by Chris Culler
I fell in love with Last Tango in Paris in the summer of 1973 when I was 20 years old. But now, decades later, I’m sorry to say I’ve fallen out of love with the film much as one eventually discovers that Old Spice aftershave (and the guy who wore it) wasn’t that cool after all.
The framed poster of the film once hung on the wall of my trailer office when I worked as a story analyst on the 20th Century Fox lot: Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in soft focus, seated facing one another, nude from the waist up. Now it’s propped behind a door in my home office in Venice, an artifact from when crazed, unhinged love was accompanied by a state of denial. This may sound excessively dramatic, but then so was how Last Tango in Paris affected my life at that time.
It was the early 1970s and the sexual revolution was in full swing. I was immersed in improvisational theatre, first at the Jean Cocteau Repertory in New York’s East Village and also as a UCLA theatre major. I’d read Pauline Kael’s rhapsodic review of Last Tango in the October 28, 1972 issue of The New Yorker, in which she lauded its debut as “a landmark in movie history” and spoke of it as “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made.” Youthfully self-centered, I perceived Bernardo Bertolucci’s film as a mirror of my own political awakening.
The impassioned wail of Gato Barbieri’s saxophone over the rapturous colors of late afternoon light as Brando heads toward his destiny in that empty Paris apartment roars in my memory. Brando’s character Paul first meets and then has sex with Schneider’s Jeanne when both are looking to rent the apartment; they begin a three-day affair intending to share no names or personal history — an arrangement that rejects all the conventional trappings of society (even furniture!). I loved the idea of a pick-up and move-on relationship existing solely within an empty apartment: No excess baggage, like Holly Golightly, until you realize your cat needs a home.
While both characters intrigued me, it was Jeanne who mesmerized: Chic, sensual, curious, she radiated a Parisian confidence that went beyond her sexuality; she was a cultural force. When Paul pursues her to the tango dance hall and she finally dispatches him with a single gunshot, I perceived her as invincible.
I too was invincible, or so I thought. Sexual liberation was an elemental part of “second wave feminism” and, like Jeanne, I thought I could take the heat. With Tango in my consciousness, I returned to my junior year at UCLA Theatre Arts Department to act in the kind of experimental plays that had the same “structure that supports improvisation,” to which Kael referred.
I rolled on the floor with my co-star in Sam Shepherd’s Cowboy Mouth and disrobed in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. I also indulged in a romanticized view of empty apartments, moving into an art deco building in Hollywood named “Cinderella Apartments,” then later to a couple of odd charmers in San Francisco. My pursuit of unencumbered romantic liaisons wasn’t quite as fulfilling as I’d hoped, however, and one can get fired up on Barbieri’s music from the soundtrack only so many times before it wears on one’s sense of well-being, let alone stability.
Out in the real world auditioning, I began critiquing the roles I read for, thinking, “If you do not control the narrative, you’re being objectified.” When I lost my car keys en route to an audition, it became apparent that “I just wasn’t all that into it.” And so, after attending the American Film Institute and studying screenwriting, I segued into story analysis, first at CAA and later for the studios, primarily Fox.
Viewing Last Tango’s plot now as a story analyst, I noticed not only the central characters’ age difference but unresolved scenes about male domination. When I learned Bertolucci and Brando conspired to surprise and humiliate Schneider during the simulated “butter” rape sequence that would later become a cultural punchline, I realized that this wasn’t art, it was abuse of an actor who was bravely taking risks.
“Time’s Up,” we now say, and with good reason. We are undergoing a collective awakening, overdue for decades. Participating as a reader in the shaping of scripts, I’ve come to see the stories we tell each other in a new light: “Rapey” might be applied to what was formerly considered romantic, and “stalking” seems a more apt description when a romantic interest is relentlessly pursued.
Last Tango in Paris was a lushly beautiful, groundbreaking, ultimately misguided film belonging to another era. As for me, my days of improvisational theatre have drifted well into the past and I’m settled into my home in Venice with my beloved husband, furniture and a cat.
And I’m thinking about putting my poster of the film up for sale on eBay. Wonder if I’ll get any takers?