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“The Last Emperor” Director Bernardo Bertolucci Has Died at 77

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Sad day for cinema buffs: Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, best known for his sensational psycho-sexual drama Last Tango in Paris (1972) and his nine-times-over Academy Award winning masterpiece The Last Emperor (1987), has passed away at his home in Rome at the age of 77.

The Last Emperor is a sweeping historical epic that traces modern China from the fall of the Qing Dynasty in the first part of the 20th century, to the eviction of Pu Yi (the last Qing emperor) by the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek, to Pu Yi’s installation as a puppet emperor in northeastern China by occupying Japanese forces, to his eventual rehabilitation and reintegration into a Communist-controlled Beijing. It was the first Western feature film to receive Chinese government approval to be shot in the Forbidden City, historically the seat of the Qing imperial government and today a popular tourist attraction fronted by the iconic portrait of Mao Zedong that overlooks Tiananmen Square.

At the time of its shooting, The Last Emperor was a gamble. A 1988 Time magazine report reluctantly tips the cap to Bertolucci’s film after its stunning Oscars sweep, noting:

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!”

The critic goes on to say of the film: “Can’t-miss stuff. Lawrence of Arabia with a Manchurian accent.” Ok?

In memoriam, here’s some rare footage of Bertolucci and British actor Peter O’Toole (best known for his titular role in Lawrence of Arabia, but who also memorably portrays the child Pu Yi’s tutor Sir Reginald Johnson) behind the scenes in Beijing:

Cover image: Bernardo Bertolucci in Beijing (via Italian Good News)

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