Bernardo Bertolucci made many films, but only once in a long career was his art perfectly in tune with the cultural moment. The early Seventies was the heyday of cinema porn. Not porn films, which is (or was) a specialized genre. But films about sex and with extensive nudity that played your local fleapit as if they were no different from Herbie Gets Rear-Ended or whatever Disney was making back then. The breakout title was the Swedish hit I Am Curious (Yellow), in the wake of which came more films for the curious - Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones - until it all more or less petered away in an Emmanuelle sequel too far: Emmanuelle, Emmanuelle 2, Emmanuelle In Paris, Emmanuelle In Bangkok, Emmanuelle In Shawinigan, etc. And suddenly cinematic sex, like so much real sex, was over almost as soon as it had begun, and the suburban porn movie was as obsolete a genre as silent comedy or singing-cowboy flicks. Now, instead of the good old days of community porn on Main Street, it's a participation sport on the Internet. A decade ago, Larry Flynt was reduced to applying to Washington for a federal bailout for the "adult entertainment industry": like the banks and auto-makers, it was supposed to be too big to fail, but then came the massive downturn, which is one thing you don't want to see in an "adult" film.
The apotheosis of the phenomenon came in 1972 when suburban couples lined up to see Marlon Brando bark "Go get the butter!" and then went to the local Italian to discuss the scene over spaghetti Bolognaise with complimentary roll and, er, butter. Last Tango in Paris arose from a bog-standard male fantasy: Bernardo Bertolucci passed a girl on the street and wondered what it would be like to pick her up and have sex with her without knowing a single thing about her. In Last Tango the protagonists take it to the next level: through an accidental encounter at a flat for rent in Passy, in the seiziÃ¨me arrondissement, they agree to set up a love-nest without love, without knowledge of the most basic facts - tastes, interests, jobs, marital status, even names.
"But why?" wonders Maria Schneider, reasonably enough.
"Because we don't need names!" snaps Brando. As he later puts it, "Everything outside this place is bullsh*t."
In fact, their monikers are Paul and Jeanne. And, actually, names are quite important. It's why Last Tango in Paris is art - or at any rate "art" - and Debbie Does Dallas isn't. I've no idea what Debbie does when she isn't doing Dallas but I'd wager it isn't tangoing. Paris' eponymous tango is only tangential, and is engaged in ineptly and disruptively by Brando and Schneider toward the end. But the title is important because it gives the picture an air of sophistication and profundity. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker pronounced it a "movie breakthrough" whose American opening date would become "a landmark in movie 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.
In turn, Roger Ebert of "Siskel & Ebert" pronounced Miss Kael's rave a breakthrough of its own - "the most famous movie review ever published".
Forty-six years on, it doesn't feel that way. The face of the art form has altered in somewhat unexpected and CGI-generated ways: superheroes, propagandist animation, hit franchises remade as Lego movies. (I would not be averse to a Lego remake of Last Tango in Paris, although you'd probably need a lot more butter.) Viewed from today, parts of Tango seem like parodic Brando: A great Broadway actor in his youth, he was by this point long past the stage in his career where he could be bothered learning the script, preferring to read his lines from cue cards positioned hither and yon around the set. Thus, following his wife's suicide, Paul delivers a long monologue over her corpse and you notice that his eyes keep sweeping heavenward - because the dialogue cards were taped to the ceiling. Indeed, he rarely meets your eye during the entire picture. It's said that during the, ahem, most notorious scene he demanded that Bertolucci have his lines written out on Maria Schneider's bottom, which would have been a rare example in a two-hour film of Brando's eyes pointing in the direction a reasonable person would expect them to be. Then there are the lethargic single shots in which he mumbles his way through barnyard anecdotes from his boyhood in a "farming community" back in America, and whose leisurely recollection provide as plausible a reason as any as to why his missus might be driven to slit her wrists.
Miss Kael was wrong: Last Tango did not remake the art form. In fact, the picture would be unmakeable today, if just for the scene in which Maria Schneider's Jeanne catches the neighborhood Arab boys defecating in her garden and shoos them away with "Go and sh*t in your own country!" That's not what the film is "about", of course, but precisely for that reason the line stands out if only as a reminder of how thoroughly airbrushed in every aspect today's movie scripts are. Last Tango is compulsive and mesmerizing as a skillful treatment of a trite theme: When Bernardo Bertolucci sees a girl on the street and fantasizes about an entirely anonymous sexual relationship with her, he does so as an A-list film director with a rich and full life; he is so to speak turned on by the thought of a short vacation in emptiness. By contrast, Brando's character leads a life thoroughly emptied: He has left America far behind, and married a French woman. But he has not made a home with her. Instead, they live in her parents' hotel where he serves as manager for a flophouse full of seedy transients, some of whom rent by the half-hour. One of them is his wife's lover. She insists both men wear the same pajamas and dressing gowns, as if to render them literally indistinguishable.
In the emptiness of his friendless loveless lifeless life, why wouldn't anonymous sex be the most fulfilling and rewarding relationship in it? Curiously, for a man with nothing approaching a home life, the sex is oddly homely, prefaced by weirdly domestic injunctions - not just the demand for butter as a lubricant for the sodomy, but the preparatory instruction, for a somewhat, um, reciprocal scene later in the picture, that Jeanne clip her finger nails.
