Last night I checked out the Blu-Ray disc of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, a film which over the last decade or two has quietly made its way from cause célèbre to one almost needing rediscovery. (Of the twenty-somethings I’ve talked to who’d even heard of it, none had actually seen it. Odd thing is, their generation may be better prepared to enjoy Bertolucci’s cinematic in-jokes—ranging from the jabs at Godard to the casting of neorealist icons in a couple of important secondary roles—than the audiences of 1973.) It doesn’t help that MGM treats Last Tango like a Showgirls for people with opposable thumbs. The DVD case promises “THE PASSION IS EVEN HOTTER ON BLU-RAY” (along with the anal rape, presumably), though the additional puffery offers no serious indication that the film was a milestone in its day. A Blu-Ray release clearly signaled the time had come for a making-of documentary or (at the very least) a commentary track by a smart critic or two, but MGM considered its work done by merely remastering the film—the threadbare minimum.
The premiere of Last Tango in Paris at the New York Film Festival—that would be the same premiere which Pauline Kael compared in impact to the opening of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring—occurred on October 14, 1972, which happens to have been my eighteenth birthday. We’ll get into why that matters in a sec, but let’s just say for right now that by the time the movie opened wide a few months later, it was a full-blown media event, with a level of mainstream buzz and anticipation reserved today for Super Bowls and Batman movies.
For a Marlon Brando sex movie! I was a part of that buzz, most definitely, even if I can’t totally pinpoint today just why I was so eager to see it. It wasn’t just the sex: I’d let Therese and Isabelle and I Am Curious (Yellow) blow through town without taking a flyer on either of them. I adored Brando but earlier that year I’d been only mildly curious to see him playing a Mafia don, and while I knew who Bertolucci was, I’d missed The Conformist, his ultra-stylish warm-up to Last Tango, when it was in the theaters. And, of course, like everyone else in the world, I’d never even heard of Maria Schneider.
Last Tango was given a prestige release when it finally arrived. Tickets—available only by mail-order—ran a scandalous five bucks a pop. In Houston’s Bellaire Theater on opening night, I plopped down in my reserved seat only to notice that the head directly in front of me was topped by a familiar snow-white toupee. It belonged to Marvin Zindler, the obnoxious consumer-affairs reporter for a local TV station; Zindler, who had a foghorn for a voice, ended every report by booming into his microphone “MAR-R-R-VIN ZIND-LER! EYE-WIT-NESS NEWS!” The presence of Zindler, a well-known do-gooder and spoilsport, had people eying the exits, wondering if they were about to be swept up in a vice raid; in just a few months he’d make such a public fuss about La Grange’s “Chicken Ranch”—a/k/a The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas—that it would have to shutter its doors after 60 years of business.
Last Tango is often called an “erotic” movie, but there’s really only one stretch of it that I’d call sexy: the 15-minute long scene which Schneider plays wearing only a pair of jeans. With a post-coital mood hovering over them like a cloud, it’s the closest Paul and Jeanne come to acting like a normal couple, one whose relationship doesn’t feel driven by Paul’s rage. As Jeanne prowls the darkened living room, Paul plays a harmonica and tells a story—perhaps from Brando’s actual past—about getting cow-shit on his shoes. Jeanne chides him for talking about himself, and the teasing leads to their X-rated spoof of Little Red Riding Hood. Suddenly Paul remembers his dead wife and, disengaging, moves to another room; left alone, Jeanne masturbates and, weakened after she comes, pulls herself by inches up the wall. With her back to the camera, her arms stretched apart and her jeans just hanging from her hips, she looks like Fay Wray tied to the altar on Skull Island—a slave-girl waiting to be sacrificed.
Well, here we are in 2011, and Maria Schneider died a couple weeks ago, at 58. Her obituaries dutifully recounted her troubling relationships with Bertolucci and Brando, her resentment over being pigeon-holed as a sex kitten, her breakdown and drug abuse and the girlfriend-in-the-asylum mess. (Google the details if you must, but none of them are as interesting as the movie is.) Only one obit bothered to mention that she was any good in Last Tango, though it stopped well short of pointing out how she held her own against the acting phenomenon of her time, when he was twice her age and giving the performance of his career, or that she did it in the face of Bertolucci’s mind-games and while playing a third of her scenes fully nude. She was also all of 20 years old at the time. Finally, as if to add insult to, well, death, God thought it’d be funny to take, exactly one day later, the life of Lena Nyman, the star of Curious (Yellow), again yoking Schneider to the image of a date-stamped sex-object, which is the lasting impression of a world that never really bothered to look at her (or Nyman) in the first place.
I won’t try to kid you: for the longest time I was one of those people, mainly because I may be the only person on Earth who was more screwed up by Last Tango in Paris than Maria Schneider. Social Conservatives have a suspect reason for everything they do in their lives, up to and including brushing their teeth in the morning, but they come closest to making sense when talking about the need for two stable role models in a family. The number isn’t important, of course: one will do fine, just so long as that one person is sane. But when you come from a family whose every suppertime is like the third act of a Eugene O’Neill play, and your only parent has deeply, deeply ambivalent feelings about love and sex and the opposite gender—well, that shit tends to rub off on you. By the time I saw Brando screwing a ridiculously sexy Schneider before speaking a word to her, I knew so little about women and the world and I’d had so few sexual experiences that I naturally supposed that meet-cutes like Paul and Jeanne’s were the stuff of everyday life. I didn’t see Paul as a man agonized by his wife’s suicide when he abused Jeanne during their dusky afternoons together. I thought most everything he did—the callous jokes, the rough sex, the willful comings and goings—just a slight exaggeration of the things any man might do while courting a woman, and (and this is the kicker) that these were all things women secretly want, or at least secretly expect, their men to provide.
I won’t go into all the gory details; let’s just say it was a case of world-class cluelessness, and a disastrous way to go. It pretty much ruined me in my 20s and early 30s, as one failed relationship led to another drunken binge to another failed relationship, and some of the collateral damage—meaning most of the women I dated or lived with back then—won’t speak to me to this day. Why I had to choose Last Tango over any stray episode of McMillan and Wife is a question that’s long plagued me; all I can say now is that it’s what seemed most “adult” at the time, and if I’d come of age in ’85 I probably would’ve taken my sexual cues from Frank Booth.
What I do know is that no other work of art in the history of time had its way with me the way Last Tango in Paris did. It’s always been easy for me to see Brando’s part in all this; I just hope the fact that it took Schneider’s death for me to finally take a real look at her is a symbol of only limited meaning. Near the end of Last Tango Jean-Pierre Léaud, playing her boyfriend, drapes a ship’s lifesaver around her waist and proposes marriage to her—a union that would almost certainly be doomed by his cinema-fueled fantasy world. The couple banters the question back and forth in an almost bickering tone before Jeanne accepts, then she petulantly throws the lifesaver into a nearby canal. The legend on it reads “L’Atalante”—another in-joke, the title of Jean Vigo’s tribute to enduring love—but we barely have time to read the word before the lifesaver sinks like a rock.