In case you hadn't noticed yet, I'm one of those annoying people, who, after seeing or reading something of great interest to himself, pressures friends, colleagues, and even complete strangers to take a gander as well. I'm sort of notorious for it, actually. In fact, I spend a great deal of money every year sending books and films to people all over the world, so that they, too, can share in my experience. I wouldn't call it an addiction, but it's definitely a problem. (I mean, you know you're dropping some serious bank when Amazon sends you Christmas cards and suggestive daily e-mails that say "get yourself a little something.")
Anyway, I'm a big Marlon Brando fan and one of my favorite performances of his happens to be in one of my all-time favorite films, Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris." For those of you who haven't seen it, I have no intention of reviewing it here. Just see it and we'll talk. For those of you who have seen it, I have an interesting retrospective for you. The following is an extract from the biography, "Marlon Brando," by Patricia Bosworth, which sheds some light on how this classic film came to be. I found it fascinating. Perhaps some of you will, too. Enjoy. -Dax
'Bertolucci was in love with Marlon Brando,
and that's what the movie was about.'
- Maria Schneider
THE GODFATHER MARKED Marlon Brando's comeback, but there is no simple explanation for the splendid zenith of Last Tango in Paris—just a series of coincidences and perfect timing: the right phone call from an old friend, Luigi Luraschi, who headed Paramount's Rome office and who told him that director Bernardo Bertolucci had an intriguing idea for a movie. Brando's trusted secretary, Alice Marchak, urged him to check out the idea.
Bertolucci's movie came at a personal and career crossroads for Brando, and maybe he knew that. It ended up being his pre-eminent film, certainly the most radical, and his work in it stands apart from everything else he had done. Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker:
"Where his full art is realized. Intuitive, rapt, princely, on the screen Brando is our genius, just as surely as Norman Mailer is our genius in literature."
Bertolucci, then thirty-one, recalls his first meeting with Brando at the Hotel Raphal in Paris in the spring of 1971. "He just sat and looked at me for fifteen minutes without speaking." The director felt shy and in awe of Brando; he had first seen him in the movies as Zapata when he was a kid. "And then Marlon began talking in sweet Tahitian French " Bertolucci would say he learned to speak English from Marlon Brando, who mumbles a lot, "which is why nobody understands me."
The following day, at Brando's request, Bertolucci screened his latest film, The Conformist, starring Dominique Sanda and Jean-Paul Trintignant (whom he had originally wanted for Tango). Set in 1930s Fascist Italy, the story is about an upper-class follower of Mussolini; the production had been highly praised for its sensuous texture and velvety operatic style. After it was over, Brando nodded in approval. He added that a friend whose judgment he really respected had insisted he see the film. Bertolucci learned that the friend was an elegant Chinese lady named Anita Kong, one of Brando's longtime lovers. She had seen it seven times.
Then Brando asked, "What's your idea for me?" and Bertolucci described the part he envisioned for him, that of Paul, an American expatriate living in Paris, middle-aged, despairing, whose French wife, Rose, has just inexplicably committed suicide in the fleabag hotel she owns. By chance Paul runs into a free-spirited young woman, Jeanne, in the empty apartment they're both thinking of renting. He abruptly seduces her, rents the apartment, and what follows is a doomed "sex-only" affair that lasts for three days. Together they experience sex constantly—taboo sex, sordid, dirty, obscene, violent sex—no questions asked. Sex is all that matters.
Brando said the idea was intriguing. Bertolucci told him what he really wanted him to agree to was to improvise on the material. "All my actors are co-authors of my movies," the director said. Brando said he still wanted to see a scrīpt.
By the summer of 1971 Bertolucci had completed a screenplay of Tango with Franco Arcalli in Rome, and he sent it to Brando. Then he flew out to Los Angeles to meet with him. For the next three weeks he spent most of his time at the actor's home at the top of Mulholland Drive, having long discussions on a variety of subjects: love, sex, girls, and their experiences with Freudian analysis.
