Oscar-Winning Director Bernardo Bertolucci Dead At 77

Bernardo Bertolucci
Ernesto S. Ruscio / Getty Images

Bernardo Bertolucci, the Oscar-winning director of The Last Emperor, has died at age 77 after a short battle with lung cancer, according to CNN.

Bertolucci, the son of a film critic who seemed destined to become a filmmaker from an early age, began working professionally in film by age 20 and released his directorial debut The Grim Reaper at the tender age of 21. Bertolucci burst onto the international scene in 1970 with the now-classic The Conformist, and two years later rocked the world with the controversially steamy Last Tango In Paris.

Last Tango In Paris, which starred Marlon Brando and is now considered a landmark achievement in cinema history, was lambasted at the time for its graphic sexuality. Brando and Bertolucci came under fire after co-star Maria Schneider, who was only 19 at the time, revealed that she had not been told of some of the film’s more shocking moments before the scenes were played and that her honest reactions in those scenes were from what amounted to sexual assault rather than brilliant acting, according to The New Yorker. It was a trick used by many directors before and since, but Bertolucci’s judgment in this case was called into question. Schneider lapsed into suicidal drug addiction shortly after the film and suffered a nervous breakdown. The Italian government went so far as to condemn the film to be destroyed and took harsh measures to punish Bertolucci for his daring transgressions.

“I felt prosecuted by censorship,” Bertolucci said about those events. “It was kind of a sign of the times, it was still an Italy where the reaction forces were… much stronger than the progressive forces. The most humiliating thing… I discovered I lost my civil rights for five years. I couldn’t vote. It was one of the worst moments in my relationship with my country.”

Bertolucci would overcome those troubled times to lead one of the all-time greatest Oscar sweeps with the 1987 film The Last Emperor, starring Peter O’Toole and a young Joan Chen. The sprawling epic covering the final days of the last Chinese dynastic empire was renowned for securing permission to shoot on location in China’s Forbidden City. The Last Emperor swept nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, Best Editing, and Best Original Score.

Bertolucci would go on to make a number of art house films including The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha, Stealing Beauty, and The Dreamers.

Writing of Bertolucci’s work in his book The Director’s Vision, Geoff Andrew writes that Last Tango In Paris “typifies Bertolucci’s work in its focus on the conflict between conformism and rebellion, on destructive, damaged, and even Oedipal relationships and on tensions between past, present, and future. At the same time, the ballroom scene displays his tendency to flamboyant stylistic flourishes.”