Bernardo Bertolucci, Oscar-Winning Italian Director of 'Last Tango in Paris,' Dies at 77

Fabrizio Maltese
Bernardo Bertolucci

The maker of 'The Last Emperor' and others was known for his colorful visual style.

Bernardo Bertolucci, the Italian director and screenwriter whose films include Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor, for which he won the Academy Award for best director and adapted screenplay, died Monday in Rome. He was 77.

A spokeswoman said the filmmaker, who became known for movies with a colorful visual style and political films, died of cancer.

In 1962, at the age of 22, Bertolucci directed his first feature film, La commare secca, a murder mystery about a prostitute's homicide that uses flashbacks to piece together the crime.

In 1987, Bertolucci directed the epic The Last Emperor, a biographical film about the life of Puyi, the last emperor of China. 

At the 60th Academy Awards, the film won all nine Oscars for which it was nominated: best picture, director, adapted screenplay, cinematography, film editing, costume design, art direction-set decoration, sound and original score.

The Last Emperor was the first Western film about China made in the country and produced with full Chinese government cooperation since 1949. It was also the first feature ever authorized by the government of the People's Republic of China to film in the Forbidden City. 

Last Tango in Paris (1972), meanwhile, was his most controversial film, causing debate, with fans praising it for pushing the boundaries of how sex was portrayed in movies, while critics called it pornographic. The film is about a recently widowed American who begins a sexual relationship with a young Parisian woman. It stars Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider and Jean-Pierre Leaud.

A resurfaced interview with Bertolucci brought Last Tango in Paris back under the microscope in recent years when the Oscar-winning director admitted to the "non-consensual" use of butter in a rape scene. Bertolucci admitted that he and Brando had improvised the use of butter in the infamous scene and that Schneider was not made aware of graphic details of the shoot until the day they filmed it. "We wanted her spontaneous reaction to that improper [butter] use. That is where the misunderstanding lies," Bertolucci said in response to the headlines.

Bertolucci, a professed Marxist, also had a reputation for making political films. The Conformist from 1970 criticized conformism and fascism, while 1900 (1976) focused on the political conflicts between fascism and communism in Italy during the first half of the 20th century. The latter starred Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland and Burt Lancaster, among others.

Bertolucci was married, since 1979, to British screenwriter Clare Peploe.

Rhett Bartlett contributed to this report.