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Virna Lisi dies; Italian actress was 78

A picture taken on Sept. 27, 1969 shows

A picture taken on Sept. 27, 1969 shows Italian actress Virna Lisi during the shooting of the film "Le temps des loups." Credit: Getty Images

Virna Lisi, a multifaceted Italian actress who found herself hostage to the sultry looks that sparked her career, quitting Hollywood in the 1960s after being typecast in bombshell roles, died Thursday in Rome. She was 78.

The cause was cancer, according to Italian media reports.

A star of Italian cinema by age 20, Lisi drew international attention for her lissome appeal in a range of dramas and farces. She dyed her naturally brunette hair blond, and the presence of a mole near her lips made her resemble a more exotic Marilyn Monroe.

On the Italian screen, Lisi had been presented as chic and elegantly sensual, but she was rebranded for American audiences as a skin-baring temptress. Producer Gordon Carroll described her as having "the high-fashion look of a model in Vogue" yet, on camera, "this animal, this sexual, quality."

That quality was put to immediate use in her Hollywood debut, the 1965 comedy "How to Murder Your Wife." The film starred Jack Lemmon as a cartoonist who impulsively weds Lisi after she emerges from a birthday cake in a bikini. His initial lust gives way to regret the morning after.

The role, like her subsequent Hollywood films, played up her physical charms and minimized dialogue because of her limited command of English.

In 1966, she supported Frank Sinatra in the action film "Assault on a Queen" and then played an Italian nurse -- again in a bikini -- in the tepid comedy "Not With My Wife, You Don't!" opposite Tony Curtis and George Scott.

Her ambitions toward more dramatic work went unfulfilled, at least in Hollywood.

Back in Italy, Lisi won a starring role in the well-received Italian comedy "The Birds, the Bees and the Italians" (1966) and gradually found meatier parts in a career that spanned more than 100 films and TV shows.

Her most acclaimed performance was in "Queen Margot" (1994) as the politically scheming Catherine de Medici, the Italian noblewoman who became queen of France in the mid-16th century.

The historical spectacle, which co-starred Isabelle Adjani as Catherine's daughter, was generally regarded by critics as excessively violent and dramatically overripe. But Lisi, who was rendered almost unrecognizable by unflattering makeup and fat padding, was lauded for her riveting portrayal of evil.

Virna Pieralisi was born Nov. 8, 1936, in Ancona, where her father was a marble exporter.

Lisi was married to an Italian construction magnate, Franco Pesci, from 1960 until his death in 2013. Survivors include a son, Corrado, and three grandchildren.

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