Self-Portrait of an Angel and Monster

23 minute read

The tango is a pantomime coitus for the camera.—Filippo Tomaso Marinetti, 1914

THE man is middle-aged, leonine, ravaged. The girl is young, foxlike, insouciant. Total strangers to each other, they are inspecting an unfurnished Paris apartment that is for rent. Suddenly, the man scoops the girl up in his arms, carries her to the side of the room, then embraces and kisses her hungrily. He tears off her panties and has sex with her while still dressed and standing. The camera rests steadily on them as he thrusts her against the wall and she hitches herself up on him, clinging to his body with her knees. Finally, gasping and groaning, they tumble to the floor, roll apart and lie still.

Any moviegoers who are not shocked, titillated, disgusted, fascinated, delighted or angered by this early scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s new movie, Last Tango in Paris, should be patient. There is more to come. Much more. Bertolucci, whose political melodrama The Conformist was one of the most highly praised foreign films of 1971, has marshaled his opulent visual style to tell a stark story of sex as a be-all and end-all. For boldness and brutality, the intimate scenes are unprecedented in feature films. Frontal nudity, four-letter words, masturbation, even sodomy—Bertolucci dwells uncompromisingly on them all with a voyeur’s eye, a moralist’s savagery, an artist’s finesse.

The movie, which will open in New York City on Feb. 1, is already a sensation and a scandal in Europe. It has been called a “pornographic Elvira Madigan” as well as a work of “constant beauty”; a piece of “talented debauchery that often makes you want to vomit” as well as an “authentic moral and psychological Apocalypse.” Debates about its meaning and merits are raging among critics, intellectuals, theologians and editorial writers.

In Paris, people are standing in line for up to two hours at the seven theaters where Tango has been playing for a month. In Italy, the film ran into an initial snag with the board of censors, eventually was released for nearly a week last month, then was confiscated pending settlement of a citizens’ suit complaining of “the obscenity of some sequences, particularly the scenes of carnal violence that last for several minutes and go beyond artistic necessity.”

Amoral Charm. The U.S. distributor, United Artists, has allowed only one carefully timed public screening in the States—on the final night of the New York Film Festival in October. “That date,” wrote Critic Pauline Kael in The New Yorker, “should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913—the night Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed—in music history. [Tango has] altered the face of an art form. This is a movie people will be arguing about for as long as there are movies.” United Artists recently reprinted the whole of Kael’s extraordinary rave as a double-page ad in the Sunday New York Times—the first salvo in what is rapidly becoming a barrage of high-powered promotion and publicity. By last week the advance sale of reserved seats for the New York run alone totaled nearly $50,000.

Tango‘s explosive impact will demonstrate to a wide public what many film buffs already know: that Bertolucci, 31, is Italy’s most gifted director in the generation after Fellini and Antonioni, and one of the most gifted younger directors on the world scene (see box, page 54). It will also introduce, in the role of the young girl, a striking new performer: France’s sensual, baby-faced Maria Schneider, 20, whose blithely amoral charm perfectly expresses the contemporary vie de bohème.

Above all, it will affirm the resurgence of one of the great talents of the age, one who had seemed, through the 1960s, to be erratically and sometimes disastrously in decline: Marlon Brando. Brando is already being touted as an Academy Award contender for his role in last year’s The Godfather. Now his emotionally wrenching, coruscating performance as the protagonist of Tango fulfills all the promise he gave in the earlier film of regaining his old dominance, not only as an actor but also as a star and a legend.

He plays Paul, a 45-year-old American living in Paris. At the point where the movie begins, Paul’s faithless French wife, who owned the seedy hotel that they ran jointly and lived in, has just inexplicably committed suicide. It is in the midst of his stunned and perplexed reaction to this event that Paul encounters the free-spirited young bourgeoise named Jeanne in the vacant apartment and abruptly begins his affair with her. The central scenes of the movie show their meetings in the bare apartment over a period of three days, interspersed with glimpses of both of them pursuing their outside lives: he making preparations for his wife’s funeral, she cavorting with the young TV director (Jean-Pierre Léaud) she is to marry within a week.

