In House of Gucci, Lady Gaga channels a character so outsized that it does not seem possible she is based on a real-life woman, even if all of the film’s promotional materials, plus Gaga herself, say so. What mortal skis in full jewelry, makeup, and fur—making Bond–villain–esque threats while stirring espresso in St. Moritz and Godfather–like orders (“It’s time to take out the trash”) while sitting by a fire in gold lamé? What kind of woman befriends her clairvoyant…and then enlists said clairvoyant to project manage a hit on her husband?
But Patrizia Reggiani is very much a real-life woman, so crassly colorful—beyond what is depicted in the film House of Gucci—that she became a perverse pop-culture figure in Italy after ordering the murder of her ex-husband Maurizio Gucci in 1995. (Reggiani is now free after serving 16 years of a 29-year prison sentence that had been reduced to 26 years on appeal.) The 1998 trial was tabloid fodder for a nation tantalized by the intersection of wealth, fashion, and crime, and the real Reggiani dressed the part, reportedly appearing in court in fur coats and stilettos, with a fresh manicure, even though she was in prison during the trial. Nicknamed “the Black Widow” by the Italian press, Reggiani did not help herself in the court of public opinion by flinging Marie Antoinette–esque quotes to press—saying, on one infamous occasion, that she would rather “cry in a Rolls-Royce than be happy on a bicycle.”
Reggiani is such a repellent figure that, when it came time to adapt Sara Gay Forden’s 2001 book The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed for Ridley Scott’s film, screenwriter Roberto Bentivegna said he found he had to “soften” the character in hopes that audiences might (initially, at least) find this lead character sympathetic. He gave the movie Patrizia a heartstring-tugging backstory involving a dominant mother and sketched a character with her own frailties.
“If I started off with her being a money-grabbing gold digger, where do you go from there?” says Bentivegna. “We had to have the evolution of a character and a relationship [with Maurizio] that deteriorated… Having her be pushed around by her mother and creating the sense that she is almost being manipulated herself makes a lot more sense dramatically and it gives her the chance to go from someone being uncomfortable in that world [of wealth] and in that skin to really become a different character by the end of it.”
Given the film’s time frame—it ends shortly after Maurizio’s murder—Bentivegna and his fellow House of Gucci screenwriter Becky Johnston did not have to tackle the real Reggiani’s life during and after prison, during which she leaned into her notoriousness. A few brief examples, to wit:
- In 2011, when first offered parole on the condition she find a job, Reggiani turned down the offer, per The Guardian. “I’ve never worked in my life and I don’t intend to start now,” she reportedly told her lawyer.
- Years after being released from prison, she was not necessarily brimming with regret. “She said she quite enjoyed her time in prison, where she kept a pet ferret, helped fellow inmates do their hair and nails, and tended to the garden,” wrote The Guardian after an interview with Reggiani earlier this year.
- Two years after she was eventually released from prison on parole, the same publication wrote, “One of her first acts of freedom was to go shopping on Via Monte Napoleone—Milan’s Bond Street—decked out in gaudy jewels and movie-star sunglasses, with a large pet macaw perched on her shoulder.”
- A camera crew reportedly caught Reggiani not long after her release and asked her why she hired a hitman to kill her late husband, rather than do it herself. “My eyesight is not so good,” she responded, according to The Guardian. “I didn’t want to miss.”
Bentivegna, who was raised in Milan and London, was well aware of Reggiani’s bombastic quotes.
“These phrases are sort of fun but it goes back to the gold-digger element and the arrogance of the very rich,” says the writer. “A lot of the phrases that she said made her very unlikeable…I felt like if I leaned into that too much the character would be odious and not particularly relatable. So I had to humanize her and soften her up a little bit. I love the character that I wrote. She’s a very different person than the real one.”
Bentivegna explained that the House of Gucci script, in his head, “was always going to be satirical. I could not take these people too seriously because I felt like I would alienate the audience. I personally hate those kinds of movies where it’s rich assholes running around, taking themselves very seriously and not particularly being self-aware. I had to distance myself from those movies and think this could be much more of a pastiche and a great opportunity to poke fun at the überrich and the fashion world and this family, which was something like the Medicis or the Borgias or these kinds of Tuscan families in that tradition.”
In Italy, the writer says that the real Reggiani is “seen as an incredibly cynical person that did something horrific. She’s tabloid fodder in a lot of ways, because she’s also exposing the irony of the Italian criminal system in the fact that, even though you had your husband killed, you can still benefit from his wealth. She’s become a pop-culture figure—for better or worse, she’s always in the public eye.”
Lady Gaga has said that this infamy was a critical factor in her decision not to reach out to Reggiani when preparing to play a version of her.
“I didn’t want to meet her because I could tell very quickly that this woman wanted to be glorified for this murder, and she wanted to be remembered as this criminal,” Gaga said in an interview with Good Morning America. “I didn’t want to collude with something that I don’t believe in…she did have her husband murdered.”
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