Love And Respect, Hollywood-Style

  • Give a man an Oscar, and he turns into Sally Field. He may be a European intellectual full of skeptical opinions about the cultural imperialism of American movies. His film may have been snubbed by several Hollywood studios and mishandled by the company that finally distributed it. But hand him a gold-plated statuette in front of a billion people, and he finds heroic resources of good feeling. Just ask Bernardo Bertolucci. "It's incredible," the Italian filmmaker, 47, geysered the day after his The Last Emperor swept the Oscar ceremony. "First it was one award, then two, three, four, five, six-seven-eight-nine! It went beyond the individuals who won. I realized it was the movie itself. The movie was loved!"

    Were the Oscar voters telling The Last Emperor's director that they loved the movie, they really loved it? Surely there were waves of affection breaking over the winners of the acting prizes: Cher (Moonstruck), Michael Douglas (Wall Street), Sean Connery (The Untouchables) and Olympia Dukakis (Moonstruck). But The Last Emperor, with its stern, sumptuous sprawl, more likely earned a decorous, distanced respect in a slim year. The other nominees for Best Picture were three comedies and one high-tech yuppie horror movie -- not the Academy's favorite genres. By contrast, Bertolucci's true-life fable of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, China's last monarch, had all the familiar Academy-epic goods. It rips turbulent drama from the back pages of a high school history book. It serves up an opulent visual sensibility amid exotic locales. And it concludes with a humanism that affirms both continuity and change for the family of man. Can't-miss stuff. Lawrence of Arabia with a Manchurian accent.

    The burghers of Hollywood, however, were not initially impressed. Producer Jeremy Thomas had to raise his $23.8 million budget independently, while Bertolucci secured precedent-setting rights to film in the Forbidden City. Only after shooting did David Puttnam, head of Columbia Pictures, agree to distribute Emperor in America. Before the film was released, Puttnam resigned under fire, and the new administration has treated its gift horse like a Trojan horse. Even now the film is playing in only 882 North American theaters.

    By Hollywood standards, The Last Emperor is a supremely daring film. Instead of following the normal emotional trajectory of movie epics -- struggle, triumph, despair, reconciliation -- Bertolucci's film runs a slalom course of disillusionment. In worldly or heroic terms, Pu Yi attains nothing. He loses his power, then his title, then his freedom. Nor is Pu Yi personally attractive; he can be both toady and bully. "He's not a sympathetic character," says Screenwriter Mark Peploe, who is Bertolucci's brother-in- law. "I resisted even trying to understand him when I wrote the script." But any alert viewer can understand the wrenching dislocation of a child who is virtually kidnaped into royalty, raised by thieving eunuchs and condemned to a sham monarchy in a lifelong series of ever smaller Chinese puzzle boxes. The Last Emperor is a metaphor for the prisons we are born in and the prisons we create for ourselves.

    European filmmakers often view Hollywood as an artistic Alcatraz where slaves to convention are blinkered from the ferment of the outside world. In the '60s, as a prodigy auteur with the smartest, most restless camera style in the business, Bertolucci was a charter member of the first generation of directors who were bred to break the rules of narrative film. Before the Revolution (1964) and The Conformist (1970) swooned with infatuation for radical politics and complex storytelling. With Last Tango in Paris (1972), Bertolucci looked to have conquered Hollywood on his own terms. Its desperate, soft-core sex and the voluptuous rankness of Marlon Brando's monologues stirred scandal wherever it played. While an Italian court was convicting Bertolucci, Brando and Co-Star Maria Schneider of obscenity, Tango was breaking U.S. box-office records for a foreign-language film.

    "If New York is the Big Apple," Bertolucci said on Oscar night, "then Hollywood is the Big Nipple." He meant that American movies have nurtured filmmakers worldwide, even those who view it with reservations. The director always had a Hollywood-size appetite for the epic, with Gone With the Wind as the main course. His tidiest, loveliest film, The Spider's Stratagem (1970), is set in an Italian town called Tara; his most ambitious work, 1900 (1976), is a folk epic spanning 70 years of Italian history -- a Gone With the Wind gone red. Red ink too: the film, cut from 5 1/2 to 4 hours, sank quickly. It took The Last Emperor to reconcile Bertolucci's art and his craftiness, his mandarin aesthetics and his hunger for popular success.

    "Bernardo was always in love with Hollywood," notes Production Designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who worked on Last Tango and Last Emperor. "But before, it was a love-hate relationship. Now it's a love-love thing." And now it's time for Hollywood's last moguls to love Bertolucci right back. Columbia might begin with a wider American release for the film and follow up the gesture by financing the director's dream project, an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest. Surely Bertolucci, among all recent Oscar winners, deserves to see that goldplate turned into box-office gold.