Bertolucci - death of a maestro

An epic Oscar-laden career with the personal touch

by Richard Mowe

Bernardo Bertolucci at work
Bernardo Bertolucci at work

The Italian cinema maestro Bernardo Bertolucci who won no less than nine Oscars for The Last Emperor has died in Rome at the age of 77.

He managed to achieve the difficult balancing act of working both in Hollywood and Europe - and made films that always reflected his personal universe. He was quoted saying: “Every movie becomes, for me, autobiographical.”

The Last Emperor, an adaptation of an autobiography of China’s last imperial ruler Pu Yi, won Oscars in 1987 in almost every category, including Best Picture and Best Director. He was the only Italian to have won an Oscar as Best Director.

He came from a wealthy family in the northern city of Parma, the son of poet and writer Attilio Bertolucci. He began his career as an assistant to Pier Paolo Pasolini on his first feature Accattone in 1961. The director’s début film The Grim Reaper (made in 1962) showed a murder investigation into the death of a prostitute, but told from many different viewpoints.

Bertolucci celebrates his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Bertolucci celebrates his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Photo: Getty Images

Cannes Critics’ Week beckoned in 1964 with an invitation to his autobiographical Before The Revolution, about a student who has an affair with his young aunt. The actress who played her, Adriana Asti, became his wife, although the marriage only lasted couple of years.

He confirmed his talents with his adaptation of the novel by Alberto Moravia, The Conformist, which gave him his first Academy Award. The Conformist starred Jean-Louis Trintignant as a tormented intellectual who is hired by Mussolini’s secret police to murder a former teacher. The film is said to be extremely influential on the work of such directors as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

His most controversial film was Last Tango In Paris, whose scenes of sodomy involving Marlon Brando and actress Maria Schneider led to charges of obscenity in Italy and also to Bertolucci losing his civil rights for five years. After the film was completed and Brando confronted the raw and highly personal emotionalism of his own performance, he was said to be very upset with the director.

Brando did not speak to Bertolucci for 15 years. Then one day, Bertolucci phoned the actor at his Mulholland Drive home. “And he picked up the phone,” Bertolucci told one interviewer. Brando told him to come over. “I was driving there, and I was so emotional, I thought I would crash the car,” he said. “But he greeted me like a friend.” The notoriety around Last Tango brought him to Hollywood's attention - and he was given the budget to make the vast historical epic 1900 with Burt Lancaster, Donald Sutherland, Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu.

The mid-Nineties saw him embark on smaller and even more personal projects such as Stealing Beauty with Liv Tyler, the drama Besieged and The Dreamers, evoking the spirit of May 1968 and centred around three young people, an American and a French brother and sister, cloistered in a sprawling Paris apartment where they engage in sexual exploration while the riots rage outside.

The last film he directed when illness and surgery on his back resulted in him needing a wheelchair, was coming of age drama Me And You which played out of competition in the Cannes Film Festival in 2012.

“For a few years,” he once said, “I thought my love affair with cinema was over. Finally though I am still excited about cinema, especially because it’s changing," adding then that he was interested in doing a movie in 3D. “But a normal story, using the 3D on the emotions.”

Bertolucci who received a special tribute in his presence at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, was the recipient of many career-achievement awards including one from the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 when he received an honorary Palme d’Or. He is survived by his third wife, the screenwriter and director Clare Peploe, whom he married in 1979 and whose brother Mark Peploe is also a screenwriter and close friend of Bertolucci’s who worked with the director on a number of projects.

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