At first Brando seemed moody shifting back and forth from emotional openness to cool detachment. By the end of the second week Bertolucci had broken down some of his defenses when he confided how he'd come up with the story of Tango: that it had been a secret fantasy of his to make love to an unknown woman over and over again in an isolated room and never need to know anything about her. He said he'd been influenced by Louis Ferdinand Celine, the half-crazed Parisian who believed that human beings are categorized as either voyeurs or exhibitionists. He'd also been influenced by Georges Bataille, who wrote highly charged, perverse short stories about lovers so obsessed with each other's bodies they wanted to "breathe in their farts and breathe in their comes....This is what I want Tango to suggest," he said.
The director said he wanted Brando to superimpose himself on the character of Paul, to confront the role completely from inside himself, inside his own guts.
"I had at my disposal a great actor, with all the technical experience any director would require. But I also had a mysterious man waiting to be discovered in all the richness of his personal material."
Bit by bit, Brando began to describe his traumatic child- hood in Libertyville. Bertolucci listened, fascinated. It soon became obvious that the central drama in the actor's life had been his love-hate relationship with his father.
The two men did not talk about his children. That subject was off limits. Brando was having trouble with his oldest son, Christian, then in his teens, who was drinking and taking drugs. Brando could not control him, and he was worried and anxious all the time.
That fall Brando was supposed to star in Child's Play in New York. He thought he had got a part in it for Wally Cox, but then Cox told him he had to audition. The movie was to be directed by Sidney Lumet, but after many disagreements, Brando was fired.
In the meantime Alberto Grimaldi became the producer of Last Tango, even though he was suing Brando for $700,000 for his "inappropriate behavīor" during the filming of Burn! Grimaldi happened to be Bertolucci's cousin, but he also liked the Tango scrīpt and thought Brando would be perfect for the role. He offered to drop the suit and pay Brando $250,000 plus 10 percent of the gross. Brando agreed immediately.
The use of Francis Bacon paintings in Last Tango was no afterthought. In October 1971, during pre-production in Paris, Bertolucci saw a major exhibit of Bacon paintings at Le Grand Palais. Two stood out for him, and they were eventually used in the title sequences and serve as a metaphor for the movie. The first is a portrait of a bearded and lecherous man on a red divan, against yellow and white walls. He is clad in a white undershirt, as Brando will be in several scenes. The second is a study for a portrait of a woman seated on a wooden chair in a white top and a brown skirt. She wears ugly wooden oxfords and cannot seem to meet our gaze. She could be Jeanne, the young girl in the movie, after she has murdered Paul, and she appears depleted and confused. At the bottom of the portrait is the shadow of a rat. The rat will turn up in Paul's apartment, and Brando will later swing a dead rat in Jeanne's face. It is the symbol of their decaying relationship.
Bertolucci returned to the exhibit time and time again, and he took his cameraman, Vittorio Storaro, as well as his costume and set designers, who were inspired by the colors Bacon used: the reds, the yellows, the browns. When Brando arrived in Paris in late January—with his secretary, Alice Marchak, and his makeup man, Phil Rhodes—he went to the exhibit too.
"In Bacon, you see people throwing up their guts and then doing a makeup job with their own vomit. Marlon is like one of the figures in the Bacon painting. Everything shows up in his face. He has the same devastated plasticity."
They both agreed on the casting of the nineteen-year-old baby-faced Maria Schneider as Jeanne. Schneider was uninhibited, voluptuous, a self-proclaimed bisexual, and the illegitimate daughter of actor Daniel Gelin, one of Brando's oldest friends. She had little acting experience but won the part over two hundred other actresses because when she was asked to take off her clothes during her screen test, she did so with supreme self-confidence. Bertolucci said:
"She was a little Lolita, only more perverse."
The first day she was introduced to Brando, he asked for her astrological sign. They were both Aries, they discovered. Then he sat with her in a cafe and, hoping to unsettle her, had a staring contest.