As Brando projects him, Paul is a battered veteran of the Romantic Rebel battalion, a former boxer and actor, a man who has been getting the short end of the stick for so long that he has turned it into a bludgeon. He rages contemptuously at the civilization that baffles and frustrates him; yet he remains achingly vulnerable to it. His affair with Jeanne is a last desperate attempt to strip down to a pure, basic reality that he can understand—sex without love, even without identities. “We don’t need names here,” he decrees. “You see, we’re going to forget everything we knew. All the people, wherever we lived. Everything outside this place is bullshit.”

Mortality Chill. For Paul, “happenis,” as he calls it, is the brutal possession and degradation of a woman. The scenes in which he accomplishes this with Jeanne—who is excited, intrigued and masochistic enough to go along—are what might be called the hard core of the film. In one, he asks her to insert her fingers in his anus, then exacts a vow from her that she would prove her devotion to him by, among other things, having relations with a pig. In another, the culmination of the subjugation process, he wrestles her to a prone position on the floor and sodomizes her while forcing her to recite a litany rejecting love, family, church and other values.

The sexual positions vary and so do the psychological ones, until it is difficult to say who is the victimizer and who is the victim. Jeanne, however humiliated, is merely having an adventure; Paul is warming himself against the chill of mortality. “You’re all alone,” he tells her, “and you won’t be able to face that feeling of being alone until you look death right in the face.” When they begin tentatively talking about the future, she cruelly underlines the difference in their ages by saying that in ten years he will be in a wheelchair.

A long tortured monologue over his wife’s body enables Paul to come to terms with his grief and try to resume life outside his trysting place, but by then Jeanne is coolly returning to her TV director. Suddenly pathetic, Paul tags after her through the streets, following her into a dance hall where a tango contest is in progress. Between bouts of drinking and clowning, he makes a feebly jaunty proposal: “What the hell, I’m no prize. I picked up a nail in Cuba in 1948, and I got a prostate like an Idaho potato, but I’m still a good stick man. I don’t have any friends. I suppose if I hadn’t met you, I’d probably settle for a hard chair and a hemorrhoid.” It is too late. Paul’s attachment to Jeanne is the last in a lifetime of bad emotional investments. In the melodramatic ending, his need for her is literally fatal.

Can such themes justify and redeem sex scenes that are going to offend many viewers? Or is the movie basically pornography with an overlay of philosophic angst—and pornography of a peculiarly vulgar type, since it features one of the world’s most famous actors capering up there on the screen? Last week Italy’s leading paper, Corriere della Sera of Milan, devoted its Sunday feature page to a dialogue on Tango between Novelist Alberto Moravia and Jesuit Theologian Domenico Grasso of the Pontifical Gregorian University. Both men gave the film high marks aesthetically, and both upheld, with some reservations, the validity of the sex scenes.

“The two protagonists,” said Moravia, “do not so much take pleasure in sex as they express themselves and communicate by means of it.” He maintained that the film was too schematic in counterposing the Freudian concepts of Eros, the life principle, and Thanatos, the death principle; and that it was too one-sided in suggesting that “Eros by now is the only positive fact of this civilization.” Father Grasso agreed that the primacy of Eros in the film gives “a deformed figure to man.” He found some scenes “pornographic and repulsive,” but he argued that the pornography is not an end in itself; rather, it shows the brutalization through which Paul reaches “an authentic value—that is, love.” He concluded: “An appreciable work, especially if the people who see it are mature, capable of grasping the idea underneath.”

The people who see Tango in the U.S. will at least be mature in years. The film will carry an X rating, which bars admission to viewers under 18. Says Eugene Picker, an executive of the Trans-Lux Corp., which owns the Manhattan theater where Tango will open: “There is such a thing as pornography, and there is such a thing as a beautiful, well-made production by a talented director, and when you see this movie you will understand the difference.”

You will also understand the similarities. There is no escaping the fact that Tango bears some kinship to the kinds of movies that play down the street and around the corner from it in the more permissive West European and U.S. cities: the Bad Barbaras, the Highway Hustlers, the Deep Throats. The audacity of Tango might not have been possible, either in terms of the law or of audience acceptance, without the example of out-and-out porno flicks.

Tango and its somewhat milder predecessors are a casebook study in cultural osmosis—the process by which serious directors draw off the pornographers’ best stuff and put it to respectable uses. I Am Curious (Yellow) (1969) seems to have started the current phase of candor. It was followed by progressively bolder films, from Midnight Cowboy (1969), with its homosexual as well as heterosexual couplings, to A Clockwork Orange (1971), with its rapes and sex à trois. Going beyond all of these, Tango proclaims the liberation of serious films from restraints on sex as unequivocally as the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde proclaimed liberation from restraints on violence.

