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Bernardo Bertolucci, Oscar-Winning Director of ‘The Last Emperor,’ Dies at 77

Bernardo Bertolucci, whose epic “The Last Emperor” won nine Oscars and who influenced generations of filmmakers with other groundbreaking works such as “The Conformist” and “Last Tango in Paris,” in which he explored politics and sexuality through personal storytelling and audacious camera work, has died. He was 77.

His publicist, Flavia Schiavi, said Bertolucci died at his home in Rome at 7 a.m. Monday. He had been suffering from cancer.

Italy’s greatest auteur of his generation, Bertolucci managed to work both in Europe and Hollywood, though his relationship with the studios had its ups and downs. But even when he operated within the studio system, Bertolucci always managed to make films that were considered projections of his inner world.

The Last Emperor,” an adaptation of the autobiography of China’s last imperial ruler, Pu Yi, swept the 1987 Oscars, winning every category in which it had been nominated, including best picture and best director. With it, Bertolucci became the first and only Italian to win the Oscar for best director. “The Last Emperor” is among the movies that have won the most Academy Awards and was also the first Western epic about China made with the Chinese government’s cooperation.

Born March 16, 1941, into a wealthy family in the northern Italian city of Parma, Bertolucci was a prodigious talent from a young age. The son of well-known poet and writer Attilio Bertolucci, he himself won an award for poetry at age 21, then decided to become a filmmaker.

He started out as an assistant to another Italian poet, Pier Paolo Pasolini, on Pasolini’s first feature “Accattone,” in 1961, a portrayal of a Roman pimp. Bertolucci’s own debut film, “The Grim Reaper” in 1962, was an investigation into the murder of a Roman prostitute told from multiple points of view. The movie screened at the Venice Film Festival.

Two years later, Bertolucci was in the Cannes Critics’ Week lineup with the semi-autobiographical “Before the Revolution,” set in Parma, about a 20-year-old student who is torn between bourgeois conformity and revolutionary Marxism and who has an incestuous affair with his attractive young aunt, played by Adriana Asti. The film was admired abroad, but Bertolucci’s compatriots were less impressed.

“It won prizes. Cahiers du Cinéma and various other international publications glorified it,” Bertolucci told Variety in a rare interview earlier this year. “But most Italians were disparaging toward me. They almost insulted me.”

Bertolucci married Asti soon after the film was released, but the couple divorced a few years later.

In 1970, he received his first Academy Award nomination for the adapted screenplay of “The Conformist,” based on a novel by Alberto Moravia. The film is set during Italy’s Fascist period and centers on a tormented intellectual (Jean-Louis Trintignant) recruited by Mussolini’s secret police to go to Paris to assassinate an anti-Fascist professor who was once his teacher.

Kinetically shot by ace cinematographer and frequent Bertolucci collaborator Vittorio Storaro, “The Conformist” is now hailed as a masterpiece that exerted a major influence on other filmmakers, especially the so-called New Hollywood directors of the day, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

But the film that crystallized Bertolucci’s worldwide fame was “Last Tango in Paris,” which he shot in 1972, when he was 31. “Tango” stars Marlon Brando as a middle-aged American in emotional exile who meets a young Frenchwoman, played by Maria Schneider, while both are looking at a Paris apartment for rent. The meeting then escalates into a series of anonymous, purely sexual encounters.

Although “Tango” is regarded as one of the most important films of the 20th century, it generated particular controversy for its anal rape scene, in which butter is used as a lubricant. Bertolucci acknowledged later that the scene was sprung as a surprise on Schneider, then 19, in order to elicit an authentic reaction from her “as a girl, not as an actress.”

Before her death in 2011, Schneider told an interviewer that she had “felt humiliated and…a little raped” by Brando and Bertolucci. But the director always denied he had mistreated her.

“I think ‘Last Tango’s’ success was in part due to the scandal, the sodomy, the butter, but in truth, it’s a tremendously desperate movie,” Bertolucci told Variety in a 2011 interview. “It’s very rare that such a desperate movie manages to have such a widespread audience.”

“Last Tango” also landed Bertolucci in trouble with the law in his homeland. He was brought up on charges of obscenity, which caused him to lose his civil rights for five years. “I could not vote, and that was the punishing part,” he said. “I felt like I’m not Italian anymore.”

The political exile of sorts played a part in his choice to make what he called his “faraway movies” set in distant locales: “The Last Emperor” in China; “The Sheltering Sky” (1990), based on a Paul Bowles novel, in North Africa; and “Little Buddha” (1993), in Nepal and Bhutan.

The worldwide fame Bertolucci achieved with “Last Tango” allowed him to mount his first Hollywood production, the daring historical epic “1900,” in Italy. It stars Burt Lancaster – who was so eager to be in the film that, to avoid hassles with his agent, he worked for free – and also Donald Sutherland, a young Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu. They acted alongside farmers from Italy’s Emilia region, where the sweeping depiction of social struggle is set.

Bertolucci’s director’s cut of “1900” was five hours, 17 minutes long, prompting a fierce battle with Paramount. The version released in the U.S. in 1977 clocked in at just over four hours. The fight, and the film’s mixed critical response, nearly ended Bertolucci’s career.

But 10 years later, in 1987, he came roaring back in the U.S. when the Academy awarded nine Oscars to “The Last Emperor,” a sumptuous historical epic starring John Lone and Joan Chen. After years of volatile relations with Hollywood, Bertolucci called his Oscar-night triumph “perhaps my most curious Hollywood moment.”

In 1996, Bertolucci made his first movie in 15 years to be set and shot in Italy, the English-language “Stealing Beauty,” starring 19-year-old Liv Tyler as the lead character in a tale of sexual initiation in Tuscany. He followed that up with Rome-set chamber drama “Besieged,” in 1998, and Paris-set “The Dreamers,” in 2004, a paean to the Paris of 1968 and the movies he devoured then at its legendary Cinémathèque Française.

Among the many accolades bestowed on him were the Cannes Film Festival’s Honorary Palme d’Or for lifetime achievement, in 2011; the Venice Film Festival’s Honorary Golden Lion, in 2007; and the Locarno Film Festival’s Leopard of Honor, in 1997. He presided over the Venice jury twice, in 1983 and 2013, and over the Cannes jury in 1990.

Bertolucci directed his last film, the intimate coming-of-age drama “Me and You,” despite being in a wheelchair, reportedly because of several botched surgeries for a herniated disc. His first Italian-language film in 23 years, the movie centers on a teenage boy who connects with his heroin-addicted older half-sister. “Me and You” was largely shot in a large basement in Rome’s Trastevere quarter, around the corner from Bertolucci’s residence, and played out of competition in Cannes in 2012.

Bertolucci’s second marriage, to production and costume designer Maria Paola Maino, ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, screenwriter and director Clare Peploe, whom he married in 1979.

Fans will be able to give Bertolucci a final salute Tuesday in the Sala della Protomoteca room on Rome’s Capitoline Hill. The funeral will be private. A memorial ceremony open to the public is being organized, probably for next week.

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