Don't forget about Virna Lisi -- The actress known for her roles as the beauty takes a dramatic turn in "Margot"

By Anne Thompson
Updated January 27, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s hard to believe that the elegant blond in the soft brown blouse and slim black slacks could possibly be the same person who appeared on screen in Queen Margot. But as soon as Virna Lisi, who won a Best Actress award at Cannes last May for her role in the 16th-century epic, lights the first of many cigarettes, her husky voice provides the connection to the poisonously sepulchral Catherine de Medicis, the wickedest movie mom since Snow White. ”I adore Los Angeles,” the actress, now 58, remarks in Italian-accented English. ”I was living here three years, and it is really a pleasure when I come back.”

<p. Her cinematic comeback has been a long time arriving. Virna Pieralisi got some early practice at playing medieval nobility in 1950s Italian costume melodramas, but it was as a curvy ingenue that Lisi made her name, going international when United Artists signed her to a seven-year contract in 1964. But after playing the buxom bimbo in the comedies How to Murder Your Wife (opposite Jack Lemmon), Not With My Wife You Don’t! (with Tony Curtis), and the crime caper Assault on a Queen (costarring Frank Sinatra), Lisi abruptly severed her deal with UA and hightailed it back to Rome. What happened? She refused to take the Jane Fonda role in Barbarella. ”To star in a film like that was not my dream,” she says. ”I always chose my roles with a terrible seriousness. In Hollywood they could sell you to the highest bidder.”

Stateside moviegoers can be forgiven for thinking that Lisi retired after 1972’s Bluebeard, in which she contributed her usual va-voom to the polyglot ensemble. Fact is, the actress, who has been married to builder Franco Pesci for 34 years and has a 32-year-old son, never stopped making movies. ”I have made more than 100 films in 37 years,” she says — everything from 1966’s The Birds, the Bees and the Italians to Beyond Good and Evil, director Liliani Cavani’s 1977 story of Friedrich Nietzsche, in which she played the philosopher’s sister. That film marked a departure — her beauty took a backseat — that paid off again in Margot. Lisi, who has a shot at an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress, was overwhelmed by her Cannes triumph. ”That prize was so important, you know,” she says. ”Many actresses give their lives to their work without realizing this prize. ‘Oh, my God,’ I said to myself, ‘when they call me I don’t want to cry.’ I could not stop crying.”