Virna Lisi, who won a best actress award in Cannes as well as a César and the Italian Silver Ribbon for her portrayal of Catherine de’ Medici in Patrice Chéreau‘s Queen Margot (1994), has passed away at the age of 78. In a career that spanned over half a century, Lisi appeared in over 100 film and television productions.
Born in 1936 as Virna Pieralisi, she began her career as a teen in Carlo Borghesio’s The Steel Rope (La corda d’acciaio, 1953), moved on to musicals such as Armando Grottini’s Napoli Sings (E Napoli canta, 1953) and her first hit, the comedy omnibus Of Life and Love (Questa è la vita, 1954) based on four stories by Luigi Pirandello. She took the lead in Francesco Maselli‘s The Woman of the Day (La donna del giorno, 1956) and appeared with Steve Reeves in Sergio Corbucci‘s Duel of the Titans (Romolo e Remo, 1961). But her most prestigious role of this period, in which she was also appearing on stage and in popular Italian television dramas and comedies was Francesca Ferrari in Joseph Losey‘s Eva (1962) with Jeanne Moreau.
In the mid-60s, Hollywood brought her over to take on the blonde bombshell roles that might have gone to the then-recently passed Marilyn Monroe. It was during this period that the legendary art director George Lois put her on the cover of the March 1965 issue of Esquire:
She rises seductively from a cake at a party in How to Murder Your Wife (1965), catching the eye of Jack Lemmon, and then appeared with Tony Curtis in Not with My Wife, You Don’t! (1966), with Frank Sinatra in Assault on a Queen (1966), with Rod Steiger in The Girl and the General (1967) and with Anthony Quinn in The 25th Hour (1967) and Stanley Kramer’s The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969).
In the early 70s, Lisi took a break to, as they say, spend more time with her family, before returning to the screen alongside Dominique Sanda, Erland Josephson and Robert Powell in Liliana Cavani‘s Beyond Good and Evil (1977) as well as in Salvatore Samperi’s Ernesto (1979). For her performance in Alberto Lattuada‘s The Cricket (1980), she won her first David di Donatello award—and then another in 1983 for her performance in Carlo Vanzina’s Time for Loving. Following Queen Margot, Lisi concentrated primarily on roles in Italian television movies and series.
Updates, 12/25: “Lisi made several films in France, including Les Bonnes Causes (Don’t Tempt the Devil, 1963), directed by Christian-Jaque, who then cast her in the role that brought her first international attention, in La Tulipe Noire (Black Tulip, 1964),” writes John Francis Lane for the Guardian. “As the heroine to Alain Delon’s dashing swashbuckler, she combined sexiness with dexterity…. After her success in La Reine Margot, she won further praise as the grandmother-narrator in the screen adaptation of Susanna Tamaro’s bestselling novel Vai Dove Ti Porta il Cuore (Go Where Your Heart Takes You, 1996). This was directed by Cristina Comencini, Luigi’s daughter. The two women went on to make a much better film, Il Più Bel Giorno della Mia Vita (The Best Day of My Life, 2002), in which Lisi was a mother coping with the amorous problems of her three grown-up children; her final role came in Cristina’s comedy Latin Lover, due for release next year.”
In the New York Times, Marc Santora looks up a 1965 profile in Life: “‘I’ve never seen that kind of woman before—like Jean Harlow and Madeleine Carroll put together or Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly,’ the magazine quoted one normally ‘blasé Hollywood photographer’ as saying…. ‘I take these things very coolly,’ she once said when asked if success would change her. ‘I don’t believe in letting any kind of praise go to one’s head. In a career, as in life, we can be way up one day and down the next. It doesn’t pay to permit such things to affect one’s outlook.'”