Bernardo Bertolucci, the Oscar-winning filmmaker and auteur behind Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor, died Monday at the age of 77. The director’s publicist confirmed to Variety that Bertolucci died at his home in Rome following a brief battle with cancer.
The Cannes Film Festival tweeted Monday, “Farewell to Bernardo Bertolucci, Honorary Palme at Cannes 2011 for his entire career after chairing the Jury in 1990. Before the Revolution, The Conformist, 1900, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man… A giant of Italian filmmaking, he will remain forever a leading light in world cinema.”
Bertolucci won both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Awards at the 1987 Oscars for his epic The Last Emperor, which at the time was the first Western film made with cooperation of the Chinese government. The historical drama won nine total Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
The Italian director however will be best remembered for the controversial, X-rated Last Tango in Paris, an arthouse picture starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider that forever pushed the boundaries of sex on the big screen. Hailed by critics as groundbreaking and important upon its release – at the time, New York Times film critic Pauline Kael likened its premiere to the first performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” – the film spawned further controversy decades after its release over whether Bertolucci and Brando deviated from the script during certain scenes, including the film’s infamous butter sequence. Years after production, Schneider admitted she felt “humiliated and a little raped” while filming Last Tango in Paris.
“I think Last Tango’s success was in part due to the scandal, the sodomy, the butter, but in truth, it’s a tremendously desperate movie,” Bertolucci told Variety in a 2011 interview. “It’s very rare that such a desperate movie manages to have such a widespread audience.”
An unnamed friend of Brando’s told Rolling Stone in 1976, “Unconsciously, Marlon takes on the part he’s playing. For The Godfather he was very nice, very caring, always giving people little gifts. But during Last Tango, he was a shit.”
While Last Tango in Paris was a surprise box office hit in the United States, Bertolucci faced an obscenity trial in his native Italy over the film; four years after its release, the Italian Supreme Court ordered that all copies of the film be destroyed and the director was given a four-month suspended sentence, the New York Times reports.
During his career behind the camera – which began in 1962 when the 22-year-old filmmaker helmed his debut Le commare secca after a stint as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s assistant – Bertolucci also directed 1976’s historical epic 1900, 1993’s Little Buddha and the similarly taboo-pushing 2003 film The Dreamers. His 1970 political masterpiece The Conformist was highlighted by its influential and sumptuous cinematography – courtesy of longtime collaborator Vittorio Storaro – that Bertolucci compared to the Italian painter Giorgio di Chirico.
The Conformist was especially influential on a generation of filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers, Michael Mann and Paul Schrader, the latter saying of the film in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “You looked at Bertolucci, it was just like he took Godard and Antonioni, put them in bed together, held a gun to their heads and said, ‘You guys fuck or I’ll shoot you.'”
Bertolucci, who was confined to a wheelchair since 2003 following a failed surgery to repair a herniated disc, last directed his Me and You in 2012. Despite his big-screen success with The Last Emperor and Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci remained anchored to the art house throughout his career.
“I’ll tell you what I see here in the heart of the Empire, in Hollywood,” Bertolucci told Rolling Stone in 1979. “There’s a lot of energy, a lot of money…But I really think that there aren’t a lot of ideas and not a lot of good movies around. There’s an inverse proportion between the excitement and the result, money and ideas.”