Born on November 8, 1936 as Virna Pieralisi in Acona, Italy, Virna Lisi began her film career in her teens. Discovered in Rome by two Neapolitan producers, Antonio Ferrigno and Ettore Pesce, she debuted in La corda d’acciaio (The Steel Rope, 1953). Initially, she appeared in musical films, like E Napoli canta (Naples Sings, 1953) and Questa è la vita (Of Life and Love, 1954). Nonetheless, her beauty was more valued than her talent, as seen in the films Le diciottenni (Eighteen Year Olds) and Lo scapolo (The Bachelor), both released in 1955. Despite this, she filled some demanding roles, particularly in La donna del giorno (1956), Eva (1962), and the spectacle Romolo e Remo (1961).
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In the late 1950s, Lisi performed on stage at Piccolo Teatro di Milano in I giacobini by Federico Zardi under the direction of Giorgio Strehler. During the 1960s, Lisi appeared in comedies and participated in television dramas that were widely viewed in Italy. Lisi also promoted a toothpaste brand on television with a slogan that would become a catchphrase among Italians: “con quella bocca può dire ciò che vuole” (with such a mouth, she can say whatever she wants).
Though she turned down the Tatiana Romanova role in From Russia with Love (1963), Hollywood producers sought a new Marilyn Monroe and so, Lisi debuted in Hollywood comedy as a blue-eyed blonde temptress with Jack Lemmon in How to Murder Your Wife (1965) and appeared with Tony Curtis in Not with My Wife, You Don’t! (1966). Lisi then starred with Frank Sinatra, in Assault on a Queen (1966), in The Girl and the General, co-starring with Rod Steiger, and in two films with Anthony Quinn, The Secret of Santa Vittoria, directed by Stanley Kramer, and the war drama The 25th Hour. Confined to the same type of glamour roles here, she returned to Europe within a couple of years but hardly fared better in such mediocre movies as Arabella (1967).
In later decades, however, a career renaissance occurred for Lisi. She began to be perceived as more than just a tasty dish, giving a wide variety of mature, award-winning performances. It all culminated in the role of a lifetime with the film, Queen Margot (1994), in which she played a marvelously malevolent Caterina de Medici and won both the César and Cannes Film Festival awards, not to mention the Italian Silver Ribbon award. She has since reigned supreme as a character lead and support player. On 18 December 2014, Lisi died of lung cancer in Rome at age 78.