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Lina Wertmuller

Women In History Month

March is Women in History Month and throughout the issues this month, the Italian Tribune will bring features on influential women from centuries past, as well as from more recent times. In this issue, we recognize Italian American Women of the 20th century during our month-long tribute to Women in History. Let us celebrate women in history and honor the many who might otherwise have gone unnoticed, but who made their world a better place than they found it.

GAE AULENTI (1927-2012) was born in Palazzolo della Stella, Udine, Italy. She was an architect, designer, theorist and was one of the best-known women working in Italian design during the second half of the 20th century. Aulenti studied architecture at Milan Polytechnic and established a private practice in 1954, producing an enormous body of work – not only in museum, theatre, industrial and exhibition design, but also furniture, graphics and urban planning. Aulenti was awarded first prize at the 1964 Milan Triennial for her work on the Italian Pavilion – a distinctly feminine presence at the Triennial, which included mirrored walls decorated with cutout silhouettes of women. During the second half of the 1970s, Aulenti was involved in theatre set design working with the Prato Theatre Design Workshop and served on the Executive Board of the Milan Triennial from 1977 through 1980. Aulenti’s work in the 1980s included several large-scale museum projects. For her layout of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (1980-86) she was named Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur by the French government. Her architectural designs also included the Contemporary Art Gallery at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (1982-85), the Palazzo Grassi in Venice (1985-86), as well as the entrance to the railway station in Florence (1988-90). Throughout her career, Aulenti’s public architecture and design were augmented by her keen theoretical studies of the work. She passed away just weeks before her 85th birthday after suffering from a chronic illness.

LIZA MINNELLI was born in Los Angeles, California in 1946, to Academy Award winning director, Vincent Minnelli and legendary singer/actress Judy Garland. Liza made her film debut at the young age of three in the 1949 musical “In the Good Old Summertime,” which starred her mother. As a teenager, Minnelli gave up on school and went to New York City to pursue a stage career. At the age of 17, she landed a role in the off-Broadway revival of the musical “Best Foot Forward” in 1963, which brought her strong reviews. Around this time, Minnelli also appeared on her mother’s short-lived television series, “The Judy Garland Show.” In her first leading Broadway role, Minnelli appeared as the title character as Flora in “The Red Menace” in 1965. The light musical comedy poked fun at the 1930s communist movement. While it only ran for a few weeks, the musical brought Minnelli a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. She was only 19 at the time, making her one of the youngest performers to ever win the award. Already established as a nightclub singer and musical theatre actress, she first attracted critical acclaim for her 1967 performance in the dramatic comedy “Charlie Bubbles” opposite Albert Finney. Playing an offbeat misfit named Pookie, she received her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her work in the 1969 film “The Sterile Cuckoo.” Two years later, Minnelli landed her greatest film role, playing floundering nightclub singer Sally Bowles in the musical “Cabaret” in 1972. The film showcased all of her skills: singing, dancing, acting and stage presence and won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. Her critically acclaimed streak continued with the television special, “Liza with a Z,” which she won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Program – Variety and Popular Music in 1973. Minnelli quickly became one of the most versatile, highly regarded and best-selling entertainers in stage and television. In 2000, Liza showed tremendous strength when she was diagnosed with encephalitis and presented with the possibility of a life in a wheelchair and probably losing her ability to talk. A devastating prognosis, but Liza was able to turn around the situation with hard work and therapy. After years of chronic health problems she returned with a new concert show,” Liza’s Back” in 2002. She performed several well-received guest appearances on television sitcoms and small roles in film while continuing to tour internationally. In 2008, she performed the Broadway show “Liza’s at The Palace…!” which earned her a Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event. Minnelli has won a total of three Tony Awards, including a special Tony Award. She has also won an Oscar, an Emmy Award, two Golden Globes and a Grammy Legend Award for her contributions and influence in the recording field, along with many other honors. She is one of the few entertainers who have won an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, Tony and BAFTA Awards.

DACIA MARAINI, author, poet, feminist, filmmaker and playwright, was born in 1936 in Fiesole, Italy. She is the daughter of Sicilian Princess Topazia Alliata di Salaparuta, who was an artist and art dealer and Fosco Maraini, a Florentine ethnologist and mountaineer. Dacia spent her early childhood in Japan where she and her family were interned in a Japanese concentration camp from 1943 to 1946 for refusing to recognize the military government. After the war, the family returned to Italy and lived in Sicily with her mother’s family in the town of Bagheria, near Palermo. She was educated at L’Istituto Statale della Ss. Annunziata, a prestigious boarding school in Florence, where she focused on her writing skills. Throughout her education, Dacia studied in Palermo, Florence and ultimately settled in Rome, where she began her writing career. Having been raised during the height of fascism, Dacia used her literary skills to fight for civil rights, peace, justice and would co-found the literary magazine Teatro del Porcospino in the 1960s. She wrote of her feminist convictions in her novel “L’età del malessere” (The Age of Discontent) and won the International Formentor Prize in 1963. She subsequently published eight more novels, several investigative studies and collections of poetry and essays which won major literary prizes. With her literary success, Dacia established a feminist experimental theater, La Maddalena, in Rome in 1973, the first theater to be run by women. Many of her works were made into New York theatrical productions. She is the author of more than fifty books, many of them available in English translation, including “The Age of Discontent.” Maraini is a prolific and well-known writer who continues to be active in feminist causes. She acts as a news commentator in Italy, focusing on politics and social issues, as well as pens a column in magazines and newspapers throughout Italy.

