Legendary Argentine actress Isabel “Coca” Sarli has died this morning at age 89 in Buenos Aires. Sarli was the first actress to appear completely naked in an Argentinean film production and became an iconic and quintessential sex symbol in the South American nation. She starred in over thirty films and was famous for her wild and campy sexploitation films of the 1960s and 70s—reminiscent of the cinema of Russ Meyer—directed by her husband Armando Bó.
Born Hilda Isabel Gorrindo Sarli in 1929 to a poor family in the town of Concordia, province of Entre Ríos, Sarli first trained as a secretary before pursuing a career as a model. In 1955, she was crowned Miss Argentina, reaching the Miss Universe semi-finals that same year. She met director Armando Bó one year later when he gave her her first acting opportunity for the film El trueno entre las hojas / Thunder Among the Leaves (1957) in which she appeared completely nude.
Nicknamed “Coca” for her reported love of the soda and her Coke-bottle–shaped figure, Sarli became the muse, protagonist, and onscreen lover in many of Bó's films, launching her status as an instant sensation and a pop icon in her native country as well as an international Latin American star. In her lifetime she appeared in Time, Life, and Playboy magazines, a first for an Argentine actress.
Sarli’s most popular films were Carne (1968), Fuego (1969), and Fiebre (1972). She worked with Leopoldo Torre Nilsson on the 1962 film Setenta veces siete / The Female: Seventy Times Seven and with Dirk DeVilliers on the 1974 South African production The Virgin Goddess - her only English-language film.
After Bó's death in 1981, Sarli temporarily retired from acting, only returning to the big screen for the 1996 film La dama regresa by Jorge Polaco. In 2009 she once again partnered with Polaco for a small role in his film Arroz con leche. Sarli then starred in Juan José Jusid’s Mis días con Gloria, playing a role based on her own life.
In 2010, the Film Society of Lincoln Center presented the retrospective series “Fuego: The Films of Isabel ‘Coca’ Sarli,” programmed by Daniela Bajar and Livia Bloom. American filmmaker John Waters, who has reportedly said that Sarli's movies had inspired some of his own films, introduced a special screening of Fuego in Buenos Aires and met with the Argentine superstar.