Bernardo Bertolucci, the Oscar-winning Italian filmmaker behind films like The Last Emperor and Last Tango In Paris, has died after a struggle with cancer. Per Variety, he was 77.
The son of poet Attilio Bertolucci, Bertolucci co-wrote and directed his first film, 1962's La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper), at the age of 21, the same year he won a prominent prize for poetry. His auspicious beginning soon proved to be no fluke, as his semi-autobiographical follow-up, the fiercely political 1964 film Before The Revolution, was met with international raves. His political streak continued with 1970's The Conformist, for which he was nominated for his first Oscar.
It was these films that established Bertolucci as a key figure in the Italian new wave alongside the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Bertolucci managed to make the leap to large-scale Hollywood filmmaking, most notably with 1987's The Last Emperor, the first Western epic about China made with the Chinese government’s cooperation. The film swept the year’s Oscars, its nine wins including best picture and best director awards for Bertolucci.
It was quite a comeback for the director, who, 10 years previous, saw his career take a hit in the wake of the troubled production of historical epic 1900. Burt Lancaster, Donald Sutherland, Gerard Depardieu, and a young Robert De Niro all starred in the film, which clocked in at five hours and 17 minutes long. Bertolucci went head-to-head with Paramount over his vision, and the subsequent reviews were decidedly mixed.
Bertolucci may be best remembered, however, as the director behind 1972's controversial Last Tango In Paris, which chronicles the sexual exploits of an American played by Marlon Brando and a young Frenchwoman played by Maria Schneider. Film critic Pauline Kael called it “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made” adding that “it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made.” Italian courts hit Bertolucci with obscenity charges and the film was banned or censored in a number of other countries.
Controversy regarding Last Tango In Paris resurfaced in 2016, when Bertolucci admitted that a rape scene in which a stick of butter is used as lubricant was not consensual. “I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her rage,” he said, expressing regret. “I wanted Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and humiliation. Then she hated me for her whole life.” He’s not kidding. In 2007, she told The Daily Mail, “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take.”
Bertolucci’s latter-day films included 1996's Stealing Beauty, 1998's Besieged, and 2004's The Dreamers. His last film, Me and You, which he directed while in a wheelchair, played out of competition at Cannes in 2012. His final years saw him receive a number of awards and honors; in 2007, he received the Venice Film Festival’s Honorary Golden Lion and, in 2011, he was honored with Cannes’ Honorary Palme d’Or for lifetime achievement.
In a 2005 interview with The A.V. Club, Bertolucci told us that it was Fellini’s La Dolce Vita that made him want to be a filmmaker.
La Dolce Vita was, for me, such a shock, in a good sense. I went to see it when it wasn’t finished. I think I was 18. My father took me to Cinecittà. [Federico] Fellini started to be anxious about if the movie was able or not to be released in Italy, because he was afraid of having the Church or the Vatican against it. There are many allusions to religion in La Dolce Vita. So he was doing this screening for intellectuals, his friends, et cetera. So I remember that we went with Pasolini, Giorgio Bassani, who was the writer of The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis, and my father, in a little screening room in Cinecittà. We saw the movie before it was dubbed, in a kind of language which was in English, Italian, and I remember Nico [Otzak] was speaking Swedish. It was very mixed up; it was fantastic. You would hear often, the voice of Fellini [offscreen], saying “Anita, don’t be stupid,” to Anita Ekberg. “Smile!” It was an extremely naughty film. That’s when I decided there were too many poets around me, and I had to do something else.