MARLO THOMAS was born Margaret Julia Thomas in Detroit, Michigan in 1937, the eldest child of Lebanese American comedian-actor Danny Thomas and Italian American singer Rose Marie Cassaniti. Marlo was raised in the world of entertainment. Although the daughter of a show business legend, her father was determined that she not become an actress until after her college graduation. Marlo graduated from the University of Southern California with a teaching degree and began her adult life as a schoolteacher. She began her acting career in the late 1950s with small appearances on television series such as “Bonanza,” “McHale’s Navy,”  “The Donna Reed Show” and “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” which she continued through early 1960s. Along with television, she expanded her acting resume with subsequent roles performing on Broadway as well as the London stage throughout the early 1960s. It wasn’t until 1966, when she landed the role that launched her career from small character actress into stardom playing New York actress Ann Marie in the groundbreaking sitcom “That Girl.”  The series ran until 1971, earning her a Golden Globe Award and four Emmy nominations during its five-year run. 

Following the cancellation of the show, Marlo decided to combine her deep love for children with her degree in education and she wrote numerous children’s books, including the 1973 classic “Free to Be…You and Me,” which also inspired an album and the award-winning TV special. She went on to create multiple recordings and television specials, both as the star and producer, which won her Emmy Awards in 1984 and 1985. The following year, she won an Emmy for Best Actress in the made for television movie special for “Nobody’s Child.” Her fourth Emmy Award was in 1989 as producer of Outstanding Children’s Program. Marlo also possessed a passion and conviction towards women’s rights. In 1973 she co-founded the first women’s fund in the United States, the Ms. Foundation for Women. The organization was created to deliver funding and other resources to organizations that focused on the voices of women in communities nationwide. She donated all royalties from her 2004 book and CD, “Thanks & Giving: All Year Long,” (which earned her a Grammy award) to the Saint Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, which was started by her late father in 1962. The organization helps gravely ill young children on the premise that no child should die in the dawn of life. Thomas has been happily married to talk show host Phil Donahue for almost 40 years. Through the marriage, she gained five stepchildren. 

LINA WERTMULLER, film director, was born in 1928 as Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller Von Elgg Spanol Von Braueich in Rome, Italy, to an aristocratic family. Her father was from the province of Potenza and her mother from Rome. Although her father wanted her to become a lawyer, she enrolled in theatrical school at the age of 17. After graduating in 1951, she toured Europe working in a show as a puppeteer. Over the course of the next ten years, she worked on radio and television. Her first breakthrough as a director came when she was offered the position of assistant director on the film “E Napoli Canta” (And Naples Sings) in 1953. She also directed the first transmission of the popular show “Canzonissima” in 1956 and worked on “Il Giornalino di Gian Burrasca,” a television musical series which first went on the air in 1964.

During her many jobs in this time period, she became acquainted with Giancarlo Giannini, who later worked with her on many of her films. She also met Marcello Mastroianni and it was through him she came to know the famous director Federico Fellini. He asked her to work with him as assistant on the film “La Dolce Vita” (1961) and two years later she worked with him again on the film “8 ½.” Her first breakthrough as a director in her own right came with the film “I Basilischi” (The Lizards) which was released in 1963 and was a bitter narration of the lives of a group of poor friends from southern Italy. Her direction of the film, which she also wrote, earned her the Vela d’Argento award at the Film Festival of Locarno. It was during the 1970s that her collaboration with Giancarlo Giannini led to a string of successes in the films she directed. Her name and works became closely identified with Italian cinema in these years, as she directed a series of deeply controversial and wonderfully entertaining films. She became noted for comedies focusing on the eternal battle of the sexes and on contemporary political and social issues. After a succession of well received films in the early 70s, Wertmuller’s skills as a director became widely known outside of Italy. In 1976, her film “Pasqualino Sette Bellezze” (Seven Beauties) garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Director – the first woman named for this category.

ANN NOCENTI was born in 1957 and has had a career as journalist, writer, editor and filmmaker, but she is best known for her work in comics and magazines. If you read comics (now called graphic novels) during the 1980s, you most certainly read something by Ann Nocenti. Working for Marvel Comics, she edited “New Mutants” and “The Uncanny X-Men.” Nocenti made her graphic novel writing debut with a six-page mythological story in the Marvel anthology “Bizarre Adventures” in August 1982. She wrote her first superhero series with Marvel’s Spider-Woman, which ran from December 1982 through June 1983. Nocenti and artist Arthur Adams created the character “Longshot” in a six issue miniseries which ran from September 1985 through February 1986. After collaborating with Adams on the Spider Man feature in “Web of Spider-Man Annual” in September 1986, Nocenti teamed with artist Barry Windsor-Smith on “Daredevil.” Two issues later, she became Daredevil’s regular writer for four years. During this period she specifically addressed societal issues, confronting sexism, racism and nuclear proliferation while fighting super villains. Nocenti introduced the popular antagonist “Typhoid Mary” in an issue in May 1988. In “Ultimate X-Men,” Nocenti made the superhero Longshot an Italian American. His civilian name became Arthur Centino, the last name being an anagram of “Nocenti” and his first name that of the co-creator. After ten years in the publishing industry, this well-known writer moved on to filmmaking. However, she will always be most recognized for her career in the comic book industry. Many women creating graphic novels today look to Ann Nocenti as an influence; she was the most prominent role model to date of a woman making her way successfully in an industry that is still male dominated.