Lina Wertmuller poses for a portrait, Oct. 24, 2019, in Los Angeles.
Lina Wertmuller poses for a portrait, Oct. 24, 2019, in Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES - In 1977, Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmuller became the first woman to ever be nominated for best director at the Academy Awards. Although she didn't win that year — "Rockyz" director John G. Avildsen did — the 91-year-old with the famous white glasses will finally get an Oscar of her own Sunday at the annual Governors Awards.

"This is making me very happy," Wertmuller said last month through a translator.

Forty years ago the Federico Fellini-protege barely even registered the historic nature of her nomination, however. She was too busy thinking about her next film.

"Lina never gave too much importance to awards," said Valerio Ruiz, Wertmuller's biographer. "She left that for other people to talk about."

Ruiz also directed a documentary about Wertmuller called "Behind the White Glasses."

Born in Rome in 1928, Wertmuller had been working in theater, sketch comedy and puppetry before making her transition into film. A friend from school married actor Marcello Mastroianni and he made the fateful introduction to Fellini whom she assisted on the set of "8 1/2."

"Anything that he would ask her to do she would do," Ruiz said. "He would see a face going by in a taxi and he would say 'get me that face' and she would chase the taxi."

The relationship was hardly one-sided. Fellini provided his own crew to help Wertmuller make her first film, "The Lizards," in 1963.

"Fellini was much more than a person and friend,'' Wertmuller said. "Fellini was like opening a window and discovering in front of you a wonderful landscape which you didn't know before. Our relationship was much larger, much deeper and much more meaningful than anything I can describe."

The picture that ultimately caught the attention of the film academy was "Seven Beauties," a sprawling story about a man with seven unattractive sisters who puts himself on a complicated path during World War II when he murders a pimp who turned one of his sisters into a sex worker. Roger Ebert called it "opaque, despairing, and bottomless" in a review at the time.

This combination photo shows Italian film director Lina Wertmuller at her home in Rome, Italy, June 7, 1993, left, and Wertmuller on Jan. 18, 1978.
This combination photo shows Italian film director Lina Wertmuller at her home in Rome, Italy, June 7, 1993, left, and Wertmuller on Jan. 18, 1978.

Besides "Seven Beauties," Wertmuller had a string of notable films in the 1970s including "The Seduction of Mimi" and "Swept Away," which Guy Ritchie would attempt to remake with Madonna in 2002. But the attention around the Oscar nomination put her on a different level and soon enough she was signing a contract with Warner Bros. to make four films stateside. There was even a two-page ad in Variety magazine saying "Welcome Lina."

The Hollywood honeymoon was short, though. The first film she made, "A Night Full of Rain" with Giancarlo Giannini and Candice Bergen, was a disappointment. Even she acknowledges it was one of her "least accomplished." Warners cancelled the contract after that.  

Was she disappointed?

"Honestly not," she said.

Wertmuller has continued working and is still writing to this day and is currently making the rounds in Los Angeles once more as Sunday's big event nears. The non-profit Women in Film, which honored her with a Crystal Award in 1985, hosted an intimate luncheon for Wertmuller Thursday with attendees like "It's Complicated" director Nancy Meyers and "Valley Girl" director Martha Coolidge.

"The honor is long overdue," said Amy Baer, Women in Film's board president.

On Saturday, "The Lizards" will have its American premiere at the TCL Chinese Theatre, Sunday she'll be feted by the film academy and on Monday she'll receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Wertmuller isn't just a piece of Oscars trivia for being "the first" female directing nominee: She remains only one of five including Jane Campion ("The Piano", Sofia Coppola ("Lost in Translation"), Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker") and Greta Gerwig ("Lady Bird"). Bigelow is the only one to have won.

It's a statistic that came as a surprise to her during a September interview.

"I didn't even know," she said. "I'm obviously very happy and proud and full of admiration but five is too few. There should be a lot more."