"Is it difficult for you to look someone in the eye for a long time?" he demanded.
"Sometimes," she told him, staring back at him unwaveringly. He was so impressed he sent her flowers that evening, with a note scrawled in Chinese. "What do those characters mean?" she asked.
"I'm not going to tell you," he said.
From then on, he was "like Daddy," Schneider said later, especially in the scene in Tango when he gives her a bath and soaps her naked body as tenderly as he might have one of his own baby daughters.
It's interesting to note that while Maria Schneider had an amoral charm and was good in Last Tango, she was not great, but then Brando in recent years hadn't had adequate leading ladies. However, Schneider did pale beside Brando. Was it because she was so young and callow? Critic David Thomson called her "trite." He felt if Brando had had a really compelling woman to play opposite, she would have tested him. Or was it because, like Garbo, Brando simply dominates space and the viewer's eye automatically goes to him? Critic Andrew Sarris once wrote that Brando had to be the center of attention in his films, and even when he was acting with his peers, like Trevor Howard, say, or Anna Magnani, he constantly throttled them psychologically with ad-libs and constant takes so they became virtually invisible. Bertolucci says that Brando is "an angel as a man and a monster as an actor."
Just before shooting began, director and actor met, as they subsequently met every day, in private, often at breakfast, in Brando's rented apartment near the Arc de Triomphe. There they decided what scenes to do, how much to improvise, and why. (The infamous butter scene was thought up by Brando over cafe au lait.) The director kept reminding Brando he wanted him to find the character of Paul by remembering what was inside himself. The past, deadly and implacable, is the other big theme of Tango, he kept telling him.
This was the way Brando had imagined filmmaking could be: a total collaboration between actor and director. It would be like working with Kazan on Streetcar and Waterfront and Zapata. He could test himself in ways that many of his more recent directors had dismissed as eccentric self-indulgence. Phil Rhodes, who was always with him on the set, said he hadn't seen him so excited by a movie in years. He told Rhodes that in Tango, he would be allowed to take his improvisations further than he ever had before; he was willing to pull from himself his most painful memories. He felt challenged by the risks, although he did see it as a violation of his privacy.
The opening sequence of Last Tango takes place on the Pont de Bir-Hakeim, which Bertolucci had used in the first scene of The Conformist. It crosses the Seine south of the Eiffel Tower and west of the city and has two levels, with Metro trains traveling overhead from an elevated station. Our first glimpse of Brando is as he screams out, "FUCKING GOD!" against the roar of the train above him. The mad rush of those trains throughout the movie is a reminder of his frequent rushes of emotion.
Bertolucci admitted he was scared that first day, because:
"the scream was Marlon's idea. He started at such a violent pitch, I thought, 'I cannot work with this actor.' My fear lasted all that week. Then Marlon said he was feeling the same thing about me. From then on, everything went very well."
As usual, Brando was able to physicalize the character of Paul to a remarkable degree. Take his initial appearance in the abandoned apartment on Rue Jules Verne. Suddenly we see him emerging out of nowhere, hunched over by the radiator. He is dressed in a long brown cashmere coat, and he is hugging himself. It is as if he's possessed by some terrible, unconscious urge.
When he makes love to Jeanne for the first time, it's quick and primal; he bends over her, his coat still on; she wraps her legs around him. They come together convulsively, then break apart and fall on the floor, rolling away from each other, panting like animals.
The central scenes in the movie take place in the empty apartment, which serves as a background for all their passionate trysts. These are interspersed with glimpses of their real lives outside the apartment: Paul organizing his wife's funeral; Jeanne cavorting with her fiance, a young film director, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud.
We see the scene of Paul's wife's suicide in her bloody hotel bathroom, juxtaposed with a scene of Paul and Jeanne in the empty apartment; he's insisting:
"We're going to forget everything we know. No names, nothing. Everything outside this place is bullshit."
