skill of Virna Lisi. She is a natural mixing it up with Lemmon, (Claire) Trevor and the other veterans like she had been making movies for years. I have watched many movies in my day and I must say that Virna Lisi is right at the top, not only in beauty and sexuality but in carrying her role as good as anyone else could have. Ms. Lisi, my hat is off to you.”

Lisi also gained attention with the March 1965 cover of Esquire magazine on which she was shaving her face. The following year she appeared in another comedy, Not with My Wife, You Don't! (Norman Panama, 1966) now with Tony Curtis.

She also starred with Frank Sinatra in Assault on a Queen (Jack Donohue, 1966), with Rod Steiger in La Ragazza e il Generale/The Girl and the General (Pasquale Festa Campanile, 1967), and twice with Anthony Quinn, in the war drama La vingt-cinquième heure/The 25th Hour (Henri Verneuil, 1967), and in The Secret of Santa Vittoria (Stanley Kramer, 1969).

John Francis Lane in his obituary in The Guardian: "Though she enjoyed her American experiences and appreciated the professionalism she encountered, Lisi soon tired of the 'new Marilyn' image foisted upon her. She accepted becoming a cover girl but refused a lucrative offer to pose for Playboy."

To overcome her typecasting as a sexy, seductive woman, Lisi sought new types of roles, and found these in such Italian comedies as Le bambole/Four Kinds of Love (Dino Risi a.o., 1965), Signore & signori/The Birds, the Bees and the Italians (Pietro Germi, 1966) and Le dolci signore/Anyone Can Play (Fausto Saraceni, Luigi Zampa, 1968), and Roma bene (Carlo Lizzani, 1971) with Senta Berger.

At AllMovie, Robert Firsching reviews Signore & signori: “Pietro Germi's funny anthology combines the standard sex comedy format with some unexpectedly subtle observations about village life. The film centers on three stories exposing the sexual secrets of the Italian town of Treviso. (...) Signore e Signori won the Best Film award at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival.”

Virna Lisi
Romanian postcard by Casa Filmului Acin, no. 43078.

Virna Lisi dead at 78
Yugoslavian postcard by Cik Razglednica.

Career Renaissance

In the early 1970s, Virna Lisi decided to focus on her family, husband Franco Pesci and her son Corrado, born in 1962.

In the later 1970s she had a career renaissance with a series of major Italian films. She played Friedrich Nietzsche’s neurotic sister, Elisabeth, in the controversial Al di là del bene e del male/Beyond Good and Evil (Liliana Cavani, 1977) starring Dominique Sanda.

It was followed by roles in Ernesto (Salvatore Samperi, 1979), La cicala/The Cricket (Alberto Lattuada, 1980), and I ragazzi di via Panisperna/The Boys of the Via Panisperna (Gianni Amelio, 1989) with Andrea Prodan and Mario Adorf.

Andrea Prodan’s brother Luca Prodan is the singer of the Argentinean band Sumo which made a song for Lisi. The Brazilian rock band Virna Lisi is even named after her.

Her greatest triumph was the French film La Reine Margot/Queen Margot (Patrice Chéreau, 1994) in which Lisi played a malevolent Catherine de Medici, ordering assaults, poisonings, and instigations to incest.

Karl Williams writes at AllMovie: “The historical novel by Alexandre Dumas was adapted for the screen with this lavish French epic, winner of 5 Césars and a pair of awards at the Cannes Film Festival. Isabelle Adjani stars as Marguerite de Valois, better known as Margot, daughter of scheming Catholic power player Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi).”

For her magnificent portrayal Lisi won the César and the Best Actress award in Cannes, and also the David di Donatello award, the Italian equivalent of the Oscar.

Since the late 1990s, she did many successful dramatic TV productions, including L'onore e il rispetto/Honour and respect (Salvatore Samperi, 2006) with Gabriel Garko and Giancarlo Giannini.

In 2002, Lisi starred in Il più bel giorno della mia vita/The Best Day of My Life (Cristina Comencini, 2002) with Margherita Buy, and she reunited with director Cristina Comencini for her final film, the comedy Latin Lover, which will be released next year.

Since 1960, Virna Lisi was married to architect Franco Pesci, who died last year. She is survived by her son Corrado and three grandchildren: Franco, Federico and Riccardo.

Virna Lisi
Romanian postcard by Casa Filmului Acin. Collection: Veronique3@Flickr.

Virna Lisi dead at 78
Romanian postcard by Casa Filmului Acin.

Trailer of La Reine Margot/Queen Margot (Patrice Chéreau, 1994). Source: mearbhrach (YouTube).

Sources: John Francis Lane (The Guardian), Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Robert Firsching (AllMovie), Karl Williams (AllMovie), Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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