Edwige Fenech – The Giallo Hottie

A look back at the French born Italian actress with stills & video.

Edwige Fenech was born Edwige Sfenek on December 24th, 1948 in Annaba, Province Algeria. Her mother was Italian and her father Maltese. Her exotic beauty would allow her to become an actress in several sex comedies (or commedia sexy all’italiana) and Giallo films which were released in the 1970s. 

Her acting career would start at the age of eighteen with the film Samoa, Queen of the Jungle. A year later she would act under contract with Austrian film director Franz Antel. Antel would direct her in numerous films including his popular Frau Wirtin series. Fenech would also work with director Franz Marishcka. 

At age twenty-two, she would marry Italian film producer and watch her fame would rise with her roles in sex comedies like Ubalda, All Naked and Warm and Giovannona Long-Thigh. She would often act opposite Italian actors such as Carlo Giuffre and Renzo Montagnani.

Genre fans will recognize her for her work in giallo movies. These films would include The Seducers, Five Dolls for an August Moon, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, All the Colors of the Dark, The Case of the Bloody Irish, Strip Nude for your Killer and Phantom of Death. By 1979, she would divorce from Martino and he acting career would begin a slow fade until around 1982. 

By the 1980s, Fenech had transitioned from sex symbol and scream queen to television host. She would appear with fellow sex symbol Barbara Bouchet and host a talk show in Italy. Matriculating into movie production, Fenech would produce The Merchant of Venice in 2004 with Al Pacino and star in Eli Roth’s Hostel 2 as an art professor. 

Edwige has to be remembered as arguably the most attractive actress of the 1970s Giallo era. Her curvaceous physique and Cleopatra-esqe looks (aided by her dramatic eye-liner) make her one of the most unforgettable sights to anyone who can suffer through some of her films (most of which had forgettable storylines). 

Here is an interview with Edwige Fenech, translated from Italian as best as I could…

QUESTION: These days, we see you on screen after almost twenty years of absence, in Hostel part 2 of Eli Roth …How did this happen after not seeing you for so long?

EDWIGE: It all started during the Venice Film Festival, three years ago. I was presenting The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino, which I produced, and I was waiting for Pacino to arrive, when a friend of mine calls me and tells me that Quentin Tarantino, who was also in Venice and that he would have liked to meet me and have dinner with me. Which really surprised me. I, however, had the commitment to be with Al Pacino in presenting the film so I declined. In short, Al Pacino arrives, I accompany him to the hotel and he tells me that he has a terrible headache and that he preferred to stay quiet in the room that evening. At that point I called my friend back and we had dinner with Quentin that same night. I was stunned when he started talking to me about all my films, especially the Giallos, that he knew by heart. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but I really didn’t expect it. Finally, he asked me if I was willing to do back in front of the camera. I told him there and then, but I thought it was just a whim and that it would all end there. Several months pass and then some emails begin to arrive from this young man, then thirty years old, Eli Roth, who had just directed Hostel, produced by Quentin Tarantino. 

QUESTION : And is it at that point that Roth proposed you a role for you in Hostel part 2?

EDWIGE : Not right away. Eli wanted to get to know me, because he too was an admirer of the Giallo films I made in the seventies. So much so that he presented me, in Rome, with DVDs of those films of mine, asking me to autograph them. We stayed in touch via e-mail and so, over time, as he organized the follow-up to the Hostel with Tarantino’s executive production, the possibility of my cameo in the film materialized.

QUESTION : In Hostel Part 2,  Eli Roth also wanted to pay tribute to a director who is known for his terrific adventure films, Ruggero Deodato, with whom you made film which, among other things, also represents your farewell to the big screen. What do you remember about the film and why this decision to abort your acting career?