It's his desperate attempt to stay in the "fucking present." For Paul, "hapenis" is the brutal domination and degradation of Jeanne, who is excited and intrigued. The sexuality they expressed was unprecedented in feature films at that time: frontal nudity, masturbation, and sodomy, all of which were explored by Bertolucci's "voyeuristic eye." At times Brando also seems to be acting out his own fantasies of anonymous, violent sex.
Although the movie appears to be totally improvised, there were entire scenes of written dialogue, which Brando kept forgetting. He began using cue cards hidden among the props and behind the camera. Bertolucci, like Coppola before him, tried to deal with the actor's inability to memorize. Was it dyslexia, as one of his friends surmised, or was it simply the actor's impulse to be so strongly in the moment that memorized words got in the way? Bertolucci came to the conclusion that:
"Marlon's forgetfulness was deliberate. He uses the sense of danger that comes from forgetting dialogue as a means of heightening his dramatic powers."
Bertolucci often seemed confused as to what Last Tango was actually about. Brando later said to Rolling Stonemagazine:
"Bernardo went around telling everybody the movie was about the reincarnation of my prick. Now what the fuck does that mean?"
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman thought the movie was really about two men. Maria Schneider maintained:
"Bertolucci was in love with Marlon Brando, and that's what the movie was about. We were acting out Bernardo's sex problems, in effect trying to transfer them to the film."
She added that she and Brando got along "because we're both bisexual." Later Brando wearily admitted to a French film magazine that yes, he'd had homosexual experiences, as most men had.
"And I am not ashamed. I've never paid attention to what people said about me. Deep down, I feel ambiguous....Sex somehow lacks precision. Let's say sex is sexless"
Originally, Bertolucci planned to have his two actors make actual love on-screen. Brando said in an interview:
"Bernardo wanted me to fuck Maria. But I told him that was impossible. If that happens, our sex organs become the centerpiece of the film. He didn't agree with me."
After the film had been released, Norman Mailer wrote:
"Brando's cock up Schneider's real vagina would have brought the history of cinema one huge march closer to the ultimate experience it has promised since its inception—that is, to embody life."
But Last Tango ended up as a kind of celebrity drama, with Brando as its unwitting star, and indeed part of the film's shock value is the ultimate illusion that we are seeing a sex symbol actually Doing It.
A month into the shooting of Last Tango, Brando's lawyer, Norman Garey, phoned to tell him that Kashfi (Brando's ex-wife) had spirited Christian away to Mexico, and the boy had disappeared. Brando interpreted this as a kidnapping, and he flew back to the United States immediately and hired a detective and a man from Interpol to locate his boy.
Christian was discovered in a hippie commune somewhere near Baja California. He was hiding under a pile of clothes, obviously distraught and traumatized. One of the hippies admitted to the authorities that Kashfi had promised them thirty thousand dollars to hide her son. It was part of her pathetic, drug-induced attempt to reclaim custody of Christian.
By that time Anna Kashfi had become a very sad, very lost lady. Angry, deluded, paranoid, no longer beautiful, she suffered from epileptic fits and terrible mood swings and was a heavy drinker and pill taker. She had turned Christian's childhood into a nightmare, and Brando fought constantly to get custody, confessing to friends he was afraid that Christian was going to be "destroyed by his mother's weirdness." (Today, nearly destitute, Kashfi lives with a friend in San Diego.)
Brando appeared in court in Santa Monica with his son. He did not press kidnapping charges. Although the judge would not give him sole custody, he did agree to let him take the boy to Paris and stay with him for the next twelve months.
Meanwhile Brando was supposed to fly to New York for the premiere of The Godfather. Robert Evans kept trying to persuade him to appear. It was the biggest and most important opening of the year. But Brando refused. He did not want to put Christian through any more sensational publicity, since the tabloids had been covering "the kidnapping" for days.
