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How Last Tango in Paris Defined the Gay-Straight Sexual Revolution 

How Last Tango in Paris Defined the Gay-Straight Sexual Revolution


In defense of a sexual moral masterpiece.

All the dimwits of Movieland are coming out of the woodwork to trample Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando whose 1972 film Last Tango in Paris is an unparalleled masterpiece but now has fallen victim to the millennium's nitwit political correctness.

The P.C. mob is sharpening its pitchforks in response to a recent interview in which Bertolucci (age 75) openly reminisced about his career, including some regrets such as when he surprised Maria Schneider, the female co-star of Last Tango, in order to obtain her memorable performance. In one moment of that largely improvised film, Bertolucci and Brando simulated a rear-end sexual act ("Get the butter" Brando famously called for lubricant). Schneider, a fully cooperative participant in the production, acted the role of a cheated partner who soon after gets her revenge. (Our homophobic media ignores the subsequent scenes where Schneider gives Brando an electric shock then fingers his anus.)

It is a sad sign of these times, in which college students protest for "safe spaces" and university administrators give in to closed-mindedness rather than respect the root meaning of the word "education" (to lead "out"). Fake outrage over Last Tango stays deliberately ignorant of the film's virtues. Ignorant of the dramatic context of the controversial scene, ignorant of that movie's historic significance.

And it's doubtful if the stone-throwing Ava DuVernay, Chris Evans, Jessica Chastain, and other self-righteous halfwits have ever actually seen the movie or appreciated its daring or its greatness. Certainly DuVernay, Evans, and Chastain have never made a film that equals Last Tango.

Have you, dear Out readers, seen Last Tango in Paris? It should be Film 101 for anyone reading this column. Bertolucci's film is one of the landmarks of sexual expression in Western culture. Its original story of a distraught American widower, Paul (played by Brando) who initiates a sex-only affair with a young Parisian woman, Jeanne (Schneider), was the most daring cinematic achievement of the sexual revolution. Paul and Jeanne agree to meet in an empty Paris flat and fuck. They follow one rule: "We don't need names here!"

This premise dramatized both female and male sexual liberation. Paul and Jeanne demonstrate what academics call "agency." So did Schneider and Brando (who brings his bisexual magnetism to the role). Under Bertolucci's guidance, they explored the physical and emotional extent of sexual license. As the storyline developed, down-and-dirty impulses give way to romanticism, then become conflicted with social propriety. The film is aesthetically sensual but it is also a moral critique: What happens when people give in to their libidos? Can it ever be separated from their personas?

Bertolucci deserves ever-lasting gratitude for pursuing those questions. (Upon the film's premiere, Robert Altman exclaimed to Newsweek magazine, "What do the rest of us [filmmakers] think we're doing?")

Only great movies rouse condemnation (while meaningless garbage routinely wins praise and awards). Last Tango's first controversy started with Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman's assertion that Bertolucci had made a covertly homosexual film (an allegation explored by scholar Will Aitken). This was authentically part of the sexual revolution debate. It bears upon the sophistication that Bertolucci has displayed throughout his career in films that understand the spectrum of hetero- and homo- attraction and experience (Before the Revolution, The Conformist, The Last Emperor, You and I).

Paul and Jeanne's foolishly guilt-free sexcapades undeniably resembled the libertine exploits that gay men enjoyed pre-AIDS. And gay viewers should appreciate the humanism in Bertolucci's middle-class tale. It is the universal inability to divorce identity and human obligation from sexual hook-ups that lead to Last Tango's devastating tragic climax. The film was rated X for a reason now lost to our craven film culture--Last Tango is cautionary, not a movie for children or for childish adults. It's intended for open-minded audiences, gay and straight, who are willing to acknowledge their own awareness of the emotional risk taken by fuck buddies.

In some strange millennial joke, today's "feminists" who attack Bertolucci and Brando are unable--and unwilling--to appreciate the honesty of Last Tango's insight. This is the key reason why Bertolucci and Brando's artistry must be defended against those prigs who argue "feminism" simply to control thought, limit emotion, and censor free expression. Last Tango recognizes the irony of liberated man at the end of his tether--of sex that abuses oneself. Neither Paul nor Jeanne are blameless, the film's narrative forces them (and us) to realize the consequence of the mutual dehumanization that sex radicals are reluctant to admit.

It is ridiculous to accuse Bertolucci and Brando of "rape." Schneider herself never made that claim. The "act" was just that, an act. Not literal abuse. Certainly, violence is indefensible, but it seems we have entered an era when art is looked upon childishly--as a safe space, with no awareness that creativity and showbiz can be impolite. (Hollywood's casting couch continues to exploit men, women, and children.) We may be living in the "innocuous" Pixar age, but Last Tango is not a movie for children or for frail and dishonest sensibilities. It advances on the risks of the gay filmmakers who influenced Bertolucci--Visconti, Pasolini, Cukor, Minnelli--and cinema's other giants, such as Griffith, Dreyer, Von Sternberg, Ophuls, Truffaut, Godard, and even that die-hard hetero pimp Ingmar Bergman, who ventured the depths of sexual and spiritual experience. None of those masters had to contend with the censorship seen in recent castigations of male artists under the pretense of protecting female sanctity. But in this climate we can expect them all to be pilloried eventually.

How fascistic has Political Correctness become? It besmirches Bertolucci and Brando and it won't even allow Maria Schneider her own agency, even in death. An irresponsible fake-news article contended that the "butter" scene drove Schneider to drugs yet never mentioned Schneider's own selfhood, the fact that she recovered from her addiction, went on to make such superb films as The Passenger and Cyril Collard's gay classic Savage Nights and faced the end of her life as a helpful companion to the cinematic genius Michelangelo Antonioni.

Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960) was the greatest film of the European tradition that explored sexuality in moral terms. L'Avventura's motto, "Eros is Sick," is repeated in the way Paul inflicts his spiritual crisis upon Jeanne who lacks moral roots yet displays the murderous reflex of privileged bourgeois elites. In the most famous movie review of all time, Pauline Kael characterized Jeanne insightfully: "These girls know how to take care of themselves; they know who No. 1 is. Brando's Paul, the essentially naive outsider, the romantic, is no match for a French bourgeois girl."

In 2016, Jeanne's privilege has become an onerous political tool, favored by the new cultural fascists. Accusations of rape and male aggression have become routine in attacks on masculinity and patriarchy that criminalize everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Bill Cosby and now Bertolucci and Brando.

It is appalling that Political Correctness prevents people from understanding the depth and complexity of challenging art like Last Tango in Paris. Kael predicted that Last Tango would be "argued about for as long as there are movies," but could she could have imagined today's fascist repression? This film makes the sexually ambivalent Bertolucci and Brando more than gay allies, but among the boldest, most humane artists in movie history.

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Armond White