Virna Lisi: Actress who established her name in Italy then worked with Frank Sinatra, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis

Jack Lemmon recalled that after a love scene with Lisi, her husband tried to attack him

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The Independent Online

The beautiful Italian actress Virna Lisi had a prolific career, including a stay in Hollywood in the mid-1960s when she was leading lady to such stars as Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Frank Sinatra. Her best Hollywood role was that of the sensuous mate of Jack Lemmon in the frothy comedy How To Murder Your Wife (1965) in which her entrance, emerging from a giant cake during a stag party dressed only in a bikini, is an acclaimed moment of the period (and a popular item on YouTube).

She was unhappy, though, at her image, and wanted to escape constant comparisons to Marilyn Monroe, turning down the title role in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (which went to Jane Fonda) and terminating a Hollywood contract, allegedly paying a hefty sum to be released. She went on to prove herself a fine actress in the Italian and French cinema, winning seven David di Donnatella awards, and she triumphed as the deliciously malevolent queen Caterina de Medici in Patrice Chereau’s La Reine Margot (1994), for which she won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Born Virna Lisa Pieralisi in the coastal town of Ancona in Italy in 1936 – her father was a marble exporter – she was still a teenager when she secured her first screen role in a musical, e Napoli canta! (1953), and she consolidated her early success with a plentiful string of films, graduating to star parts. Her first leading role was in La donna del Giorno (The Doll That Took The Town, 1957) but it was her leading lady to Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott in Sergio Corbucci’s sword-and-sandal epic Romolo e Remo (1961) that brought her international attention, the film becoming a hit as Duel of the Titans.

She was leading lady to Alain Delon in the popular swashbuckler La Tulipe Noire (The Black Tulip, 1965), and Mario Monicelli’s raucously funny Casanova 70 (1965), which received an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, was another international hit in which her leading man was Marcello Mastroianni.

These roles inevitably brought the offer of a Hollywood contract, and her part in Richard Quine’s How to Murder Your Wife. Jack Lemmon later recounted that Lisi’s volatile husband tried to attack him after visiting the set during a love scene. Lisi then starred with Tony Curtis in a mild comedy, Not With My Wife You Don’t (1966), and Frank Sinatra in Assault on a Queen (1966), a tepid and fanciful movie about the Queen Mary liner being plundered by a submarine.

Three years later she starred in a wartime comedy shot in Rome, Stanley Kramer’s The Secret of Santa Vittoria, and she skilfully made an impression, though both she and the film were overwhelmed by the tempestuous playing of the top-billed Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani. She had rewarding roles in Pietro Germi’s sly satire of provincial life, Signori e Signore (The Birds, the Bees and the Italians, 1966) and starred with William Holden and Bourvil in the French-language holiday weepie, The Christmas Present (1969), but roles were fewer and she began to appear frequently on television.

Her later films included an immensely touching performance alongside Michel Serrault as a couple rekindling an ancient passion in Luigi Commencini’s Buon Natale, Buon Anno (Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, 1989). Her award-laden performance in La Reine Margot led to something of a resurgence in her career, and she recently finished acting in Cristina Comencini’s Latin Lover, now in post-production.

In 2004 she was awarded an honorary Italian Golden Globe in recognition of her cinematic achievement. Her architect husband died last year, and she is survived by their son.

Virna Lisa Pieralisi (Virna Lisi), actress: born Ancona, Italy 8 November 1936; married 1960 Franco Pesci (died 2013; one son); died Rome 18 December 2014.