By then, of course, The Godfather was on its way to being a huge hit, and Brando was acknowledged once again as the greatest actor of his generation. Newsweek magazine gushed, "The king has returned to his throne." There were cover stories in Time and Life heralding Marlon Brando's astonishing comeback.
Vincent Canby, in the New York Times, summed it up very nicely, calling The Godfather one of the most brutal and moving chronicles of American life ever designed within the limits of popular entertainment. He went on to say:
"After a very long time in too many indifferent or half-realized movies...Marlon Brando has finally connected with a character and a film....His performance...is true and flamboyant and, at unexpected moments, extremely moving. This is not only because the emotions, if surcharged, are genuine and fundamental, but also because we're watching a fine actor exercise his talent for what looks like the great joy of it."
Richard Schickel noted:
"His performance in The Godfather cannot be dismissed as merely technical acting. But it clearly derives from observation and imagination...and so represents the glorious culmination of his effort...to become the new Paul Muni, hiding behind accents and make-up."
By the time Brando returned to Paris with his son, his present wife, Tarita, had arrived from French Polynesia. She always made him feel especially secure, and she remained with him at his hotel until he completed filming. His huge success as the Godfather had energized him, and he improvised in Tango with even more intensity and commitment. He became totally invested in the role. Fernand Moskowitz, the assistant director, told Peter Manso:
"It was sometimes difficult to separate him from the character."
This was especially true in one of the climactic scenes of the movie, when he talks about his past. The night before he filmed the scene, according to Peter Manso, Brando confided to Bertolucci that he wasn't sure whether he could dig so far down inside himself. It was just too painful.
Bertolucci told him, "Think of the nightmare about your children." This was a frightening dream he'd recounted to Bertolucci a few days before. Brando glared at him as if he wanted to kill him, but he agreed to do the scene. Bertolucci was urging him to "act out," as Kazan had urged him to do in the past, with Streetcar and Waterfront.
His make-up man, Phil Rhodes, who had been with him on almost every movie he had ever done, said:
"Bertolucci was pushing him, but once...you've scarred yourself over a period of time, and you know what you're doing, it's very easy to improvise."
Rhodes had seen Brando use his hostility toward his father in a film only once before, when George Englund had urged him to base his portrayal of the ambassador in The Ugly American on Senior, and Brando agreed, even though he hated himself for doing it. It was the same with Tango.
"He got caught up in how much he hated his father, and even though he felt invaded, he continued the performance."
We see him lying on the mattress, playing his harmonica, and Jeanne asks him, "What do you do?"
He starts out by describing his past. He's been a boxer, an actor, a conga player, a revolutionary, a resident of Tahiti, all the things Brando had been or had fantasized being. He speaks about his childhood:
"My father was a drunk, tough, whore-fucker, bar-fighter supermasculine, and he was tough. My mother was very, very poetic, and also a drunk....All my memories of when I was a kid was of her being arrested, nude. We lived in this small town, a farming community....I'd come home after school....She'd be gone, in jail or something...and then I used to have to milk a cow every morning and every night, and I liked that. But I remember one time I was all dressed up to go out and take this girl to a basketball game...and my father said, 'You have to milk the cow.' I asked him 'Would you please milk it for me?' And he said, 'No. Get your ass out there.' I...was in a hurry, didn't have time to change my shoes, and I had cow shit all over my shoes...it smelled in the car....I can't remember very many things "
Months afterward, at a screening of Tango in New York, a friend asked him:
"Marlon, why didn't you just wipe the cow shit off your shoes? You had enough time to do that."
Brando looked at him very coldly and answered, "You've never really hated, have you? When you hate like I do, you have to suffer the pain."
The last time we see Paul and Jeanne together, he is washing her in the bathtub, and she is telling him she has fallen in love with a man and it's Paul. His response is to sodomize her with the help of a stick of butter. In another scene, Paul sits with his wife's corpse, surrounded with flowers, and he sobs. Even in two hundred years, he will never be able to understand his wife's true nature: "I'll never know who you were."