In shooting the film, Bertolucci committed himself from the outset to being totally explicit. “I decided that to suggest and allude instead of saying it outright would create an unhealthy climate for the spectator,” he explains. For greater realism, he insisted on using an actual apartment rather than a set for the scenes between Paul and Jeanne, although he then chose very unrealistic colors and lighting to heighten the atmosphere. He required that the decor be in reds, oranges and flesh tones—”all uterine,” in the words of Tango Set Designer Maria Paola Maino. The light that slanted into the rooms was always orange shafts from a low winter sun, contrasting with the cool violet and gray of the streets outside.

The two leading roles were conceived for French Stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Dominique Sanda, but both turned out to be unavailable. Bertolucci interviewed some 100 actresses for the role of Jeanne, finally chose Schneider because she seemed “a Lolita, but more perverse,” and because, when Bertolucci asked her to take off all her clothes during a screen test, “she became much more natural.” The illegitimate daughter of French Actor Daniel Gélin, Schneider has been a child of Paris’ swarming Montparnasse scene since she was 15. Her prior professional experience was casually squeezed in between painting, modeling, touring discothèques and living in communes.

When Brando, an admirer of The Conformist, expressed an interest in the role of Paul, he and Bertolucci arranged a meeting in Paris. “For the first 15 minutes he didn’t say a word; he only looked at me,” Bertolucci recalls. “Then he asked me to talk about him. I was very embarrassed, but I got around it by talking about the character I had in mind for the film. He listened carefully and then said yes right away, without asking to read the script.”

Later Bertolucci spent two weeks getting acquainted with Brando in Hollywood. His verdict: “An angel as a man and a monster as an actor. He is all instinct, but at the same time he is a complex man: on one side he needs to be loved by all; on another he is a machine incessantly producing charm; on still another he has the wisdom of an Indian sage. He is like one of those figures of the painter Francis Bacon who show on their faces all that is happening in their guts—he has the same devastated plasticity.” (Two Bacon paintings appear under the credits on Tango, and several scenes in the film were visually inspired by his work.)

Like Daddy. On location, Brando bore little resemblance to the demanding egotist of Hollywood lore. At his first meeting with Schneider, he led her away to a bar and said, “We’re going to go through quite a lot together, so let’s not talk. Just look me in the eye as hard as you can.” Next day flowers from Marlon arrived, and “from then on he was like a daddy.” Inevitably, there were whispers that he was more than a daddy, that the intense sexual encounters in the film were not all simulated. Replies Schneider: “We were never screwing on stage. I never felt any sexual attraction for him, though my friends all told me I should. But he’s almost 50, you know, and”—she runs her hand down her torso to her midriff—”he’s only beautiful to here.”

Professionally, on the other hand, Schneider says that she was “full of his vibrations. That heavy, very slow movement. His ability to size up a scene in an instant and then do it perfectly naturally. In the movie, his character takes that girl and teaches her a lot of things, makes her stretch, makes her explode. That’s what he did to me as an actress.”

Brando did exercise one of his most disconcerting penchants as an actor. He wrote his lines on cue cards and posted them around the set for easy reference, leaving Bertolucci with the problem of keeping them out of the picture frame. At one point in the finished film, during his long monologue over the body of his wife, he soulfully rolls his eyes upward. Overcome by emotion? Posing for a more effective camera angle? No, just checking his lines.

Reverse Role. Encouraged by Bertolucci’s improvisatory style of filming, Brando pitched in on the shaping of scenes and characterizations, working out most of his own English dialogue and in a few cases carrying the sex scenes even farther than Bertolucci had intended. “Something is up,” said Brando’s dresser to an assistant producer one day. “He’s taking this seriously.” What was up was Bertolucci’s request that Brando reverse the usual actor’s approach to a role. “Instead of entering the character, I asked him to superimpose himself on it,” says Bertolucci. “I didn’t ask him to become anything but himself. It wasn’t like doing a film. It was a kind of psychoanalytical adventure.”

