A film review by Craig J. Koban



35th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1972, originally rated X, re-rated NC-17, 129 mins.

Paul: Marlon Brando / Jeanne: Maria Schneider / Tom: Jean Pierre Leaud

Written and directed by Bernado Bertolucci


July 2, 2004

I have been often asked, “What is the best performance that you have ever seen in a film?”

 I never hesitate by replying, “Without a doubt, Marlon Brando in LAST TANGO IN PARIS.” 

Sure, he is much more remembered for his performance in 1972’S THE GODFATHER and made a name for himself in ON THE WATERFRONT and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, but TANGO is his finest, most assured, confident, risky, and emotionally and sexually charged performance of his career.  He makes it absolutely clear in this film why he was the best and most influential actor of the last six decades.   

Brando died on Thursday, July 1 at the age of 80 of apparent lung failure.  It’s a crying shame that he left this life as one of the biggest enigmas in cinema.  He died as an arrogant, free-spirited, eccentric man whose own emotional excess matched his physical ones.  Watching him in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and later seeing him degenerate into a series of health and weight problems, it’s amazing that Brando was that same raw, physical and energetic specimen that he was when he started his career.  It’s regrettable that he was the butt of bad jokes during his remaining few years and not more readily regarded as the single greatest actor in the history of the art form.  His breakthroughs with Method Acting were copied by thousands of other actors: Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt…the list could go on forever. 

All modern actors owe Brando a huge debt. 

He was also of huge influence and importance in being a catalyst for the success of the some of the greatest and most important films of all-time.  Of course, he did make duds, but there is no denying the energy, vitality, and vigor that went into his best work.  He lived as a “wild one,” a “contender,” and most surely he died a legend. 

In a recent PREMIERE poll, it was his DON CORLEONE from the original GODFATHER that was graded as the best film character ever.  No doubt, it was one of Brando’s greatest parts and will clearly live on in the minds cinemaphiles around the world.  But, that’s not his best work, in my mind.  I prefer his work in Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial LAST TANGO IN PARIS.  The film is all about emotion and need, and only Brando was bold enough, daring enough, and talented enough to play the lead. 

LAST TANGO IN PARIS premiered on October 14, 1972 and was immediately deemed as shocking as it was controversial.  Originally Rated X (before the porn industry took off with the rating and turned it into what it is today) TANGO represented a triumph and not, as critic Pauline Kael once wrote, a “revolution” of the art form.  Clearly, the film was a huge step forward for art house cinema and very few “mainstream films” dared to be as frank in its sexuality and as explicit.  Yet, TANGO did not lead to a new revolution in adult cinema, as films within the next five years lead to the domination of the big, event blockbusters aimed at youth that is still felt today.  Sure, films in the last 30 years had sex in them, but they were not as raw at their core.  Besides, TANGO is not a film about sex (often, the sex in it is quite joyless), it’s really about the hunger of human need and confused and tortured people caught in a web of sexual aggression. 

Brando plays Paul, a middle-aged American living in Paris whose wife has just committed suicide.  Paul hopes to break free from his run down hotel that he lives in.  He locates an apartment not far from the Eiffel Tower.  It is here where he meets a twenty-year-old French girl named Jeanne (Maria Schneider).  Jeanne is also looking for an apartment that she is hoping of acquiring before she is to be wed in a week’s time.  Within minutes of their meeting, Paul seduces the young Jeanne.  He subsequently tells her to meet him in the apartment from now on, and she agrees. 

The two continue to meet.  Paul, interestingly enough, insists that they do not exchange their names, information about themselves, and anything else pertinent about the outside world.  The apartment is to be their conduit away from the hostilities and problems of the outside world.  Paul, in this way, is the architect of a sort of artificial sexual environment in which just about anything goes.  To Paul, the empty apartment becomes their liberation from the world.  Even learning their respective names could taint that. 

They continue to meet for the next three days and have sex, often.  But it’s not the type of glorified and “fun” sex that seems to be the staple of modern films.  The sex in this film is rigidly depersonalized, often to the point of being self-inflicted torture.  Paul is a character that is such a wounded soul and feels so brutalized and beat up by a world that he feels is uncaring, his only possible outlet for emotional escape is the type of depraved and demoralized sex that he has with Jeanne.  He is so filled with a type of nagging guilt and hatred of himself and the world; this only helps to damage him, in a way. 

The film is intensely erotic and emotionally charged.  It also feels realistic.  Burtolucci wrote a full script, but to keep things spontaneous and real, he enlisted Brando for his “interpretation” of the part.  Whereas most directors have gone insane in the past with Brando’s troubling work methods (see Francis Ford Coppola in APOCALYPSE NOW) Burtolucci was absolutely fascinated by the way Brando asked probing questions about his character and the meaning behind various lines and motives.  The film went into a huge period of editing, because it was largely improvised.  This, I think, gives TANGO its intense veracity emotional resonance. 

That’s really the point of TANGO.  It’s not about sex and lots of explicitly shown sex.  Its about human needs and emotion, most of which are of the brutal and vulnerable kind.  It’s brutal because of the way Paul uses crude sex with Jeanne as a way to fulfill his needs, and it’s vulnerable in the sense that, basically - deep down inside - Paul is really just crying out for help.  Paul’s existence, it seems, is one big emotional outcry for need, companionship, and appreciation.  These are universal constructs. 

Brando has never, ever been better than he was in TANGO.  I have yet to see another actor so completely merge with his on-screen persona and own the role so completely as he does here (only Robert DeNiro in RAGING BULL comes to mind).    Brando is such a raw emotional and physical force in this film.  You really have to look at the performance in context - what other actor of this time would have taking such a daring, no-holds-barred, and risky performance and make it work as triumphantly as he did?  Hell, the sheer sexual frankness of the film would scare off even modern film actors, but not Brando.  There is such a rich dichotomy in his work here.  Paul is capable of being reserved, emotionally lethargic and introverted, and soft-spoken.  He is also capable of being brash, funny, rude, crude, foul mouthed, and verbally abusive in his sometimes sudden and powerful emotional outbursts. 

If you want to see what great acting is, the look no further than a scene three quarters of the way through TANGO where Brando comes back to the hotel to confront his wife’s dead body.  The scene begins quietly and discreetly and slowly builds and builds and builds until Paul gushes out at his dead wife in one of the most moving and emotional speeches in the history of film.  As his wife is laid out in the casket, surrounded by flowers, Paul unloads on her with a thunderstorm of insults and words that are of the most vile and crude.  I have never sensed such intense loathing, hatred, guilt, and self-condemnation in a scene by an actor.  When Paul eventually breaks down, we break down with him.   It is this scene that shows us why Brando is the greatest actor of all time.  No one else could have pulled it off. 

Is LAST TANGO IN PARIS Brando’s best film?  Probably not.  Does it contain his best performance?  Unequivocally.  If Brando’s importance and huge impact on cinema has any weight, then you really have to look no further than TANGO.  The film is the culmination of everything Brando brought to the film world and inspired countless others to emulate and copy.  In TANGO, as he did with his earliest work, Brando is able to completely break some sort of emotional wall that many actors never even dreamed of.  He did not invent Method Acting, but reinvented it for modern actors.  He systematically deconstructed decades of wooden screen mannerisms and channeled out a fresh, alert, quirky, and spontaneous acting style.  Looking at films after 1950, it's painfully obvious to see his legacy on the acting world.  It's funny, but for a man that gained a ridiculous amount of weight in his later years, who shunned the Oscars, and whose personal eccentricities outweighed his enigmatic presence, Brando still died the greatest of all film actors, and LAST TANGO IN PARIS reveals him at the top of his form.










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