This was the kind of risk-taking bravura performance Brando's talent had always promised. Writes Foster Hirsch:
"It's as if we're seeing the purest kind of Method acting, a showcase of how an actor draws on his own resources of memory, anger, and anxiety to create a character. Brando didn't transform his emotional reality into a fiction. He simply revealed a dark side of himself, so the film is finally, on one level, about what it is like to be Marlon Brando."
It was both a fulfillment and a culmination. Who else but Brando could have made himself look so pathetic as he dogtrots after Jeanne into the grimy tango palace and clowns and pleads:
"What the hell! I'm no prize....I got a prostate as big as an Idaho potato, but I'm still a good stick man. I don't have any friends, and I suppose if I hadn't met you, I'd be ready for a hard chair and a hemorrhoid."
And who else but Brando could have imagined the gesture he makes at the end of the film, right after Jeanne shoots him? He takes the chewing gum out of his mouth and sticks it to the railing of the balcony before dying.
At the wrap party, when Tango finished filming in April, Brando confided to Bertolucci that he would never again make a film like this one, that he didn't like acting at the best of times, but in this one he had felt violated every moment, every day. He even felt that his children were being torn away from him. Informing his agent, Robert French, that he would not be needing him anymore, he escaped to the beaches of French Polynesia with Christian and Tarita.
In the fall of 1972, Last Tango in Paris was screened for one night at the New York Film Festival. It created a sensation and inspired Pauline Kael to write ecstatically in The New Yorker, Last Tango in Paris is:
"the most powerfully erotic film ever made. People will be arguing about it for years."
She went on to say that Brando had dug deep and fused more in a role than any other actor. He had "a direct pipeline to the mysteries of character."
Italian censors also helped the movie become an international cause celebre. Obscenity charges were filed in Bologna against Bertolucci, Brando, Schneider, and United Artists, alleging: "obscene content...offensive to public decency, and characterized by exasperating pan sexualism for its own end, catering to the lowest instincts of the libido," and on and on. Not even a publicist for United Artists could have written such an enticing blurb for the film.
Brando refused to defend Last Tango and remained in French Polynesia, but Bertolucci appeared in court to argue for its merits, and his lawyer stated:
"Marlon Brando personifies the fall of man. This is the message of Tango....The beast inside Marlon may be inside us too, but we are cowards and try to suffocate it."
The three Italian judges hearing the case agreed with the defense. The filmmakers were acquitted.
By the start of 1973 Last Tango was released in theaters in Italy and elsewhere. Its notoriety helped its box-office appeal, and by the time the film opened in New York in February, it had more than one hundred thousand dollars in advance sales. The Kael review (which Brando thought was vastly exaggerated), plus fulsome cover stories in both Time and Newsweek, prompted negative reviews from other critics, who called the movie "a piece of talented debauchery. It makes you want to vomit." One joked, "It gives butter a bad name." Last Tango went on to become the biggest money- maker in the history of United Artists, and Brando became a rich man all over again.
The movie had opened smack in the middle of the so-called sexual revolution. Feminism was blossoming; the gay rights movement was on the rise; there were nude encounter groups and sex clubs and open marriages. Last Tango followed on the heels of such other controversial films as Carnal Knowledge, Midnight Cowboy, and A Clockwork Orange. Last Tango seemed to glorify the idea that sex can be impersonal; sex is no longer sacred or even dangerous. Many feminists loathed the movie and thought it was chauvinistic. But critic Molly Haskell pointed out that:
"in surrendering her body without strings, Maria Schneider had a better chance of ultimately freeing her mind. Schneider's journey into her entrails, under Brando's instruction, is terrifying. But if she survives, she has a better chance of possessing her life than ever before."
Brando refused most requests for interviews. He would do no real publicity for the movie; he wanted to remain in Polynesia, and he returned to Los Angeles in mid-February only because Wally Cox died suddenly, and he flew back for the memorial.
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