Brando’s characterization, then, while it is a superbly professional performance, is also something of a self-portrait. The correspondences between the role and the life are not always precise; in the case of Paul’s kinky sexual predilections and darker rages, the viewer can only speculate whether such correspondences exist at all. But, although the facts may vary, the tone and attitude often ring true. “Forty years of Brando’s life experiences went into the film,” says his friend Christian Marquand, the French actor. “It is Brando talking about himself, being himself. His relations with his mother, father, children, lovers, friends—all come out in his performance as Paul.”

Behind Paul’s reminiscences of an unhappy childhood lies the Brando who grew up as a restless, competitive child in Libertyville, Ill., the son of a remote father and a feckless mother. Paul tells Jeanne at one point: “My father was a drunk, a screwed-up bar fighter. My mother was also a drunk. My memories as a kid are of her being arrested. We lived in a small town, a farming community. 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 take this girl to a basketball game. My father said, ‘You have to milk the cow,’ and I said, ‘Would you please milk it for me?’ He said ‘No, get your ass out there.’ I was in a hurry, and I didn’t have time to change my shoes, and I had cowshit all over my shoes. Later on it smelled in the car. I can’t remember very many good things.”

In Paul’s instinctiveness, his sensual aura, his physical grace and forcefulness, one recognizes the Brando who galvanized Broadway as a young actor in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, then went on to Hollywood to make a series of six stunning pictures in five years, including The Wild One, On the Waterfront and Julius Caesar. This was the Brando who in the 1950s struck one of the keynotes of a generation with his romantic outlaw swagger, who influenced a whole school of cooler, more introspective actors like James Dean, Paul Newman and Montgomery Clift, and whose blue-jeaned, motorcycle-riding contempt for the clan rituals of Hollywood signaled the end of the star system as it had flourished till then.

The high emotional pitch and sexual violence of Paul and Jeanne’s affair are consistent with what has come out over the years about Brando’s tempestuous love life, punctuated as it has been by the birth of one child out of wedlock and by such eruptions as the attempted suicide of Actress Rita Moreno at his home in 1961. They are also consistent with his record of two marriages and two divorces followed by court wrangles over the custody of his three legitimate children.

Doing Penance. Finally, Paul’s anger and rebelliousness, his frustrated pride, seem to be directly distilled from Brando’s career during the 1960s, which now in retrospect loom as his purgatory years. The world of show business began doing penance for having idolized him by trying to cut him down to size. He was criticized for intellectual pretension as well as for being too primitive; he was accused of being too mannered and self-indulgent as an actor as well as of sleepwalking through parts just for the money; he was berated for not returning to the stage as well as for not making better movies.

The movies he did make were sometimes indifferent (A Countess from Hong Kong, Morituri) and sometimes disastrous (Appaloosa, Bedtime Story). More and more, people began believing the stories that had long circulated of his behavior on the set: that he was a moody, intractable mumbler, a troublemaker whose whims sent budgets and blood pressures skyrocketing, a brilliant burden who dragged everything down with his sagging box office appeal. In fact, there was more and more truth to the stories. In 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty almost literally lived up to its title when Brando worked against the grain of the production with an eccentric interpretation of Fletcher Christian, repeatedly overrode the director, invited himself to collaborate with the scriptwriter, insisted on a postlude about the subsequent lives of the mutineers, and generally cost MGM extra millions and perhaps a year in production time.

Earlier, after Brando had taken over the direction of a picture in which he was already starring, One-Eyed Jacks (thereby doubling the budget and schedule), he had announced that “acting is a bum’s life. Quitting acting is the mark of maturity.” After the Bounty fiasco, there were those who were ready to agree with him. In a 1966 article, Pauline Kael lamented that Brando had lapsed, like John Barrymore before him, into a “self-parodying comedian.”

Brando had his mind on other things anyway. He began pouring energy and money into a series of standard liberal causes, from blacks in the South, to the campaign against capital punishment (on the night of Caryl Chessman’s execution, he picketed San Quentin), to the fishing rights of the Puyallup Indians of the Northwest. He became a zealous and outspoken critic of the war in Viet Nam. In the later years of the 1960s, he devoted an increasing amount of time to his children, both in California and in Tetiaroa, the South Sea atoll of 13 islands that he bought in 1966. In Tetiaroa he also set up an experimental ecological project in which a group of scientists are growing fruits and vegetables under specially controlled, nonpolluting conditions and raising fish and crustaceans in underwater cages.

