Last Tango In Paris

Dir: Bernardo Bertolucci, 1973. Starring: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Jean-Pierre Leaud. Drama.
Last Tango In Paris

Film acting can be defined with "before Brando" and "after Brando." Marlon Brando brought a reality and a vulnerability to the screen that had never been fully been realized by a major movie star before his startling run of influential film performances in the early 1950s. The generations of "method actors" (Dean, Newman, Hoffman, De Niro, Pacino, Penn, etc.) all cited Brando as their number-one influence on their own revolutionary work.

No other actor has given a string of film performances like the first half dozen of Brando's performances; they were monumental. The Men (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), Julius Caesar (1953), The Wild One (1953), and On the Waterfront (1954) (for which he finally won his first Oscar) all contributed to his legend.

For the next almost twenty years Brando’s work, though usually interesting, fluctuated between indulgent, lazy or too good for the mediocrity of the film itself. Occasionally a few gems can be found like his work in One Eyed Jacks (1961), which he also impressed as the director on that film, his sole outing behind the camera. Also a major high point was the Gilio Pontecorvo (The Battle Of Algiers) 1968 film Queimada (aka Burn!), a scathing indictment of European imperialism (or America’s involvement in the Vietnam war).

Then in 1972 the comeback…The Godfather. A blockbuster. Brando reclaimed his rightful title as his generation’s greatest film actor. He won another Oscar for it (and in a super badass move, turned it down, citing Hollywood’s mistreatment of Native Americans. It was a messy event).

How would he follow up the phenomenon of The Godfather?

He chose to go to Paris and work with the acclaimed young Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, coming off massive critical acclaim himself for his Fascism epic, The Conformist (1971). Bertolucci, years later, in 1987, would have massive "awards success" with The Last Emperor and more gorgeous actress nudity success with The Dreamers (2003).

In Last Tango In Paris a man and a woman, Paul and Jeanne, strangers, meet both wanting to rent the same flat. He’s an American widower (Brando) and much older, she is French (Maria Schneider). They end up taking on a sex-only affair, meeting in the flat, having sex and slowly revealing themselves to each other, their deep secrets but not their names.

The film, x-rated and in its day very controversial for its extremely graphic nature, is a story of how sex affects two different people. The age difference is not about lust for Paul - sex is his way of escaping the memory of his dead wife, who died from suicide. For Jeanne, who is due to be married to an annoying young director (Jean-Pierre Leaud), sex with the older Paul gives her a source of power and independence she does not get from her fiancé. In her most famous review the legendary film critic & film essayist, Pauline Kael, lauded, "Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form." Referring to film, I suppose, not sex.

In all actuality, Tango is really just a cool looking version of Lost In Translation, had Lost In Translation been directed by an even more pretentious, sex obsessed Italian dude. And that is not a bad thing. The film is challenging in a good way. It requires thought and contemplation. And the voluptuous Schneider, nude most of the film, is spectacular eye candy. What the hell happened to her? Two years later in '75 when she co-starred with Jack Nicholson in (mega overrated) director Antonioni‘s The Passenger, she appears to have shriveled down to meth-addict size.

Besides Gato Barbieri’s magnificent jazzy tango score, the star of the show is Brando. This is the performance of his career. Much of his dialog was improvised and appears to be deeply personal, especially when Paul confesses to his own sexual insecurities and his memories of his drunken mother and brutish father. Besides the nudity and explicit sexuality, there were other new sides to Brando never seen before, a sort of self expression usually given to us by a film’s director, now seemed to be in the hands of the film’s star.

Of course the run of The Godfather and then Last Tango In Paris, back to back, would be the final peak in Brando’s career. It was the last time he would seem to try or to care. It’s too bad for us; too bad he never used that talent fully. Of course, he would still do Apocalypse Now (1979) (some feel he ruins the film, I found him fascinating). He would pop up for some powerful scenes in The Formula (1980), A Dry White Season (1989), and as George Lincoln Rockwell on television’s Roots: The Next Generation. But usually it was over-priced cameos or unwatchable films (have you ever seen the Johnny Depp directed The Brave? Eek). Though, I must admit, his insane performance in the junky The Island Of Dr. Moreau (1996), helps make it a guilty pleasure for me.

Brando passed away in 2004 at the age of eighty. His astonishing gifts were perhaps never fully realized. I suppose it says even more about his genius that even with the amazing body of work he left us with, it sill feels unsatisfying. As if it’s light one or two masterpiece performances. He should have done more. I mean, he was still in his forties when he made The Godfather and Last Tango In Paris, fifty-five for Apocalypse Now. We’ll never know what would have happened or what could have happened if Brando had cared and tried those later years. Look at some of the late career gems Newman had or Nicholson is having. If only Brando had the desire to act that other pros have had. (Sigh.) Oh well, at least we’ll always have Paris.


Last Tango In Paris was nominated for two Oscars: Best Actor and Best Director.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 19, 2010 12:51pm
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