EDWIGE : It was not a decision linked to the film, which I rather remember with great pleasure, both for the humanity of Michael York and for the professionalism of Deodato. It wasn’t a big success, but I enjoyed doing it. To discontinue my career was a decision I had made a long time ago. I wanted different scripts to be offered to me than those that were continually offered me. Indeed, it was not even a problem of scripts, but of characters. I had already made that famous “qualitative leap” that led me to work with masters of Italian cinema like Dino Risi, Pasquale Festa Campanile and Ugo Tognazzi, but I was not satisfied with the roles, because, in the end, I always ended up playing the part of the beautiful girl. I had a head that grew and aspired to different aims, but the public and the directors uniquely identified me with my body … and it hurt me. I wanted more roles in my mood. I wanted my characters to grow with me, so I gave myself two years to see if things got better. But nothing had changed, they have always offered me the same things. Then I said: “Enough! I want to do something else … “. And when they offered me television, I decided to do it. Indeed, the first time they asked me, I said no, but seeing how things went at the cinema, the second one said yes.

QUESTION: The television experience immediately paid off and gave you the change of role that you hoped for. I think of the role of a desperate mother for the murder of her daughter in the beautiful mystery of Sergio Martino, Private Crimes …

EDWIGE : Private Crimes was a TV movie that gave us a lot of satisfaction. I don’t remember if Twin Peaks had done it sooner or later, but I remember that some critics had compared them. But we hadn’t been inspired by the Lynch series, we hadn’t copied (laughs). Also The Courage of Anna, which was the first television movie I produced, gave me a lot of satisfaction. It was the first time that so many Italian critics agreed that I was a great actress, it had never happened before (laughs). Never in my life. I had to produce a movie myself to show that I was able to play other roles other than the cute girl in the shower (laughs). In Private Crimes, I really chose the role I wanted to do, that of a mother who loses a daughter and does not find peace until she finds her killer. It was a challenge, a deliberately difficult role. I had finally become a mother and not the silly girl who always wanted to make movies.

QUESTION: Time jump. Let’s start from the beginning. Your parents are Algerians …

EDWIGE : Let’s say I was born in Algeria, but my parents are, my  mother is of Italian origin, Sicilian to be precise, my father is Maltese. Algeria was a French colony and so I was born French. After the war of independence in Algeria, my mother and I went to live in Nice where I continued to do classical dance, as I did in Algeria, and I attended high school. There I was noticed walking along the street and they offered me to make a film by Norbert Carbonnaux. I was fourteen.

QUESTION : You already had the desire to enter the world of entertainment … to become an actress?

EDWIGE : No, not at all … I didn’t want to do it. Absolutely. No, no … (laughs). But then they told me: ‘Come on … it’s a game, a game!’, And so I went.

QUESTION: Immediately after you arrive in Italy with Samoa, Queen of the jungle, where you were already the lead …

EDWIGE : Of course, I was Samoa! (Laughs). I was the lead … I must say that I immediately started playing a leading role. One can judge how the film wants, but I was the protagonist! It was a film for children, of adventure, as well as the second one I did with Guido Malatesta, the son of Black Eagle … Adventure films … yes, yes … more or less (laughs). I was contacted because, in the meantime, I had taken part in some beauty contests and after winning Lady Francia I was participating in Lady Europa in Cortina, where a talent scout noticed me and after a week and a half called me to my house, in France. He asked me to come to Italy because there was a leading role for me in a film. At first I refused, but then I talked to my parents and my father said, “If you want to go, but with Mom!” So I went with Mom, we arrived at the station at seven in the morning and they came to pick us up. Mom immediately took her to the hotel with her bags and to me directly on the set. It was the first time I made a film outside of that little episode of a joke in Toutes folles de lui, and I was quite excited. After makeup, they smeared a brown substance all over my body because I had to play the role of a Maltese girl. I don’t tell you to take it out in the evening. Also because, throughout the day, there were touch-ups and adjustments, so the color became attached to the skin and no longer came away. In the hotel, then, we changed the water seven or eight times, with mom doing laundry with me. With the brush he would take away all that stuff I was wearing and he would say to me: “Here they will make you die of asphyxiation!” In short, this was my cinematic start.

