By John H. Foote
For this film, Marlon Brando won Best Actor awards from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle for his punishing, gut wrenching performance as Paul, an American adrift in Paris after the suicide of his Parisian wife. There is little doubt Brando deserved the Academy Award for Best Actor for this performance as well, but after refusing the award the year previous for The Godfather (1972), sending a young Native American girl to read a speech declining the award, there was no chance the Academy would ever hand Brando another Oscar. His win the previous year was as Vito Corleone, the patriarch and Don of the Corleone mafia family, and was a comeback for the actor. He astonished the cast and director daily with his artistry, and critics hailed his performance the moment the film was released. Despite just under 30 minutes of screen time, he won Best Actor, cementing or rather kick starting his career and reputation as cinema’s finest actor. With The Godfather and his performance in Last Tango in Paris, a second era of method acting exploded in the seventies.
Back as a nominee the following year after his win for The Godfather, his performance as Paul in Last Tango in Paris is a galvanizing piece of acting, the sort of thing you might wait your entire life to see. I remember being positively stunned by the purity of his performance, by the courage and depth which he revealed so much about himself, painting a character with soul as Van Gogh gave life to his paintings. Brando’s Paul was a deeply flawed man, which he knew, but he loved his late wife and cannot understand why she has killed herself. Or is it that he knows and feels staggering guilt for her actions?
Paul, under the pretense of looking for an apartment, enters into a purely sexual relationship with Jeanne (Maria Schneider) a beautiful young woman he encounters in an apartment. They do not know one another, and Paul refuses to hear her name and will not tell her his. They meet for sex, which is an escape for Paul, an attempt to beat back his grief and his guilt. But as they continue to meet, they reveal themselves to each other, the sex becomes rougher, much more aggressive until it is humiliating to the girl. The things he asks her to do are clearly a test, but one that she finds she cannot bear any longer. Though they develop feelings for one another, she cannot bear to be with him which becomes a problem when Paul announces he is in love with her. He stalks her, terrifying her, forcing her to make a decision that alters forever their lives.
I found myself wondering after the film ended whether Paul knew all along she would brandish a weapon, that she would shoot him, giving him the release from pain he so desires? Did he truly use her in this manner? I think so, because everything else he asked her to do, she did without questioning.
Much was made of the intense sex scenes between the two, though they seem tame today. Perhaps it was the shock of seeing a major film actor nude, or cavorting with a much younger woman, forcing her to do horrific things to him? Yes the film often feels misogynistic, and certainly Paul has huge issues with women, but Brando’s performance is no less galvanizing. Film critic Pauline Kael famously compared the film to hearing Stravinsky’s masterful music for the first time, which I think is overreaching. Despite the stark brilliance of the film it is, in the end, a showcase for the sublime artistry of Marlon Brando. His comeback complete with The Godfather, he sought to stretch his acting gifts, to take himself deeper into a role than he had ever gone before. He accomplished this by utilizing the outline of Paul the director gave him, but then coloured the character with his own life, drawing on his own experiences to further flesh out Paul. His astonishing monologue over his wife’s corpse is among the most shattering scenes ever put on film and acted by an actor. Brando is gone, leaving Paul, tortured by his grief and guilt to mourn, to rage and finally to weep at the loss of his wife. It is as if his entire soul is being retched out of him for these moments, among the purest film acting I have encountered.
Miss Schneider admirably does all that is asked of her, and quite well actually, but she is but a shadow in the light of Brando’s talents. She displays great courage in the onscreen nudity, and in the scenes with Brando, the two have an interesting onscreen chemistry.
Bertolucci brilliantly plunges his audience into Paris, but not the tourist traps of Paris. Instead we journey into the seedier areas of that great city, where it’s inhabitants really exist among the history surrounding them. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment with this film was setting his great lead actor free, trusting him in every way, allowing a painter of souls to use the role as his canvas. Together they created art, sublime, soaring art.
That Jack Lemmon won the Academy Award for Best Actor in Save the Tiger (1973) over Brando remains an abomination. The great actor arguably was never better.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.