Bertolucci films all this quite brilliantly - the apparently spontaneous embracing and writhing on the floor of the apartment, in which Brando's foot can nevertheless be seen purposefully sliding the pack of butter along the boards to within his reach. Of course, back in the real world, a fifty-year-old friendless rooming-house manager would not be Marlon Brando but a dingy schlub, and surely of doubtful appeal to a free-spirited nineteen-year-old Parisienne such as Maria Schneider. But that's just the way it is in movies, isn't it? Thus, Miss Schneider spends a lot of the non-sex scenes just standing around naked, while Marlon's one nude scene was cut because, as he recounted in his autobiography, the apartment was very cold and "my body went into full retreat" - ie, in significant aspects, he was reduced to a bit part. As a major American star lending his luster to arthouse porn, he called his shots, and his co-star had to do as told.
And so, when Bertolucci casually revealed a few years back that for the rape scene he hadn't told his leading lady about the butter until just before the shooting because "I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress", he gave his disclosure no more thought than any other showbiz anecdote - because, after all, great directors have manipulated the best performance out of their starlets since the dawn of film: Here, for example, the late Hugh Martin recalls to me Vincente Minnelli telling little Margaret O'Brien, just before shooting "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in Meet Me In St Louis, that her dog had been run over - because, to coin a phrase, he "wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress". Notwithstanding some of the Chinese whispers of the Internet, Brando did not actually rape Miss Schneider, but Bertolucci certainly determined to give her the feeling of having been raped as a necessary condition of the scene's verisimilitude.
And thus Pauline Kael's landmark breakthrough art-form-remaker is now a #MeToo hate-crime. When Bertolucci died last week, NPR film critic David Edelstein posted a still of the famous scene accompanied by the comment "Even grief is better with butter" - meaning, I suppose, that, just as the cinema is mourning Bertolucci, so Brando's character is mourning his late wife at the time he embarks on his frenzied rutting with Miss Schneider. The actress Martha Plimpton did not take kindly to this observation and called on NPR to "fire him. Immediately." Which they did. I never thought Edelstein was much of a critic but The New York Times, Slate and Esquire all did, and suddenly his life's work - thirty years of utterly conventional liberal views - has been vaporized by six words.
Poor chap. For decades after Last Tango, Marlon Brando butter jokes were part of the pop-culture vocabulary. I essayed one myself back in March 2001, when it was revealed that Brando and Jack Nicholson had moved in together. So I did a whimsical column for the Telegraph speculating on their home life:
Funnily enough, when I swung by their pad on Mulholland Drive the other day, the first thing I heard was Marlon yelling 'Go get the butter!', this time at Jack.
The colour drained from Jack's cheeks, until he remembered that it was his turn to do the weekly shop at Price-Chopper. 'Oh, right, sure,' he said. 'Hey, wait a minute, you know what your doctor said...'
'Okay,' yelled Marlon from the top of the stairs. 'Get the I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! And grab some more beer while you're at it.'
'No problem. Couple of cases of Bud.'
'Not Budweiser!' he shouted. 'STELLAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!'
Jack rolled his eyes. 'Whatever,' he said. 'What are you cooking for dinner tonight?'
'Liver and onions.'
'You know I don't eat offal,' Jack replied, tetchily.
'I'm going to make you an offal you can't refuse,' said Marlon, with a hint of menace.
Etc. Unlike yours truly, the unfortunate Edelstein assuredly dotes on Pauline Kael, and Miss Kael's "most famous movie review" called it "the most liberating movie ever made", and it's so liberating that liberated movie actresses feel sufficiently liberated to call on liberated public broadcasting execs to liberate liberated film critics from gainful employment now and forever just for alluding to its most famous scene.
Of course, Bertolucci did exploit and manipulate his teenage actress. She had a rough time coping with global fame, lurched through years of drug abuse and suicide attempts, and never again did anything that came close to the success of her breakthrough role in the four decades between her engaging, numinous turn in Last Tango and her death from breast cancer at the age of fifty-eight. In light of the foregoing, Tango's sub-plot seems more relevant than it ever did in 1972: In her life away from Paul, Jeanne is dating a rather insipid lad who fancies himself a film director with her as his muse; he films her incessantly, and she complains that she's being exploited. And, for all the obvious warmth and affection of the post-sodomy scene, one notes, too, the moment when Paul, in a romantic onrush on the old pont de Passy, discloses to Jeanne all the pertinent facts of his non-life and suddenly the seductive ambiguity of anonymity curdles and dies and she sees him for what he is: an old flabby seamy loser going nowhere. And the course is set for the movie's bleak finale.
It is, to that degree, a serious film of a kind increasingly impossible in an age of strict ideological enforcement. "Growing old is a crime," says Jeanne with all the confidence of youth. But what happens when "the most powerfully erotic movie ever made" grows old and finds itself as out of favor as Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald were with Pauline Kael? Our pop culture is one of unbounded self-identification: You can be gay, bi, trans, non-binary to your heart's content, but in a paradoxically puritan and ever more de-sexualized and demure way; these days, butter wouldn't melt between your cheeks.
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