QUESTION : After Malatesta’s two films, you escaped for a while in Germany, where you shot a series of films that were belatedly brought to Italy with picturesque titles such as the ladies of the castle like to do that, My niece the virgin and the diptych of La caste Susanna …

EDWIGE : I didn’t “escape”, I went where they called me. I didn’t care. For me that was going to “make the cinema”, wherever the cinema was made. I was very young. You do not have to calculate the eighteen years of today with those of the past. I mean, my eighteen years were less “cultured”. For me, it was all cinema. The films of Bergman and Samoa queen of the jungle were the same thing … it was all cinema … Which then, perhaps, is also the right way to see the films, putting them all on the same level and then dividing them into beautiful films and ugly films. And I’ve made a lot of bad films. But at the time I lived things with little awareness. So I went to Germany, I made some films there and then got bored. I preferred Italy. But in Germany I had, as they say in jargon, “smashed” and so the Italians offered me films because, through me, it was possible to set up co-productions.

Secrets of a Call Girl

QUESTION: Thus was born the sins of Madame Bovary by Hans Schott-Schöbinger, a film that we can define as a turning point, because in addition to confirming your Italian career, it allowed you to meet Sergio Martino and become part of the Dania team.

EDWIGE : Yes it’s true. Sergio intervened because when they assembled Madame Bovary they realized that it was too short and a couple of scenes had to be added. I remember a terrible one that made me say to Sergio that he was a sadist (laughs), something that I also found in other films. In this scene, he made me run half naked, to Manziana, in the middle of winter, with an artificial rain that came all over me frozen, barefoot in the woods … with everything that could be on the ground in a wood; and Sergio took me back as I walked to the room for I don’t know how many meters, I passed it and kept running, framed on my back, for I don’t know how many more meters. We did it for a whole day and I came back that “I didn’t have feet anymore”, because they were completely cut from the stones, the woods and all the other crap that were on the ground. But I was, as usual, very workaholic: I never complained and I did what I had to do. In the yellows that I shot later with Sergio, he always made me do these extreme scenes, in the rain, in the woods, in the cold, where I was raped, assaulted, chased by assassins, killed. Always half-naked and always freezing (laughs). Like when in Mrs. Wardh’s The Strange Vice I was attacked with a broken bottle that, even if it was fake, hurt a lot and Sergio, to get more realism, insisted that the killer hit her hard on me. It’s not that we went too far for the thin then … Perhaps we were very young and unconscious. We worked sixteen, eighteen hours a day, until we finished all that was planned, not like today.

Secrets of a Call Girl

QUESTION : Have you ever used stunt doubles?

EDWIGE : Not that I remember, but once I learned that they body doubled me in a movie I’d made. In an Oriental country they have inserted some scenes with other actors … Also because I have never done porn! And I was so upset when they told me that I was doing the “soft porn” … That then the definition soft porn is a contradiction in terms … Absolutely! I’ve always behaved like a good girl, even if doing some shower or some naked run (laughs). But that was a custom in the cinema in that precise historical period and not only in Italian cinema. We all undressed and it was expected.

The Case of the Bloody Iris

QUESTION: Can I shake your hand?

EDWIGE : Sure … Look, I’ve always said it. Everyone undressed, even the Americans, the great American actresses. But at some point it seemed like I had just undressed more! Mamma Mia! I don’t know, maybe I will have struck the imaginary more, but it seemed that I was the only one. A persecution that I carried with me for a long time. I don’t know … Diane Keaton undressed, recently, in the movie with Jack Nicholson. Something changed, she’s almost sixty years old and she was beautiful. Congratulations Mrs. Keaton. (Laughs)

QUESTION : So you had a bit of a problem with the nudity?

FENECH :Yes, at the time, it was something I didn’t like very much. I didn’t take it very lightly. And then, even on the set, there was always a lot of embarrassment.

QUESTION : So you’re not like those actresses who declare that when they turned naked they didn’t pay any attention to us because “it was a job like any other”?

FENECH : But when ever? Absolutely. We were asking for no one to enter the set. The people who were there just to look around didn’t seem right that they should remain even while they we were undressing. Then, everyone lived it his way. For me it was not a pleasurable journey . Then you know, at the time my era started with topless but to strip completely naked wasn’t a normal thing. Today, perhaps, things are different, perhaps even being completely naked on the beach is normal. The bikinis are so small that even if you have nothing, it’s the same. The nude in the cinema was then beginning to break the mold, but as I said before, we were not alone. It was a phenomenon that affected the whole world.