But through all of Brando’s campaigns and retreats, his flops and public excoriations, the actor prevailed. In his worst films, his performances often had more power, depth or freshness than the vehicles deserved, and even his failures had a way of being more interesting than other people’s successes. Pauline Kael’s dismissal notwithstanding, Brando’s colleagues by and large have defended him. “When Brando is allegedly difficult,” says Director-Actor John Cassavetes, “it’s because he is unsatisfied, often justifiably, with some aspect of the project he’s on—the director, the script or whatever. But when those things are right, when people deal with him honestly, there’s no one better—ask any actor.”

That is the lesson of The Godfather. Brando wanted the coveted role of Don Vito Corleone; he fought for it, he even took a screen test to get it, something to which he had not been subjected for 20 years. When he got it, his presence fused and lifted the whole enterprise (TIME, March 13). His mastery flared anew. The record-breaking box office success of the movie, says Hollywood Producer Ray Stark, “made Marlon fashionable again. People are willing to put money in his pictures once more.”

Today Brando’s silk-walled, Japanese-style house atop a hill on Mulholland Drive in Beverly Hills is again a prime tourist attraction, and sightseeing buses nose past it daily. The house remains, however, as much a fortress as it was when Brando took it over in 1961 from the previous occupant, Howard Hughes. Despite, or perhaps because of his renewed flush of popularity, Brando still insists that “privacy is not something that I’m merely entitled to; it’s an absolute requisite.” He still holds to his old credo that “conformity breeds mediocrity.” And although he does not ride a motorcycle much any more, he remains a restless loner, a middle-aged delinquent of the film industry. If he had a theme song, it would be Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

What little is known of his true nature comes from a handful of his friends and associates. By their testimony, he is intelligent, warm, charming, compassionate, humorous and unpretentious, as well as undisciplined, boorish, gloomy, supercilious, cruel and downright bent. About the only thing everybody can agree on is that he is a prankster. He delights in disguising his voice in his frequent phone calls to friends, assuming such identities as a job applicant, a woman, or a doctor reporting a comically grotesque diagnosis of some third party. He is also devastatingly adept at mimicry, something he does not only for laughs. “Actors have to observe,” he says. “They have to know how much spit you’ve got in your mouth and where the weight of your elbows is. I could sit all day in the Optimo Cigar Store telephone booth and just watch the people pass by.”

Dull Work. In the other moods, though, his thoughts drift off—to one of his pet projects, perhaps, or to the South Seas. “Being in Tetiaroa gives me a sense of the one-to-one ratio of things,” he says. “You have the coconut in the tree, the fish in the water, and if you want something to eat, you somehow have to get it.” Brando still seems to need, as a friend once said, “to find something in life, something in himself, that is permanently true, and he needs to lay down his life for it.” The pity is that Brando seems unwilling to accept that he has already found that something: his art. To hear him tell it, he is as disenchanted with acting today as he was when he finished One-Eyed Jacks. “A movie star is nothing important,” he says. “Freud. Gandhi. Marx. These people are important. But movie acting is just dull, boring, childish work.”

Actor Edward Albert, who lived near Brando in Tetiaroa in 1970, says: “I don’t believe anybody really knows Brando, but I have the feeling that he believes somewhere along the line he missed something he could have done, something he could have been. It’s as if somebody had put an angel inside of him, and he’s aware of it, and it’s more than he can contain.”

Brando recently collected a final installment of the $1,500,000 he made for his work on The Godfather. He has hinted that if he can add enough to that with his income from Tango, he will quit acting for good. In fact, a few weeks ago he terminated his contract with his agent, Robin French, telling him, “I don’t think I’m going to be needing you much any more.”

Yet anybody who sees Brando’s performance in Tango will find it hard to believe that this is a man who plans to retire, no matter what he may say. It is a performance that displays what Bertolucci calls Brando’s capacity to “destroy himself and re-create himself continuously, in a kind of savage dialectic.” After his Don Vito in The Godfather, Brando could have continued indefinitely in the security of similar roles. Instead, he has made new departures, taken new risks, and thus answered the imperative of his talent by regenerating it. In his willingness to confront publicly the fearful ambiguities of sex and death, in his ability to find new ways of exposing himself in flesh and spirit, he seems to be serving notice, in spite of himself, that he is not about to dwindle into being an institution.

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