BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI FOR LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1973)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
George Roy Hill for The Sting
George Lucas for American Graffiti
Ingmar Bergman for Cries and Whispers
William Friedkin for The Exorcist
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
Even forty years later, there’s little I can say about Last Tango in Paris that wasn’t said with flair by Pauline Kael, so I’ll refer you to her first. Kael’s iconic rave set the rallying point for the film’s defenders against the vocal legion of moral critics aligned against it. I quite understand the point of view of those who saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s tale of an anonymous love affair between Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider as depraved and indulgent. However, the beauty of the central relationship is shaped by precisely the dark possibilities of their free explorations–emerging a dream of Bertolucci’s featuring sex with an unknown stranger, the film leaves as much unanswered around its fuzzy edges and it explains. This unpredictability stems from a superlative performance from Brando, drawing upon every last fiber of his legendary improvisatory talents to breathe a spontaneous driving force into the grieving widower (a role turned down by Jean-Louis Tringtignant, in a serendipitous connection to my last post). Maria Schneider also does a fantastic job, intrigued and yet afraid of the alternative to her safe premarital world. For that matter, the fiancé played by Jean-Pierre Léaud presents a more surreptitiously dangerous path, casually probing her as a visual fetish to the more frank and egalitarian sexual partnership offered by the insistently mysterious stranger.
Through the exploration of the slowly morphing apartment, Bertolucci captures a warm world with dark recess, a manifestation of the mystery that is Brando’s character and their contract of anonymity. While the film registered with the Academy for the above-the-line talents of Bertolucci and Brando, the craft that realizes their shared vision is a crucial part of the film’s profound success. Vittorio Storaro’s criminally un-nominated cinematography extends the warm yet disquieting aesthetic of the two Francis Bacon portraits that open the film into the Paris world, while Gato Barbieri’s doleful jazz score anticipates Bernard Herrmann’s farewell compositions in Taxi Driver as dark farewells to a broken American past. Altogether, Last Tango in Paris works as a painting as much as a film, intriguing for the aspects of the image it refuses to show as much as the dynamic tension before our eyes.
This race used to be so easy to call…1973 might have been the most off-kilter race traditional Oscar voters had ever faced. Joining Bertolucci’s provocative auteur masterpiece were a classy horror film (the first ever nominated for Best Picture) in returning Oscar-winner William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, a deeply psychological family drama courtesy of first-time Director nominee Ingmar Bergman (despite a Foreign Language and Original Screenplay track record to match Fellini’s), and a modestly brilliant dissection of a post-high school, pre-Vietnam summer, courtesy of that kid named George Lucas. With such unorthodox choices, it’s little surprise voters opted for George Roy Hill’s second nomination, a de facto sequel to Butch Cassidy in the nostalgic, deftly entertaining caper film The Sting. I would in previous years have handed the award to Lucas for his perceptive look at an America on the cusp of transformation, but I must give credit to Bertolucci’s profound emotional vision with my vote.